Evolutionary IT

Usually, I get the joke. Not always, though - in a recent column I reported on the antics of a certain doctor, who exposed all of us in IT as Darwinians, atheists and pagans. As a number of readers were kind enough to explain, "Dr Paley" is a satire.

“The first cup of coffee in the morning recapitulates phylogeny.”

— Dr Jerry Pournelle

Usually, I get the joke.

I don’t always think it’s funny, but at least I get it. Not always, though — in a recent column I reported on the antics of a certain “Dr Richard Paley, teacher of Divinity and Theobiology, Fellowship University”, who exposed all of us in IT as Darwinians, atheists and pagans. As a number of readers were kind enough to explain, “Dr Paley” is a satire.

In my defence, The Register reported the story as fact, a Hoaxbusters search came up empty, and I did find it hilarious. I just didn’t realise it was supposed to be.

Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection appears in this column on a regular basis. This isn’t because this column is related to “survival of the fittest.” The latter phrase, never used by Darwin himself, comes from Herbert Spencer’s ludicrous theory of “Social Darwinism” — ludicrous because it considered fitness to be absolute, justifying hereditary aristocracy as the consequence of natural superiority.

In Darwinian theory, fitness is contextual, measuring how well a heritable trait fits specific conditions. That’s a concept you can take to the bank when managing your career: Success comes from how well you adapt to circumstances. There are no panaceas, which means we can all ignore the 90% or so of all business pundits who sell “the answer” without first hearing the question.

This same philosophy can help you plot a course for your IT organisation. I’ve read various authorities expound on the proper role of IT in business. Some call for strategic partnership, some consider IT’s proper role to be a service provider, while yet others think we’re an “information utility”. If they understood modern evolutionary theory, they’d spend less time advocating one or another as the right answer, and more time assessing which circumstances each of these very different models is best suited to.

Evolutionary theory applies to all situations in which entities compete, which means we in business can benefit from a century and a half of scientific research. To take just one example:

Richard Dawkins, the noted evolutionary theorist, has argued that natural selection is a competition among genes, not whole organisms — that an organism is just a gene’s way of succeeding. This insight simplifies the apparently mystifying behaviour of companies that self-destruct while creating “shareholder value.” Substitute gene for shareholder and organism for company and everything suddenly makes sense: Plenty of bodies are designed to die in order to help their genes succeed.

The lesson for you: Shareholder value and your own best interests don’t necessarily coincide. Plan accordingly.

Send any comments to Lewis, who heads IS Survivor Training, which organises "Leading High-Performance IT". Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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