Nick Nichols

Clojure Developer and Dungeon Master

Survive. Adapt. Evolve.

There’s a single word I used time and time again to describe how we want to prepare for the future: evolution. This excites me, because evolution is such a powerful and transcendental force, that we model algorithmic behavior after it; however, it also frightens me. As a graduate of America’s public education system, I can tell you that evolution is widely misunderstood. Today, I’d like to clear up some of the mechanics of evolution, and talk about how they play out in nature and in business.

To begin, think of the ultimate predator. The absolute top of the food-chain. I’m talking about the pinnacle of evolution: a massive, razor- toothed insectoid – the Hydralisk. For a teenager who grew up on Star Wars and Super Metroid, the box art of Blizzard’s Starcraft was enamoring. Now, I know the game widely abuses the term “evolution,” but it’s what got me interested in the subject. It’s a series that I’ve brought forward into my adult life, and little did I know, that a single line of descriptive flavor text buried in one of the research consoles in the Hyperion would change my outlook on life: “It’s survival of the fittest on the cellular level.”

From the massive Leviathans that carry the Swarm through space to the highly intelligent Brood Mothers that lead the packs all the way down to the very bacteria in the stomachs of these creatures, every aspect of their biology and ecology has struggled and survived to the pinnacle of perfection.

Why aren’t we doing the same?

Evolution by natural selection is an incredibly simple concept: we each have traits that either help or hurt our odds at surviving. As the environment changes, the traits necessary for survival change. Organisms that survive likely have traits important to survival, and pass them on to the next generation. Survive. Adapt. Evolve. This is the way of the Zerg, and of all life on our Earth. As I’ve said many times, “We may be at work, but we’re still at life.”

So, what can we learn from this strange alien race? What does Biology have to teach programmers, accountants, and call center reps? How does the study of life improve our lives? Let’s adopt the Zerg mantra, and see what it can do for us: “It’s survival of the fittest on the cellular level.” What is the cellular level of this metaphor? Depending on how we choose to see things, it might be an individual, a position, or even a process; regardless, evolution needs to take place all the way down at that level. This is nothing new. We all know that good work requires continual adaptation.

The important thing to remember is that while evolution does hinge on survival, at also hinges on the inverse: death.

Death is necessary for life.

We have traits that hurt our chances of surviving, and traits that may have served us well in the past may be completely unsuited for present conditions. Organisms that have traits to help them survive the long, cold winters of Canada would likely die out if moved to a tropical locale. Traits ill-adapted to the present environment lead to organisms dying before their traits can be passed on, and so they vanish over long stretches of time. This is an uncomfortable thing to hear. Processes and positions that are no longer acclimated to the environment should not continue into the next generation, and we need to let that happen. Death is critical to survival. Forcing these artifacts of a bygone era to live on is equivalent to our vestigial appendages, for example, the human appendix.

In most herbivores, like our genetic ancestors, the appendix serves as a supplementary digestive organ to help break down plant matter. As the human species adapted to an omnivorous diet, our appendixes shrank and quit serving their digestive roles; however, they are still encoded in our DNA. What purpose do they serve? According to Alfred Sherwood Romer’s The Vertebrate Body, the appendix’s main function “would appear to be financial support of the surgical profession.” It is an organ that serves virtually no positive purpose, and yet we are forced to live with it. At best, we never use it, and at worst we can become afflicted by appendicitis and require extensive medical care.

We are burdened with the past, and it puts real lives in danger. Currently, we have neither the technology nor the evolutionary pressure to recode our genetics and get rid of the appendix; however, we do have that power in the office. We can intentionally remove products, positions, and processes that serve no purpose, are expensive to maintain, or aren’t well adapted to the current business environment.

Think about your job. What baggage are we carrying around? Is it an old solution that we’ve never rethought because “it works well enough?” Are we financially supporting processes and programs for the sake of some profession? It might take biology many generations to fix these problems, but we have an advantage: intent. As we see the environment change, the traits for survival change. The best part of intent and intelligence is that we can adapt to the future and how the environment will change. Proactive change is possible.

Let’s see if we can’t learn something new from Biology. Industrial waste has always been a huge problem. In the 70s, a group of Japanese biologists discovered an odd strain of Flavobacterium, cutely named Sp K172, in waste water from a nylon plant. Of the wide number of bacteria added to the water, only the Flavobacterium thrived. Upon further inspection, a special enzyme generated by that strain allowed them to consume Aminocaproic Acid, which was a natural byproduct of manufactured nylon, which inhibited most other bacteria. This story might not seem applicable to work, but it actually mirrors how many of my friends on the West Coast work.

My friend Ammar explained it to me like this: do you remember when we had HDDVD and Bluray? If not, think back to ZIPP vs Floppy, VHS vs Betamax, Cassettes vs 8-Track, or whatever media war you remember best. Whenever a new mass need is discovered, such as the ability to store high definition footage, Ammar and many other employees build a solution, and inject it into the new environment. These spread out and are picked up by their customers, just like HDDVDs and Bluray disks. Overtime, one solution becomes the most popular because it adapted to the environment of the problem it was solving. The other services and formats die out, and the surviving solution continues on, until the environment changes again.

Now that we live in an era of smartphones and tablets, we can see how important adapting for the future is. During the HDDVD and Bluray war, another format emerged: streaming. YouTube and Netflix solve the same problem as Blurays and HDDVDs; however they do it in a very different way.

Many people saw two trends, and tried to chase them: larger and larger televisions and higher and higher quality demands. They completely ignored the smartphone phenomenon, because the screens were tiny and the quality was lower. Who would watch a movie, a TV show, or the big game on a phone or a tablet? According to The Wall Street Journal, physical media for movies peaked in 2004, a meager three years after Blurays came out. That same study also shows that digital sales and streaming jumped a combined 70% between 2012 and 2013, while Blurays and DVDs fell nearly 10%. A great past did nothing to guarantee a good future; in fact, it left them vulnerable. These results show us that we need to adapt for the future, continually.

The leaders of that industry didn’t; they kept going in the direction they always had. Bigger screens. Higher quality. The family sitting on the couch with a big bowl of popcorn. That’s not the future we chose. Jane wants to watch Mythbusters on her phone during the bus ride to work. Bobby wants to watch Batman: The Animated Series on his Mom’s tablet while they’re waiting at Jiffy Lube. My mom wants to watch Once Upon A Time on her laptop, while Dad is busy lamenting another Titans loss on TV. Don’t plan for the future you want, plan for the one that’s happening.

This is evolution. We don’t get to choose the environment we live in; we adapt to it, whether it’s the need to play movies on the go, or to survive on Aminocaproic acid. Yes, humans do change the environment, but we forget how much we’re changed by it, especially when the environment changes.

The more dramatic the change to the environment, the more dramatic the traits for survival change. The capabilities and possibilities of smartphones, self-driving cars, and peer-to-peer ownership are major, tectonic shifts. Life will not be the same after them. The Cretaceous period was fantastic for reptilian life, and dinosaurs ruled the Earth. The Chicxulub impact changed the Earth on a fundamental level, and mammals suddenly found themselves in control.

Change doesn’t come with a warning anymore. It doesn’t even happen overnight. It’s nigh-immediate and the impacts echo on. As we move forward and compare those early mammals to today’s life, the differences are startling; however, we have to remember this change happened one day at a time. Evolution is a gradient, not a partitioned timeline.

When we look back and when we plan for the future, we often take a slice and compare. How different is my company today from twenty years ago? How different will it be after this project? How different was life before we had the Internet? It’s natural, since that’s how we often look at species.

In Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades and leader of the Zerg, visits Zerus, their ancient home world. The jungle planet allows the player to see the Primal Zerg and how different the current race is. The streamlined forms to maximize aerodynamic efficiency are vastly different the spiked, hardened shells for their ancestor’s defense. Paleontology works the same way here on Earth. We compare fossils from different eras to see how modern species came into being, and what other life forms have inhabited the planet. It’s a great way to examine the past and the future, but it has some fundamental flaws. Think of a gradient from blue to red.

Pick any point on the continuum, and imagine that’s today. The pixels directly adjacent to it are different, but they look the same. Each step along the way looks nearly identical to the step before and after, and it’s only after we’ve reached the other side that difference becomes apparent. The biological corollary is ancestry.

Think about how similar you are to your mother. Think about how similar your mother and grandmother look, and so on and so forth. Each generation looks very similar to the one before it, and if we go far enough back, we reach Homo habilis some 2.5 million years ago. Even during my life, my DNA will change from encoding errors, virophages, and even my stress levels. The two ends of the spectrum are very different, but each step looks nearly invisible. Evolution and speciation are continuous gradients, not discrete categories and definitely not full of hard shifts.

Nobody knows how to take the next step or if they can. All too often, we wait for someone else to take a step, see if anything bad happens, and then follow them if they’re lucky.

Life doesn’t work that way; it’s much quicker. Tiny adaptations, transitions, and steps go on all the time. Those that don’t hold up die out, and those supported by the environment live on. Life fails, and is stronger because of it. The secret is to keep moving! Evolution and change never stop or finish.

There is no concept of being “done” in Biology. Even if it doesn’t look like much has changed, we have to keep adapting. In both genetics and the marketplace, it is hard to see which mutations or shifts are significant early on, but this is when they have the most impact and we have the most time to react. Every step we take is another generation in our genetic journey, and we have the capability to far outpace biology. As Terence McKenna would say, “from the moment that human beings invented language, biological evolution essentially ceased and evolution became a cultural epigenetic phenomenon.”

It takes biology centuries and millennia, or extremely volatile environments, to generate visible change. Technology only requires itself, and a rapidly decreasing amount of time to reshape the world. Genetic engineering is possible, and the gradients are shrinking.

My life might span several large, rapid shifts, instead of a sliver of one. The pace of change is unprecedented and it’s accelerating; it is the new environment for ideas, for inspiration, and for competition. It’s survival of the fittest on a cellular level. Survive. Adapt. Evolve. This is the way of the Zerg, and this is now the way of business.