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Evolution myths: Evolving species tend towards increased complexity

1 September 2011 No Comment

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I found myself flicking through the New Scientist website this weekend and came across the series by Michael Le Page on evolution myths and misconceptions. This brought to mind one of the first blogs I wrote (24 January 2011) where I wove a quote by Darwin, on the importance of adaptation, into a piece about the evolution of technology.

As I read through Mr Le Page’s list (carefully ignoring the more politically themed points), I couldn’t help but continue to test for parallels between natural and product evolution. Biomimicary is well known as a useful source of business lessons.

Simplicity can lead to greater efficiencies

One of the most stand out misconceptions in Le Page’s list is that ‘Natural selection leads to ever-greater complexity’. Following our relatively recent ability to map species’ genetics, it came as a huge shock to many to discover that the human genome is less complex than that of a grape! This, coupled with the fact that mammals evolved before flowering plants, raises the question; “If we’ve had longer to evolve why have we such a relatively simple genome?” Of course, to anyone involved in the development of a new product the answer is obvious: “Because we have had more time to evolve!”

Use it or lose it!

Over time our genes have been sifted and refined. Much of the chaff has been removed. The fewer genes we have, work harder on our behalf. We are more efficient… as a species at least!

A study by John Hawks et al, published in PNAS in 2007, found that some 1,800 human gene variations became widespread in recent generations because of their modern-day evolutionary benefits. Many relate to the specific disease tolerance, for example. These adaptations are, or course, the result of modifications to available gene sequences, rather than the addition of new genes, and will only remain with us into following generations if they have replaced a non-essential trait.

When it comes to refining any system, a good designer must think; ‘Use it or lose it!’

‘Value for gene’

So, as for product development and lessons to be learned? I believe evolution has already done a fine job in making my point! As I see it, humanity’s ‘value for gene’ quotient just keeps on rising and, as product manufacturers we need to reflect a similar efficiency in our technology, adapting it to meet the specific demands of a changing market, without adding to operational complexity.

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