Clarifying the Confusion of Evolutionary Processes for Innovation

Darwin on the back of a pterodactyl in the rain

One of the tricky parts of evolutionary processes – and by extension creative processes– is that it is ultimately hard to know exactly what aspects of what mattered in the process. There are “innumerable arbitrary properties brought into play” as Terrence Deacon puts it.

For example, when developing an evolutionary approach to electronic hardware design (essentially a “breeding” of circuits of sound discrimination), Adrian Thompson and their team discovered that:

“after initial analysis, only 16 of the 100 cells in the array were found to be involved in the circuit, and these units were connected in a tangled network… The exact mechanism involved finally defied explanation; and the result could not be reproduced in a simulation nor could the circuits be probed physically without disturbing the dynamics… Thompson… described the circuits as “bizarre, mysterious, and unconventional” – and when the… circuit design was transferred to another identical chip, its performance suffered; it seems that the design made use of highly specific physical qualities of the chip on which it had evolved. It had also evolved to operate accurately at a particular temperature…” (Mitchell Whitelaw)

What is fascinating is how (even) in such systems there is a specific but open process of dialog with the environment where it is impossible to say in advance what will come to matter. This open complementarity is still usefully understood as an affordance process. And outside of the process it is impossible to fully know/predict what will come to matter and how – and going further it might never be possible to know this what and how (at least directly).

Any of the innumerable arbitrary physical aspects could in the right co-ordination of embodied abilities become part of a system allowing for new possibilities where we cannot be sure what is doing what – but some new set of possible actions are afforded the system nonetheless…

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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