The evolution of complex systems

Economics writer Tim Harford recently gave a very interesting talk at TED about trial and error in the development of complex systems.

If I can go off on a tangent for a moment, while watching Harford speak, I was reminded Donald Hardesty’s discussion of evolutionary mechanisms in his Mining Archaeology in the American West: A View from the Silver State. (Yes, I’m aware that my brain works in strange ways.)

Drawing on work done by Patrick Kirch on cultural adaptation on islands, Hardesty describes three stages in the development of a mining district. Technologically, the first stage is characterized by low diversity and poor adaptation to the specific environment of the district. During the second stage, there is a great deal of experimentation with new techniques for both mining and milling. By the third stage, most people have begun to employ the best of the solutions worked out during the second stage. Technological diversity drops once again, but it is now much better adapted to the specific needs of the district. This sequence of development can often be seen archaeologically, as well as through historical documents.

Of course, even in the third stage some experimentation is still going on, although genuine improvement occurs at a much slower pace. The evolution of the technology continues as long as mining is still going on in that district. A similar process of technological evolution can be expected any time people colonize a new environment, although it is not always so clearly visible in the archaeological record.

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