Tag: Evolution

Immigration, Extinction, and Island Equilibrium

Equilibrium is an important concept that permeates many disciplines. In chemistry we think about the point where the rate of forward reaction is equal to the rate of backward reaction. In economics we think of the point where supply equals demand. In physics we can see how gravity is balanced by forward velocity to create things like planetary orbits.

No matter which discipline we are examining, the core idea remains the same: Equilibrium is a state where opposing forces are balanced.

In biology, equilibrium is so important that it can mean the difference between life or death; for a species, it can decide whether they will thrive or become extinct.

In The Song of the DodoDavid Quammen dives into how equilibrium affects a species' ability to survive, and how it impacts our ability to save animals on the brink of extinction.


Historically, the concept of island equilibrium was studied with a focus on the interplay between evolution (as the additive) and extinction (as the subtractive). It was believed that speciation, the process where one species becomes two or more species, caused any increase in the number of inhabitants on an island. In this view, the insularity of islands created a remoteness that could only be overcome by the long processes of evolution. 

However, Robert MacArthur and E.O. Wilson, the co-authors of the influential Theory of Island Biogeography, realized that habitats would show a tendency towards equilibrium much sooner than could be accounted for by speciation. They argued the ongoing processes that most influenced this balance were immigration and extinction.

The type of extinctions we’re referring to in this case are local extinctions, specific to the island in question. A species can go extinct on a particular island and yet be thriving elsewhere; it depends on local conditions.

As for immigration, it's just what you'd expect: The movement of species from one place to another. Island immigration describes the many ingenious ways in which plants, animals, and insects travel to islands. For instance, not only will insects hitch rides on birds and debris (man made or natural, think garbage and sticks/uprooted seaweed), animals will do the same if the debris is massive enough.

Seeds, meanwhile, make the trip in the feces of birds, which helps to introduce new plant species to the island, while highly motivated swimmers (escapees of natural disasters/predators/famine) and hitchhikers on human ships (think rats) make it over in their own unusual ways.

We can plot this process of immigration and extinction graphically, in a way you're probably familiar with. Quammen explains:


The decrease in immigration rate and the increase in extinction rate are graphed not against elapsed time but against the number of species present on a given island. As an island fills up with species, immigration declines and extinction increases, until they offset each other at an equilibrium level. At that level, the rate of continuing immigration is just canceled by the rate of continuing extinction, and there is no net gain or loss of species. The phenomenon of offsetting increase and decrease – the change of identities on the roster of species – is known as turnover. One species of butterfly arrives, another species of butterfly dies out, and in the aftermath the island has the same number of butterfly species as before. Equilibrium with turnover.

So while the specific species inhabiting the island will change over time, the numbers will tend to roll towards a balanced point where the two curves intersect.

Of course, not all equilibrium graphs will look the like one above. Indeed, MacArthur and Wilson hoped this theory would be used not just to explain equilibriums, but to also help predict potential issues.

When either curve is especially steep – reflecting the fact that immigration decreases especially sharply or extinction increases especially sharply – their crossing point shifts leftward, toward zero. The shift means that, at equilibrium, in this particular set of circumstances, there will be relatively few resident species.

In other words, high extinction and low immigration yield an impoverished ecosystem. To you and me it’s a dot in Cartesian space, but to an island it represents destiny.

There are two key ideas that can help us understand the equilibrium point on a given island.

First, the concept of species-area relationship: We see a larger number of a given species on larger islands and a smaller number of a given species on smaller islands.

Second, the concept of species quantity on remote islands: Immigration is much more difficult the further away an island is from either a mainland or a cluster of other islands, meaning that fewer species will make it there.

In other words, size and remoteness are directly correlated to the fragility of any given species inhabiting an island.


Equilibrium, immigration, evolution, extinction – these are all ideas that bleed into so many more areas than biogeography. What happens to groups when they are isolated? Jared Diamond had some interesting thoughts on that. What happens to products or businesses which don’t keep up with co-evolution? They go extinct due to the Red Queen Effect. What happens to our mind and body when we feel off balance? Our life is impoverished.

Reading a book like The Song of the Dodo helps us to better understand these key concepts which, in turn, helps us more fundamentally understand the world.

The Green Lumber Fallacy: The Difference between Talking and Doing

“Clearly, it is unrigorous to equate skills at doing with skills at talking.”
— Nassim Taleb


Before we get to the meat, let's review an elementary idea in biology that will be relevant to our discussion.

If you're familiar with evolutionary theory, you know that populations of organisms are constantly subjected to “selection pressures” — the rigors of their environment which lead to certain traits being favored and passed down to their offspring and others being thrown into the evolutionary dustbin.

Biologists dub these advantages in reproduction “fitness” — as in, the famously lengthening of giraffe necks gave them greater “fitness” in their environment because it helped them reach high up, untouched leaves.

Fitness is generally a relative concept: Since organisms must compete for scarce resources, their fitnesses are measured in the sense of giving a reproductive advantage over one another.

Just as well, a trait that might provide great fitness in one environment may be useless or even disadvantageous in another. (Imagine draining a pond: Any fitness advantages held by a really incredible fish becomes instantly worthless without water.) Traits also relate to circumstance. An advantage at one time could be a disadvantage at another and vice versa.

This makes fitness an all-important concept in biology: Traits are selected for if they provide fitness to the organism within a given environment.

Got it? OK, let's get back to the practical world.


The Black Swan thinker Nassim Taleb has an interesting take on fitness and selection in the real world:  People who are good “doers” and people who are good “talkers” are often selected for different traits. Be careful not to mix them up.

In his book Antifragile, Taleb uses this idea to invoke a heuristic he'd once used when hiring traders on Wall Street:

The more interesting their conversation, the more cultured they are, the more they will be trapped into thinking that they are effective at what they are doing in real business (something psychologists call the halo effect, the mistake of thinking that skills in, say, skiing translate unfailingly into skills in managing a pottery workshop or a bank department, or that a good chess player would be a good strategist in real life).

Clearly, it is unrigorous to equate skills at doing with skills at talking. My experience of good practitioners is that they can be totally incomprehensible–they do not have to put much energy into turning their insights and internal coherence into elegant style and narratives. Entrepreneurs are selected to be doers, not thinkers, and doers do, they don't talk, and it would be unfair, wrong, and downright insulting to measure them in the talk department.

In other words, the selection pressures on an entrepreneur are very different from those on a corporate manager or bureaucrat: Entrepreneurs and risk takers succeed or fail not so much on their ability to talk, explain, and rationalize as their ability to get things done.

While the two can often go together, Nassim figured out that they frequently don't. We judge people as ignorant when it's really us who are ignorant.

When you think about it, there's no a priori reason great intellectualizing and great doing must go together: Being able to hack together an incredible piece of code gives you great fitness in the world of software development, while doing great theoretical computer science probably gives you better fitness in academia. The two skills don't have to be connected. Great economists don't usually make great investors.

But we often confuse the two realms.  We're tempted to think that a great investor must be fluent in behavioral economics or a great CEO fluent in Mckinsey-esque management narratives, but in the real world, we see this intuition constantly in violation.

The investor Walter Schloss worked from 9-5, barely left his office, and wasn't considered an entirely high IQ man, but he compiled one of the great investment records of all time. A young Mark Zuckerberg could hardly be described as a prototypical manager or businessperson, yet somehow built one of the most profitable companies in the world by finding others that complemented his weaknesses.

There are a thousand examples: Our narratives about the type of knowledge or experience we must have or the type of people we must be in order to become successful are often quite wrong; in fact, they border on naive. We think people who talk well can do well, and vice versa. This is simply not always so.

We won't claim that great doers cannot be great talkers, rationalizers, or intellectuals. Sometimes they are. But if you're seeking to understand the world properly, it's good to understand that the two traits are not always co-located. Success, especially in some “narrow” area like plumbing, programming, trading, or marketing, is often achieved by rather non-intellectual folks. Their evolutionary fitness doesn't come from the ability to talk, but do. This is part of reality.


Taleb calls this idea the Green Lumber Fallacy, after a story in the book What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars. Taleb describes it in Antifragile:

In one of the rare noncharlatanic books in finance, descriptively called What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars, the protagonist makes a big discovery. He remarks that a fellow named Joe Siegel, one of the most successful traders in a commodity called “green lumber,” actually thought it was lumber painted green (rather than freshly cut lumber, called green because it had not been dried). And he made it his profession to trade the stuff! Meanwhile the narrator was into grand intellectual theories and narratives of what caused the price of commodities to move and went bust.

It is not just that the successful expert on lumber was ignorant of central matters like the designation “green.” He also knew things about lumber that nonexperts think are unimportant. People we call ignorant might not be ignorant.

The fact that predicting the order flow in lumber and the usual narrative had little to do with the details one would assume from the outside are important. People who do things in the field are not subjected to a set exam; they are selected in the most non-narrative manager — nice arguments don't make much difference. Evolution does not rely on narratives, humans do. Evolution does not need a word for the color blue.

So let us call the green lumber fallacy the situation in which one mistakes a source of visible knowledge — the greenness of lumber — for another, less visible from the outside, less tractable, less narratable.

The main takeaway is that the real causative factors of success are often hidden from usWe think that knowing the intricacies of green lumber are more important than keeping a close eye on the order flow. We seduce ourselves into overestimating the impact of our intellectualism and then wonder why “idiots” are getting ahead. (Probably hustle and competence.)

But for “skin in the game” operations, selection and evolution don't care about great talk and ideas unless they translate into results. They care what you do with the thing more than that you know the thing. They care about actually avoiding risk rather than your extensive knowledge of risk management theories. (Of course, in many areas of modernity there is no skin in the game, so talking and rationalizing can be and frequently are selected for.)

As Taleb did with his hiring heuristic, this should teach us to be a little skeptical of taking good talkers at face value, and to be a little skeptical when we see “unexplainable” success in someone we consider “not as smart.” There might be a disconnect we're not seeing because we're seduced by narrative. (A problem someone like Lee Kuan Yew avoided by focusing exclusively on what worked.)

And we don't have to give up our intellectual pursuits in order to appreciate this nugget of wisdom; Taleb is right, but it's also true that combining the rigorous, skeptical knowledge of “what actually works” with an ever-improving theory structure of the world might be the best combination of all — selected for in many more environments than simple git-er-done ability, which can be extremely domain and environment dependent. (The green lumber guy might not have been much good outside the trading room.)

After all, Taleb himself was both a successful trader and the highest level of intellectual. Even he can't resist a little theorizing.

What Can Chain Letters Teach us about Natural Selection?

“It is important to understand that none of these replicating entities is consciously interested in getting itself duplicated. But it will just happen that the world becomes filled with replicators that are more efficient.”


In 1859, Charles Darwin first described his theory of evolution through natural selection in The Origin of Species. Here we are, 157 years later, and although it has become an established fact in the field of biology, its beauty is still not that well understood among the populace. I think that's because it's slightly counter-intuitive. Unlike string theory or quantum mechanics, the theory of evolution through natural selection is pretty easily obtainable by most.

So, is there a way we can help ourselves understand the theory in an intuitive way, so we can better go on applying it to other domains? I think so, and it comes from an interesting little volume released in 1995 by the biologist Richard Dawkins called River Out of Eden. But first, let's briefly head back to the Origin of Species, so we're clear on what we're trying to understand.


In the fourth chapter of the book, entitled “Natural Selection,” Darwin describes a somewhat cold and mechanistic process for the development of species: If species had heritable traits and variation within their population, they would survive in different numbers, and those most adapted to survival would thrive and pass on those traits to successive generations. Eventually, new species would arise, slowly, as enough variation and differential reproduction acted on the population to create a de facto branch in the family tree.

Here's the original description.

Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection.


In such case, every slight modification, which in the course of ages chanced to arise, and which in any way favored the individuals of any species, by better adapting them to their altered conditions, would tend to be preserved; and natural selection would thus have free scope for the work of improvement.


It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejection that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. 

The beauty of the theory is in its simplicity. The mechanism of evolution is, at root, a simple one. An unguided one. Better descendants outperform lesser ones in a competitive world and are more successful at replicating. Traits that improve the survival of their holder in its current environment tend to be preserved and amplified over time. This is hard to see in real time, although some examples are helpful in understanding the concept, e.g. antibiotic resistance.

Darwin's idea didn't take as quickly as we might like to think. In The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen talks about the period after the release of the groundbreaking work, in which the world had trouble coming to grips with Darwin's theory. It was not the case, as it might seem today, that the world simply threw up its hands and accepted Darwin as a genius. This is a lesson in and of itself. It was quite the contrary:

By the 1890s, natural selection as Darwin had defined it–that is, differential reproductive success resulting from small, undirected variations and serving as the chief mechanism of adaption and divergence–was considered by many evolutionary biologists to have been a wrong guess.

It wasn't until Gregor Mendel's peas showed how heritability worked that Darwin's ideas were truly vindicated against his rivals'. So if we have trouble coming to terms with evolution by natural selection in the modern age, we're not alone: So did Darwin's peers.


What's this all got to do with chain letters? Well, in Dawkins' River Out of Eden, he provides an analogy for the process of evolution through natural selection that is quite intuitive, and helpful in understanding the simple power of the idea. How would a certain type of chain letter come to dominate the population of all chain letters? It would work the same way.

A simple example is the so-called chain letter. You receive in the mail a postcard on which is written: “Make six copies of this card and send them to six friends within a week. If you do not do this, a spell will be cast upon you and you will die in horrible agony within a month.” If you are sensible you will throw it away. But a good percentage of people are not sensible; they are vaguely intrigued, or intimidated by the threat, and send six copies of it to other people. Of these six, perhaps two will be persuaded to send it on to six other people. If, on average, 1/3 of the people who receive the card obey the instructions written on it, the number of cards in circulation will double every week. In theory, this means that the number of cards in circulation after one year will be 2 to the power of 52, or about four thousand trillion. Enough post cards to smother every man, woman, and child in the world.

Exponential growth, if not checked by the lack of resources, always leads to startlingly large-scale results in a surprisingly short time. In practice, resources are limited and other factors, too, serve to limit exponential growth. In our hypothetical example, individuals will probably start to balk when the same chain letter comes around to them for the second time. In the competition for resources, variants of the same replicator may arise that happen to be more efficient at getting themselves duplicated. These more efficient replicators will tend to displace their less efficient rivals. It is important to understand that none of these replicating entities is consciously interested in getting itself duplicated. But it will just happen that the world becomes filled with replicators that are more efficient.

In the case of the chain letter, being efficient may consist in accumulating a better collection of words on the paper. Instead of the somewhat implausible statement that “if you don't obey the words on the card you will die in horrible agony within a month,” the message might change to “Please, I beg of you, to save your soul and mine, don't take the risk: if you have the slightest doubt, obey the instructions and send the letter to six more people.”

Such “mutations” happen again and again, and the result will eventually be a heterogenous population of messages all in circulation, all descended from the same original ancestor but differing in detailed wording and in the strength and nature of the blandishments they employ. The variants that are more successful will increase in frequency at the expense of less successful rivals. Success is simply synonymous with frequency in circulation. 

The chain letter contains all of the elements of biological natural selection except one: Someone had to write the first chain letter. The first replicating biological entity, on the other hand, seems to have sprung up from an early chemical brew.

Consider this analogy an intermediate mental “step” towards the final goal. Because we know and appreciate the power of reasoning by analogy and metaphor, we can deduce that finding an appropriate analogy is one of the best ways to pound an idea into your head–assuming it is a correct idea that should be pounded in.

And because evolution through natural selection is one of the more powerful ideas a human being has ever had, it seems worth our time to pound this one in for good and start applying it elsewhere if possible. (For example, Munger has talked about how business evolves in a manner such that competitive results are frequently similar to biological outcomes.)

Read Dawkins' book in full for a deeper look at his views on replication and natural selection. It's shorter than some of his other works, but worth the time.

What made Charles Darwin an Effective Thinker? Follow the Golden Rule

“I had, also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones.”


Charles Darwin (Via Wikipedia)

In his 1986 speech at the commencement of Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles (found in Poor Charlie's Almanack) Charlie Munger gave a short Johnny Carson-like speech on the things to avoid to end up with a happy and successful life. One of his most salient prescriptions comes from the life of Charles Darwin:

It is my opinion, as a certified biography nut, that Charles Robert Darwin would have ranked in the middle of the Harvard School graduating class if 1986. Yet he is now famous in the history of science. This is precisely the type of example you should learn nothing from if bent on minimizing your results from your own endowment.

Darwin's result was due in large measure to his working method, which violated all my rules for misery and particularly emphasized a backward twist in that he always gave priority attention to evidence tending to disconfirm whatever cherished and hard-won theory he already had. In contrast, most people early achieve and later intensify a tendency to process new and disconfirming information so that any original conclusion remains intact. They become people of whom Philip Wylie observed: “You couldn't squeeze a dime between what they already know and what they will never learn.”

The life of Darwin demonstrates how a turtle may outrun a hare, aided by extreme objectivity, which helps the objective person end up like the only player without a blindfold in a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

The great Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson agreed. In his book, Letters to a Young Scientist, Wilson argued that Darwin would have probably scored in the 130 range on a standard IQ test. And yet there he is, buried next to the calculus-inventing genius Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey. (As Munger often notes.)

What can we learn from the working and thinking habits of Darwin?

Extreme Focus Combined with Attentive Energy

The first clue comes from his own autobiography. Darwin was a hoover of information related to a topic he was interested in. After describing some of his specific areas of study while aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, Darwin concludes in his Autobiography:

The above various special studies were, however, of no importance compared with the habit of energetic industry and of concentrated attention to whatever I was engaged in, which I then acquired. Everything about which I thought or read was made to bear directly on what I had seen and was likely to see; and this habit of mind was continued during the five years of the voyage. I feel sure that it was this training which has enabled me to do whatever I have done in science.

This habit of pure and attentive focus to the task at hand is, of course, echoed in many of our favorite thinkers, from Sherlock Holmes, to E.O. Wilson, Feynman, Einstein, and others. Munger himself remarked that “I did not succeed in life by intelligence. I succeeded because I have a long attention span.”

In Darwin's quest, there was almost nothing relevant to his task at hand — the problem of understanding the origin and development of species — which might have escaped his attention. He had an extremely broad antenna. Says David Quammen in his fabulous The Reluctant Mr. Darwin:

One of Darwin's great strengths as a scientist was also, in some ways, a disadvantage: his extraordinary breadth of curiosity. From his study at Down House he ranged widely and greedily, in his constant search for data, across distances (by letter) and scientific fields. He read eclectically and kept notes like a pack rat. Over the years he collected an enormous quantity of interconnected facts. He looked for patterns but was intrigued equally by exceptions to the patterns, and exceptions to the exceptions. He tested his ideas against complicated groups of organisms with complicated stories, such as the barnacles, the orchids, the social insects, the primroses, and the hominids.

Not only was Darwin thinking broadly, taking in facts at all turns and on many subjects, but he was thinking carefully, This is where Munger's admiration comes in: Darwin wanted to look at the exceptions. The exceptions to the exceptions. He was on the hunt for truth and not necessarily to confirm some highly-loved idea. Simply put, he didn't want to be wrong about the nature of reality. To get the theory whole and correct would take lots of detail and time, as we will see.


The habit of study and observation didn't stop at the plant and animal kingdom for Darwin. In a move that might seem strange by today's standards, Darwin even opened a notebook to study the development of his own newborn son, William. This is from one of his notebooks:

Natural History of Babies

Do babies start (i.e., useless sudden movement of muscles) very early in life. Do they wink, when anything placed before their eyes, very young, before experience can have taught them to avoid danger. Do they know frown when they first see it?

From there, as his child grew and developed, Darwin took close notes. How did he figure out that the reflection in the mirror was him? How did he then figure out it was only an image of him, and that any other images that showed up (say, Dad standing behind him) were mere images too – not reality? These were further data in Darwin's mental model of the accumulation of gradual changes, but more importantly, displayed his attention to detail. Everything eventually came to “bear directly on what I had seen and what I was likely to see.”

And in a practical sense, Darwin was a relentless note-taker. Notebook A, Notebook B, Notebook C, Notebook M, Notebook N…all filled with observations from his study of journals and texts, his own scientific work, his travels, and his life. Once he sat down to write, he had an enormous amount of prior written thought to draw on. He could also see gaps in his understanding, which he diligently filled in.

Become an Expert

You can learn much about Darwin (and truthfully about anyone) by who he studied and admired. If Darwin held anyone in high esteem, it was Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology was his faithful companion on the H.M.S. Beagle. Here is his description of Lyell from his autobiography, which tells us something of the traits Darwin valued and sought to emulate:

I saw more of Lyell than of any other man before and after my marriage. His mind was characterized, as it appeared to me, by clearness, caution, sound judgment and a good deal of originality. When I made any remark to him on Geology, he never rested until he saw the whole case clearly and often made me see it more clearly than I had done before. He would advance all possible objections to my suggestions, and even after these were exhausted would long remain dubious. A second characteristic was his hearty sympathy with the work of other scientific men.

Studying Lyell and geology enhanced Darwin's (probably natural) suspicion that careful, detailed, and objective work was required to create scientific breakthroughs. And once Darwin had expertise and grounding in the level of expertise required by Lyell to understand and explain the theory of geology, he had a basis for the rest of his scientific work. From his autobiography:

After my return to England, it appeared to me that by following the example of Lyell in Geology, and by collecting all facts which bore in any way on the variation of animals and plants under domestication and nature, some light might perhaps be thrown on the whole subject.

In fact, it was Darwin's study and understanding of geology itself that gave him something to lean on conceptually. Lyell's, and his own, theory of geology was of a slow-moving process that accumulated massive gradual changes over time. This seems like common knowledge today, but at the time, people weren't so sure that the mountains and the islands could have been created from such slow moving and incremental processes.

Wallace & Gruber's book Creative People at Work, an analysis of a variety of thinkers and artists, argues that this basic mental model carried Darwin pretty far:

Why was the acquisition of expert knowledge in geology so important to the development of Darwin's overall thinking? Because in learning geology Darwin ground a conceptual lens — a device for bringing into focus and clarifying the problems to which he turned his attention. When his attention shifted to problems beyond geology, the lens remained and Darwin used it in exploring new problems.

(Darwin's) coral reef theory shows that he had become an expert in one field…(and) the central idea in Darwin's understanding of geology was “gradualism” — that great things could be produced by long, continued accumulation of very small effects. The next phase in the development of this thought-form would involve his use of it as the basis for the construction of analogies between geology and new, unfamiliar subjects.

Darwin wrote his most explicit and concise statement of the nature and utility of his gradualism thought-form: “This multiplication of little means and brinigng the mind to grapple with great effect produced is a most laborious & painful effort of the mind.” He recognized that it took patience and discipline to discover the “little means” that were responsible for great effects. With the necessary effort, however, this gradualism thought-form could become the vehicle for explaining many remarkable phenomena in geology, biology, and even psychology.

It is amazing to note that Darwin did not write The Origin of Species until 1859 even though his notebooks show he had been pretty close to the correct idea at least 15 or 20 years prior. What was he doing in all that time? Well, for eight years at least, he was studying barnacles.


One of the reasons Darwin went on a crusade of classifying and studying the barnacles in minute detail was his concern that if he wasn't a primary expert on some portion of the natural world, his work on a larger and more general thesis would not be taken seriously, and that it would probably have holes. He said as much to his friend Frederic Gerard, a French botanist, before he had begun his barnacle work: “How painfully (to me) true is your remark that no one has hardly a right to examine the question of species who has not minutely described many.” And, of course, Darwin being Darwin, he spent eight years remedying that unfathomable situation.

It seemed like extraordinarily tedious work, unrelated to anything a scientist would consider important on a grand scale. It was taxonomy. Classification. Even Darwin admitted later on that he doubted it was worth the years he spent on it. Yet, in his detail-oriented journey for expertise on barnacles, he hit upon some key ideas that would make his theory of natural selection complete. Says Quammen:

He also found notable differences on another categorical level; within species. Contrary to what he'd believed all along about the rarity of variation in the wild, barnacles turned out to be highly variable. A species wasn't a Platonic essence or a metaphysical type. A species was a population of differing individuals.

He wouldn't have seen that if he hadn't assigned himself the trick job of drawing lines between one species and another. He wouldn't have seen it if he hadn't used his network of contacts and his good reputation as a naturalist to gather barnacle specimens, in quantity, from all over the world. The truth of variation only reveals itself in crowds. He wouldn't have seen it if he hadn't examined multiple individuals, not just single representatives, of as many species as possible….Abundant variation among barnacles filled a crucial role in his theory. Here they were, the minor differences on which natural selection works.

Darwin was so diligent it could be breathtaking at times. Quammen describes him gathering up various species to assess the data about their development and their variation. Birds, dead or alive, as many as possible. Foxes, dogs, ducks, pigeons, rabbits, cats…nothing escaped his purview. As many specimens as he could get his hands on. All while living in a secluded house in Victorian England, beset by constant illness. He was Big Data before Big Data was a thing, trying to suss out conclusions from a mass of observation.

Follow the Golden Rule

Eventually his work led him to something new: Species are not immutable, they are all part of the same family tree. They evolve through a process of variation — he didn't know how; that took years for others to figure out through the study of genetics — and differential survival through natural selection.

Darwin was able to put his finger on why it took so long for humanity to come to this correct theory: It was extremely counter-intuitive to how one would naturally see the world. He admitted as much in the Origin of Species‘ concluding chapter:

The chief cause of our natural unwillingness to admit that one species has given birth to other and distinct species, is that we are always slow in admitting any great changes of which we do not see the steps. The difficulty is the same as that felt by so many geologists, when Lyell first insisted that long lines of inland cliffs had been formed, and great valleys excavated, by the agencies which we still see at work. The mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of even a million years; it cannot add up and perceive the full effects of many slight variations, accumulated during an almost infinite number of generations.

Counter-intuition was Darwin's speciality. And the reason he was so good was he had a very simple habit of thought, described in the autobiography and so cherished by Charlie Munger: He paid special attention to collecting facts which did not agree with his prior conceptions. He called this a golden rule.

I had, also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.

So we see that Darwin's great success, by his own analysis, owed to his ability to see, note, and learn from objections to his cherished thoughts. The Origin of Species has stood up in the face of 157 years of subsequent biological research because Darwin was so careful to make sure the theory was nearly impossible to refute. Later scientists would find the book slightly incomplete, but not incorrect.

This passage reminds one of, and probably influenced, Charlie Munger's prescription on the work required to hold an opinion: You must understand the opposite side of the argument better than the person holding that side does. It's a very difficult way to think, tremendously unnatural in the face of our genetic makeup (the more typical response is to look for as much confirming evidence as possible). Harnessed properly, though, it is a powerful way to beat your own shortcomings and become a seeing man amongst the blind.

Thus, we can deduce that, in addition to good luck and good timing, it was Darwin's habits of completeness, diligence, accuracy, and habitual objectivity which ultimately led him to make his greatest breakthroughs. It was tedious. There was no spark of divine insight that gave him his edge. He just started with the right basic ideas and the right heroes, and then worked for a long time and with extreme focus and objectivity, always keeping his eye on reality.

In the end, you can do worse than to read all you can find on Charles Darwin and try to copy his mental habits. They will serve you well over a long life.

Claude Shannon: The Man Who Turned Paper Into Pixels

"The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning."— Claude Shannon (1948)
“The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning.”— Claude Shannon (1948)

Claude Shannon is the most important man you've probably never heard of. If Alan Turing is to be considered the father of modern computing, then the American mathematician Claude Shannon is the architect of the Information Age.

The video, created by the British filmmaker Adam Westbrook, echoes the thoughts of Nassim Taleb that boosting the signal does not mean you remove the noise, in fact, just the opposite: you amplify it.

Any time you try to send a message from one place to another something always gets in the way. The original signal is always distorted. Where ever there is signal there is also noise.

So what do you do? Well, the best anyone could do back then was to boost the signal. But then all you do is boost the noise.

Thing is we were thinking about information all wrong. We were obsessed with what a message meant.

A Renoir and a receipt? They’re different, right? Was there a way to think of them in the same way? Like so many breakthroughs the answer came from an unexpected place. A brilliant mathematician with a flair for blackjack.


The transistor was invented in 1948, at Bell Telephone Laboratories. This remarkable achievement, however, “was only the second most significant development of that year,” writes James Gleick in his fascinating book: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. The most important development of 1948 and what still underscores modern technology is the bit.

An invention even more profound and more fundamental came in a monograph spread across seventy-nine pages of The Bell System Technical Journal in July and October. No one bothered with a press release. It carried a title both simple and grand “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” and the message was hard to summarize. But it was a fulcrum around which the world began to turn. Like the transistor, this development also involved a neologism: the word bit, chosen in this case not by committee but by the lone author, a thirty-two-year -old named Claude Shannon. The bit now joined the inch, the pound, the quart, and the minute as a determinate quantity— a fundamental unit of measure.

But measuring what? “A unit for measuring information,” Shannon wrote, as though there were such a thing, measurable and quantifiable, as information.


Shannon’s theory made a bridge between information and uncertainty; between information and entropy; and between information and chaos. It led to compact discs and fax machines, computers and cyberspace, Moore’s law and all the world’s Silicon Alleys. Information processing was born, along with information storage and information retrieval. People began to name a successor to the Iron Age and the Steam Age.

Gleick also recounts the relationship between Turing and Shannon:

In 1943 the English mathematician and code breaker Alan Turing visited Bell Labs on a cryptographic mission and met Shannon sometimes over lunch, where they traded speculation on the future of artificial thinking machines. (“ Shannon wants to feed not just data to a Brain, but cultural things!” Turing exclaimed. “He wants to play music to it!”)

Commenting on vitality of information, Gleick writes:

(Information) pervades the sciences from top to bottom, transforming every branch of knowledge. Information theory began as a bridge from mathematics to electrical engineering and from there to computing. … Now even biology has become an information science, a subject of messages, instructions, and code. Genes encapsulate information and enable procedures for reading it in and writing it out. Life spreads by networking. The body itself is an information processor. Memory resides not just in brains but in every cell. No wonder genetics bloomed along with information theory. DNA is the quintessential information molecule, the most advanced message processor at the cellular level— an alphabet and a code, 6 billion bits to form a human being. “What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life,’” declares the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins. “It is information, words, instructions.… If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” The cells of an organism are nodes in a richly interwoven communications network, transmitting and receiving, coding and decoding. Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between organism and environment.

The bit is the very core of the information age.

The bit is a fundamental particle of a different sort: not just tiny but abstract— a binary digit, a flip-flop, a yes-or-no. It is insubstantial, yet as scientists finally come to understand information, they wonder whether it may be primary: more fundamental than matter itself. They suggest that the bit is the irreducible kernel and that information forms the very core of existence.

In the words of John Archibald Wheeler, the last surviving collaborator of both Einstein and Bohr, information gives rise to “every it— every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime continuum itself.”

This is another way of fathoming the paradox of the observer: that the outcome of an experiment is affected, or even determined, when it is observed. Not only is the observer observing, she is asking questions and making statements that must ultimately be expressed in discrete bits. “What we call reality,” Wheeler wrote coyly, “arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions.” He added: “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin, and this is a participatory universe.” The whole universe is thus seen as a computer —a cosmic information-processing machine.

The greatest gift of Prometheus to humanity was not fire after all: “Numbers, too, chiefest of sciences, I invented for them, and the combining of letters, creative mother of the Muses’ arts, with which to hold all things in memory .”

Information technologies are both relative in the time they were created and absolute in terms of the significance. Gleick writes:

The alphabet was a founding technology of information. The telephone, the fax machine, the calculator, and, ultimately, the computer are only the latest innovations devised for saving, manipulating, and communicating knowledge. Our culture has absorbed a working vocabulary for these useful inventions. We speak of compressing data, aware that this is quite different from compressing a gas. We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma displays, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground. But it has always been there. It pervaded our ancestors’ world, too, taking forms from solid to ethereal, granite gravestones and the whispers of courtiers. The punched card, the cash register, the nineteenth-century Difference Engine, the wires of telegraphy all played their parts in weaving the spiderweb of information to which we cling. Each new information technology, in its own time, set off blooms in storage and transmission. From the printing press came new species of information organizers: dictionaries, cyclopaedias, almanacs— compendiums of words, classifiers of facts, trees of knowledge. Hardly any information technology goes obsolete. Each new one throws its predecessors into relief. Thus Thomas Hobbes, in the seventeenth century, resisted his era’s new-media hype: “The invention of printing, though ingenious, compared with the invention of letters is no great matter.” Up to a point, he was right. Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought. In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is a fascinating read.

(image source)

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

"Children are sensitive to inequality, then, but it seems to upset them only when they themselves are the ones getting less."
“Children are sensitive to inequality, then, but it seems to upset them only when they themselves are the ones getting less.”

Morality fascinates us. The stories we enjoy the most, whether fictional (as in novels, television shows, and movies) or real (as in journalism and historical accounts), are tales of good and evil. We want the good guys to be rewarded— and we really want to see the bad guys suffer.

So writes Paul Bloom in the first pages of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. His work, proposes that “certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. They do not come from the mother’s knee … ”

What is morality?

Even philosophers don't agree on morality. In fact, a lot of people don't believe in morality at all.

To settle on some working terminology, Bloom writes:

Arguments about terminology are boring; people can use words however they please. But what I mean by morality—what I am interested in exploring, whatever one calls it— includes a lot more than restrictions on sexual behavior. Here is a simple example (of morality):

A car full of teenagers drives slowly past an elderly woman waiting at a bus stop. One of the teenagers leans out the window and slaps the woman, knocking her down. They drive away laughing.

Unless you are a psychopath, you will feel that the teenagers did something wrong. And it is a certain type of wrong. It isn’t a social gaffe like going around with your shirt inside out or a factual mistake like thinking that the sun revolves around the earth. It isn’t a violation of an arbitrary rule, such as moving a pawn three spaces forward in a chess game. And it isn’t a mistake in taste, like believing that the Matrix sequels were as good as the original.

As a moral violation, it connects to certain emotions and desires. You might feel sympathy for the woman and anger at the teenagers; you might want to see them punished. They should feel bad about what they did; at the very least, they owe the woman an apology. If you were to suddenly remember that one of the teenagers was you, many years ago, you might feel guilt or shame.

Punching someone in the face.

Hitting someone is a very basic moral violation. Indeed, the philosopher and legal scholar John Mikhail has suggested that the act of intentionally striking someone without their permission— battery is the legal term —has a special immediate badness that all humans respond to. Here is a good candidate for a moral rule that transcends space and time: If you punch someone in the face, you’d better have a damn good reason for it.

Not all morality has to do with what is wrong. “Morality,” Bloom says, “also encompasses questions of rightness.”

Morality from an Evolutionary Perspective

If you think of evolution solely in terms of “survival of the fittest” or “nature red in tooth and claw,” then such universals cannot be part of our natures. Since Darwin, though, we’ve come to see that evolution is far more subtle than a Malthusian struggle for existence. We now understand how the amoral force of natural selection might have instilled within us some of the foundation for moral thought and moral action.

Actually, one aspect of morality , kindness to kin, has long been a no-brainer from an evolutionary point of view. The purest case here is a parent and a child: one doesn’t have to do sophisticated evolutionary modeling to see that the genes of parents who care for their children are more likely to spread through the population than those of parents who abandon or eat their children.

We are also capable of acting kindly and generously toward those who are not blood relatives. At first, the evolutionary origin of this might seem obvious: clearly, we thrive by working together— in hunting, gathering, child care, and so on— and our social sentiments make this coordination possible.

Adam Smith pointed this out long before Darwin: “All the members of human society stand in need of each others assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.”

This creates a tragedy of the commons problem.

But there is a wrinkle here; for society to flourish in this way, individuals have to refrain from taking advantage of others. A bad actor in a community of good people is the snake in the garden; it’s what the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins calls “subversion from within.” Such a snake would do best of all, reaping the benefits of cooperation without paying the costs. Now, it’s true that the world as a whole would be worse off if the demonic genes proliferated, but this is the problem, not the solution— natural selection is insensitive to considerations about “the world as a whole.” We need to explain what kept demonic genes from taking over the population, leaving us with a world of psychopaths.

Darwin’s theory was that cooperative traits could prevail if societies containing individuals who worked together peacefully would tend to defeat other societies with less cooperative members— in other words, natural selection operating at the group, rather than individual, level.

Writing of a hypothetical conflict between two imaginary tribes, Darwin wrote (in The Descent of Man): “If the one tribe included … courageous, sympathetic and faithful members who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other.”

“An alternative theory,” Bloom writes, “more consistent with individual-level natural selection:”

is that the good guys might punish the bad guys. That is, even without such conflict between groups, altruism could evolve if individuals were drawn to reward and interact with kind individuals and to punish— or at least shun —cheaters, thieves, thugs, free riders, and the like.

The Difference Between Compassion and Empathy

there is a big difference between caring about a person (compassion) and putting yourself in the person’s shoes (empathy).

How can we best understand our moral natures?

Many would agree … that this is a question of theology, while others believe that morality is best understood through the insights of novelists, poets, and playwrights. Some prefer to approach morality from a philosophical perspective, looking not at what people think and how people act but at questions of normative ethics (roughly, how one should act) and metaethics (roughly, the nature of right and wrong).

Another lens is science.

We can explore our moral natures using the same methods that we use to study other aspects of our mental life, such as language or perception or memory. We can look at moral reasoning across societies or explore how people differ within a single society— liberals versus conservatives in the United States, for instance. We can examine unusual cases, such as cold-blooded psychopaths. We might ask whether creatures such as chimpanzees have anything that we can view as morality, and we can look toward evolutionary biology to explore how a moral sense might have evolved. Social psychologists can explore how features of the environment encourage kindness or cruelty, and neuroscientists can look at the parts of the brain that are involved in moral reasoning.

What are we born with?

Bloom argues that Thomas Jefferson was right when he wrote in a letter to his friend Peter Carr: “The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree.” This view, that we have an ingrained moral sense, was shared by enlightenment philosophers of the Jefferson period, including Adam Smith. While Smith is best known for his book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, he himself favored his first book: The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The pages contain insight into “the relationship between imagination and empathy, the limits of compassion, our urge to punish others’ wrongdoing,” and more.

Bloom quotes Smith's work to what he calls an “embarrassing degree.”

What aspects of morality are natural to us?

Our natural endowments include:

  • a moral sense— some capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions
  • empathy and compassion— suffering at the pain of those around us and the wish to make this pain go away
  • a rudimentary sense of fairness— a tendency to favor equal divisions of resources
  • a rudimentary sense of justice— a desire to see good actions rewarded and bad actions punished

Bloom argues that our goodness, however, is limited. This is perhaps best explained by Thomas Hobbes, who in 1651, argued that man “in the state of nature” is wicked and self-interested.

We have a moral sense that enables us to judge others and that guides our compassion and condemnation. We are naturally kind to others, at least some of the time. But we possess ugly instincts as well, and these can metastasize into evil. The Reverend Thomas Martin wasn’t entirely wrong when he wrote in the nineteenth century about the “native depravity” of children and concluded that “we bring with us into the world a nature replete with evil propensities.”

In The End …

We're born with some elements of morality and others take time to emerge because, they require a capacity for reasoning. “The baby lacks a grasp of impartial moral principles—prohibitions or requirements that apply equally to everyone within a community. Such principles are at the foundation of systems of law and justice.”

There is a popular view that we are slaves of the passions …

that our moral judgments and moral actions are the product of neural mechanisms that we have no awareness of and no conscious control over. If this view of our moral natures were true, we would need to buck up and learn to live with it. But it is not true; it is refuted by everyday experience, by history, and by the science of developmental psychology.

It turns out instead that the right theory of our moral lives has two parts. It starts with what we are born with, and this is surprisingly rich: babies are moral animals. But we are more than just babies. A critical part of our morality—so much of what makes us human—emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason.


Still Curious? Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil goes on to explore some of the ways that Hobbes was right, among them: our indifference to strangers and our instinctive emotional responses.