On the creative effects of drift

Take a handful of walnuts, then of pecans, and have a taste of each.

The lands that are now in Europe and North America were once within walking distance of each other. In those days, a certain tree that is the ancestor of both walnuts and pecans lived throughout that single ancient land.

As the continents drifted apart, riding a chthonic sea of plastic rock, the shape and substance of the tree also began to drift.

In England, the tree came to be the walnut that we know today, and in North America the pecan.

Continents drift at roughly the same speed that a human fingernail grows. As plants and animals continue their slowly drifting sagas through ceaseless generations, mountains are pushed up dramatically and then wear down to become gentle hills, only to get folded into a new generation of mountains.

The interesting part of this story isn't the differences that have arisen between walnuts and pecans, but rather the incredible stability and consistency of the tree over unimaginably long spans of time.

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Consider that when you take photocopies of photocopies, after only a few generations the form of the original is completely lost.

The replicative processes in living things are precise beyond our comprehension, as though a whole nation of millions of proofreaders all inspect the same text, carefully looking for any typo, infelicitous word, or misapplied jot.

The text that is being copied and proofread is of course in this case the nucleotides in DNA, and the proofreaders are specially adapted enzymes and proteins in the ribosomes where RNA transcription takes place.

And yet, mistakes or mutations do happen and the sublimely intricate structure of living things does drift.

What is remarkable, even miraculous, is the stability of something so dynamic and complex as life.

Thus, the walnut and the pecan, though they look and taste somewhat different, still resemble each another despite the uncountable replications separating them.

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While it is often argued that destruction is necessary for creativity, and that the old must often be swept away violently in order for the new to take root, the odds are hugely against violence itself ever creating anything worthwhile.

The configuration of living things, in particular, is so complex and so precise, that almost any other arrangement that would occur as a result of the randomizing effect of violence almost certainly would mean that the life would be unable to maintain a viable structure or replicate.

The creative effects of a natural disasters, such as a volcanic catastrophe or an abrupt change in climate, usually mean removing varieties of life that thrive under one set of conditions and giving opportunity to life that can flourish under the new conditions.

In the end, the most brilliantly creative hand of genius is that of simple, persistent drift.

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When mistakes in copying occur, are they purely random, or do they carry some information from the environment?

Is there such a thing as pure randomness, or is what seems random actually the unexpected intrusion of some outside influence? Is every accident equally probable, or do accidents bear the imprint of environmental characteristics that are otherwise more or less visible?

In other words, does the pecan in some subtle way reflect the "flavor" of North America and the walnut that of England?

Quantum events, rooted in the alien environment of the utterly small, are evidently sheerly random. Random events in the world at our scale, however, are probably much less random than we realize.

Accidents are an expression of the environment that produces them.

The flavor of North America is expressed in pecans, as well as in the differences between aboriginal Americans and their Asiatic cousins.

In all these matters, drift plays a principal part.

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Dynamic stability is at the crux of creative drift. The higher the degree of freedom enabled by a structure, the greater must be the factors that stabilize that structure in order for drift to play a longterm role.

Further, the longer the period over which drift acts, the more surprising and informative will be its creative effects. The more stable something is and the longer it endures, the more significance drift will have, and the more substantial will be the creative effects of drift.

While stability is necessary in order for drift to act over a long period, stability is only part of the story. Otherwise solid rock would also evolve.

The atomic and molecular bonds in solid rock are so strong and well organized that rock resists drift. Instead, rock slowly disintegrates under the effects of erosion.

We know of nothing more longlasting and at the same time free to change than life on earth, and here the creative hand of drift has been more prodigious than anywhere.

The interplay of freedom to change, on the one hand, and stability, on the other, is what empowers creative drift.

Freedom of change may be chemical rather than grossly kinetic. In other words, the body of mass itself need not move, rather only its molecular constituents.

Living things have an unusually high degree of freedom in that sense, as they are made up of moving parts on many levels, from the ionic and molecular to the level of major assemblies.

In fact, ecosystems can be taken as a single whole that has an even higher degree of freedom.

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Freedom is not precisely the same as random movement. The difference is interesting, and can be illustrated by the difference between the number of possible sentences in a language and the number of possible combinations formed by blindly picking words out of a barrel of chits upon which a word has been written.

Both are essentially boundless, provided that the lengths of the strings of words can grow without limit.

In the case of the well-formed sentences, however, not every word is likely to follow any given word. The grammar of a language defines a syntax, or set of sequences of words are possible or likely to occur.

Semantics, or meaning, also constrains how words are likely to be combined.

The patterns of probabilities create structure. Despite the fact that structure makes some configurations much less likely than others (perhaps even eliminating some altogether), many structures still allow unlimited freedom within the defined bounds.

In the case of randomness, however, every configuration or sequence is equally likely. No structure exists.

Interestingly, a perfectly structureless system can have less freedom than a structured one.

In a random configuration, since any configuration is equally likely, then any particular one will almost never occur, given the immense number of possibilities.

If we set a lower bound on which possible scenarios we will consider (and in practice a lower bound always exists), then most of the scenarios in a random system are too improbable to occur.

Structure eliminates possibilities but actually increases freedom of change by filtering out noise. Otherwise, the system is paralyzed by possibility.

High freedom sustained over a long period is what leads to creative drift. The balance between structure and randomness is critical, because in either extreme the degree of creative freedom will be reduced.

Whenever a structure emerges that is both stable and has a high degree of freedom to change, drift will eventually introduce new elements of structure into the existing structure.

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In thinking about the creative effects of drift, an important point is that if we wish to see new and interesting features evolve in whatever area, such as in art, science, or business, then we ought to seek to build stable but flexible structures and simply allow them to age as long as possible without tampering with them.

DNA replication is the supreme example of such a structure. The whole of biodiversity has accumulated around it.

As drift brings about rare, incremental improvements, the uniquely stable and dynamic structure built up around DNA captures and propagates that improvement.

We can think of form and novelty as being time seized and frozen.

Michael Webb, 2004

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