You can also listen to the podcast version of this piece on NonTrivial.
We define a thing’s value by its characteristics; what it does and doesn’t do. But a thing cannot adequately be defined outside its environment. There are countless dependencies that make a thing, a thing. We need to shift our focus “up” to a more holistic level if we are to move levers that produce positive outcomes. This is because nature chooses what survives by operating on parameters that form in aggregate.
In this piece I use examples from Max Boot’s book War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History¹ to show how an understanding of what occurs in combination can be used to solve hard challenges as nature does.
To Define a Thing
If we think about what defines a thing, we typically consider its characteristics. The list of features that tell us what a thing can and cannot do. This is also how we assign a thing its value. If I am buying a new car I look at its features to assess its worth. The more bells and whistles the higher the price.
But characteristics are consigned to an object itself. They can enable one to recreate an object in appearance, but not in behavior. Behavior can only arise through a thing’s interaction with its environment.
It is better to think of the characteristics that exist at a higher, emergent level. The ones that only materialize in aggregation. These are the levers we can pull, the dials we can turn, to produce outcomes that truly matter.
The characteristics that make a difference are the ones that occur “on the surface.” These are the parameters of a situation rather than those of any specific object brought into the mix. As I will argue, it is surface level properties that act as decisive parameters in real world situations.
This knowledge is applicable to our lives as long as we know what high-level characteristics look like. The key is to pay attention rather than attempt to solve analytically. To let nature do the internal calculations while we build wisdom around surface level properties.
Warfare is an excellent example of a complex situation, involving difficult and intricate situations, interlacing sophisticated technology with culture and emotion.
We see all kinds of examples in warfare where the technology itself doesn’t prove particularly decisive in battle. Technology is usually too similar across enemy lines for it be decisive, and in some cases the victor has less technological sophistication than their enemy.
How we use technology is far more important than what a piece of technology does. This statement alone isn’t that surprising, but what does it really mean? Why, and how, is technique more important than the technology it coordinates?
I’ve talked about hidden dependencies before. The reason a thing cannot be defined when taken out of its environment is because of the multitude of hidden dependencies that a thing’s behavior depends on.
What is a Ferrari? It’s a car created by an Italian luxury sports car manufacturer based in Maranello, Italy. Ok, what’s a sport’s car? A sports car is a vehicle designed with an emphasis on dynamic performance, like handling, acceleration and top speed. Sure, but none of these are possible without a litany of other things that must be in place. Such a vehicle depends on smooth roads, gas stations, a rubber industry, etc. Without a massive network of interconnected dependencies how would one even define a vehicle?
The definition of a thing is a statement expressing the essential nature of the object. As humans we must make sense of our world, and we do this in large part by stripping away externalities, reducing a thing down to its core components. We must demarcate information into isolated concepts in order to speak about our world.
But the act of stripping away removes the essence of a thing, because we have removed the countless hidden dependencies that make a thing possible. Our languages enable us to mark off aspects of reality but it always falls short of capturing the true essence of a thing. Truth is always, at its core, ineffable.
As I often argue, ultimate reality is best thought of informationally, rather than physically. Recall my wave example in the last NonTrivial episode. Thinking of a wave in physical terms means imagining a shape created by water molecules. But those water molecules are constantly moving in-and-out of the wave. A proper definition of a wave is as a propagating dynamic disturbance that traverses a distance. This definition is agnostic to the underlying physical manifestation of any particular wave. The reason being agnostic to physicality is so important is because the degrees of freedom are no longer constrained by our physical 3-dimensional world.
The degrees of freedom are the number of variables required to describe a thing’s configuration. But in real world situations this number is astronomical. The essence of anything nontrivial exists in some high-dimensional space we cannot access by explicit analysis of the parts.
Take facial recognition technology. It works using models that can approximate extremely high dimensional information. This is required because the essence of someone’s face cannot be found using a list of facial features. Machines, and humans, cannot recognize a face by summing a litany of explicit rules such as distance between the eyes, length of lips, etc. It is some intricate interaction of a near-infinite list of attributes that allows the essence of a face to emerge.
The true definition of a face, a Ferrari, of anything, is in some sense unable to be reached. This might not matter for mere conversation, but when it comes to attempting to use things to produce specific outcomes it does matter. We need to access the list of parameters that we can control in order to solve genuinely hard challenges.
Nature creates effective outcomes all the time. Nature solves its genuinely challenging problems by shifting the focus up. It is through collective action that aggregate properties emerge to create things that adapt and survive.
European countries have enjoyed far more world dominance than their non-European neighbors. Such dominance was not afforded the West by access to better technology. Guns, Germs and Steel notwithstanding, the West had something different at an informational level that made them so successful.
Take the Opium Wars, which saw European forces easily win over their Asian rivals, with the usual explanation being that Europe’s modern military technology was too powerful for China to withstand. But China invented gunpowder, one of the most significant inventions in all human history, particularly as it pertains to warfare. Yet China was never able to use gunpowder to defend themselves from European nations, let alone dominate them. Why?
As Max Boot points out in his book, European nations had the right “software.” Any particular invention isn’t that interesting, since it depends on an entire ecosystem for a technology to be used successfully. European culture rewarded the entrepreneurial spirit, rights of ownership, and the risk-taking and experimentalism that undergirds capitalism. Private ownership of the means of production has characterized Europe since at least the 16th century. This kind of culture brings in a massive aggregation of ideas and inventions.
Gunpowder has to be implemented to be useful. Small cylinders of copper or brass have to be engineered. Shock-sensitive explosive materials must be intricately contained and connected with a caplock mechanism consisting of a hammer and a cone. The cone needs to contain a hollow conduit housed within the rearmost part of a barrel. Sparks must somehow travel through the hollow cone into the barrel and ignite the gunpowder charge, thereby propelling a projectile through a smoothly machined barrel.
It takes a culture that rewards an immense level of risk-taking and creativity, spurred by an incentive structure of ownership and possible wealth to bring about such an engine of productivity. Culture is not something that can be engineered or analyzed in an explicit fashion. Culture is an abstract phenomenon that forms by aggregation of countless experiences and ideas.
Western society has historically placed less emphasis on things and more on the process of creativity, which brought a multitude of different and better technologies to bear on rivals over time. Hence their dominance.
To speak of gunpowder by itself, with its own list of characteristics might be interesting, but nothing in that description is decisive when it comes to producing winning outcomes. What is decisive is the definition that exists in aggregate; the high-level characteristics that define something emergent like a culture, that blends many things together to produce success.
Shifting the Focus Up
To shift the focus up requires we rest our assignment of value on high-level aggregate properties. Like being more interested in the characteristic of a culture than any specific piece of technology a culture might use.
A comparison between warrior and soldiering nations shows how shifting the focus up helped nations become successful in warfare. Warrior nations placed their emphasis on the individual. A warrior is someone who is highly-trained, specializing in specific fighting techniques and the use of particular weapons. The romantic idea of a warrior is attractive, but only successful if your enemy is also a warrior nation. If your enemy instead focuses on soldiering you’re unlikely to fare well.
Using soldiers means taking focus away from an individual fighter and instead placing it on effectively organizing troops. To be a good soldier is not to have any specific set of skills yourself, although you are still highly trained, rather it’s to work very well in aggregate. With soldiers there is a much higher propensity to accept the death of any fighter. While still tragic, a dead solider is not a “loss” to an entire troop in terms of fighting ability. Soldiers are easily replaced, and more easily organized, relative to warriors. Soldiers fall in line according to a high-level command structure.
Losing a warrior on the other hand means losing someone who was heavily invested in, in terms of training and skill sets. Warriors are a concentration of skill and training to an individual, not so easily replaced. Warriors are akin to a point of failure in a network; an achilles heel in the theatre of war.
In War Made New, Max talks about the Japanese fighters being highly talented, particularly in air combat. All things considered the Japanese were far more skilled than your average Allied fighter. The Japanese were renowned for putting their fighters through a gruelling training phase, filtering the majority of candidates out of contention. But in facing a soldiering nation this leads to far more downside than upside. The intense training schedule meant it took too long to replace a Japanese fighter during engagement. The Japanese couldn’t keep pace with the rapid ability of Allies to replace their soldiers.
The inability of warrior nations to rapidly replace their fighters isn’t even their critical deficiency . Nature solves problems by allowing most of what it creates to die off. This is the only way to determine what truly works; what works are the parts of a system that survive out of many incorrect attempts. Soldiering nations can fail faster, learn from those failures, and adapt with far less latency than warrior nations.
Warrior nations have all but disappeared, having been replaced by soldiers. In War Made New, we see examples of increased army size forcing nations to focus on the management of their troops, and the development of effective command structures. Shifting the focus up means realizing that what matters are the patterns that emerge in aggregate, and using those to produce better outcomes.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of defining something, and assigning its value, according to its individual list of characteristics. A warrior makes sense when we look at them as an individual. Their list of features are impressive, far more impressive than an average soldier. But a fighter cannot do much on their own. A fighter is only as good as their ability to successfully play a role in a much larger, aggregate system.
Bringing this back to something more familiar, think about the hiring process at any company. The interview process involves asking an individual questions about their specific experiences, what tools they know how to use, etc. One’s resume is a litany of acquired skills. But hiring cannot assess how a candidate will perform in a group, since there is no way to know this unless we see them perform in the wild. The naive attempt to ask question that supposedly correlate a company’s culture to some personality traits don’t cut it. We cannot see the hidden dependencies that matter, so we cannot test for it. The only true test is to observe what survives as it happens.
Companies who hire “rock stars” are either too naive to understand they’re hurting themselves, or they know what they’re doing and simply trying to attract talent. After all, everyone likes to think of themselves as a rock star. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter how supposedly great an individual person or piece of technology is; it matters how they perform in aggregate with many other individuals.
But what about something as powerful as a nuclear bomb? Surely such a devastatingly potent weapon makes all the difference in warfare? Another example in War Made New shows how flawed this thinking is. After WW2 the US centered most of its efforts on developing nuclear weapons. After all, who would dare go up against a nation with nukes? And even if another nation acquired their own nukes nobody would be dumb enough to seal their fate by striking first. Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) seems like a pretty safe bet.
But when the Vietnam War came along nuclear weapons were not on the menu. What mattered was on-the-ground combat. We all know how the US faired in Vietnam. By focusing almost entirely on nuclear weapons the US was ill-equipped to handle the unique fighting situation in Vietnam. Take the Ferrari off the smooth road and into the jungle and you’ll wish you didn’t spend all that money on a Ferrari.
It was never about nuclear capability, it was about what makes victory possible. Sure, in some cases success might be guaranteed by the use of a nuclear weapon. But there are countless interacting factors that make warfare what it is, and you cannot navigate those successfully unless you shift your focus up towards what matters. No matter how powerful your weapon might be.
The reason shifting the focus up works is because we are letting nature do the coordination. Nature can solve highly complex challenges because it has the capacity for massive variation and iteration, in ways we ourselves do not. Humans trying to analyze tidbits of information via the gathering of technology specs and people characteristics is not how solving complex problems works. That’s naive. That’s dangerous.
Shifting the focus up means our only goals are the high level targets that natural forces must converge to. That’s where strategy should live. That’s how leadership and skill should be defined.
Selection Occurs at the Surface
Saying that nature selects using high-level characteristics will agitate some of those in the biological sciences. Selection is a contentious topic in biology, and much of the scientific community still adheres to the so-called gene-centered theory of evolution. This theory argues that the gene is the unit of selection; something promoted by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976.
Now first, understand that natural selection is not a theory relegated to biology, as is often thought. The process of natural selection is a fundamentally universal process behind all creative endeavors. Trial and error, selection, replication, iteration…these are all things that happen in challenging situations that converge to good results. Nature, in any form, works like this.
The gene-centered theory of evolution holds that adaptive evolution occurs through the differential survival of competing genes. This means it is the genetic characteristics of an organism that determine whether it survives and passes on its attributes to future generations. This is a reductionist, individualistic take on natural selection because it places the parameters that matter within an individual organism itself, specifically its genes.
Now I argue, as some others do, that it makes much more sense that nature would choose to select on top-level aggregate properties rather than on low-level characteristics of a thing, like genes. The theory that biological systems are selected at a higher level is called group selection, which posits natural selection acts at the level of the group, instead of the level of an individual or their genes.
To be honest, most biologists lack the kind of foundational knowledge that would allow them to choose between the gene-centered theory of evolution and group selection. This isn’t a slight against biologists. If fundamental processes are to be compared rigorously there should be a mathematical assessment of their validity.
Researchers like Yaneer Bar-Yam have written about how the gene centered view of evolution amounts to the use of the mean-field approximation. This is where one takes a high-dimensional system with many interacting pieces and approximates its behavior by averaging.
Averaging forces one to assume each piece in the system is virtually identical. This is always the case with averages, otherwise the average wouldn’t represent anything real. To see why this is an issue when it comes to evolutionary theories let’s first look at how a gene-centered evolution would operate.
In order for genes to be what nature selects on, genes have to be chosen at random from all possible genes. The way certain genes become prominent is by increasing their frequency over time, effectively promoting their own propagation. Imagine a jar full of seeds, 90% of them red and 10% of them blue. Randomly selecting a seed again-and-again will see most draws produce a red seed, because there are more of them around.
Genes that express beneficial traits in their host organism will produce the physical forms that better adapt to the environment. Since those organisms are passing on their genes, it is those genes that will increase in number. Imagine starting with a jar of 50% red seeds and 50% blue seeds. Now imagine we keep taking seeds out of the jar, one by one, and throwing them onto the ground covered by red leaves, and putting any seeds that don’t get eaten by animals back into the jar. Say birds swoop in looking for something to eat. The birds are likely to eat the blue seeds because they can see them better. The red seeds are likely to be placed back into the jar more often than the blue seeds. Over time we would produce a jar with something like 90% red seeds.
This process would ensure that beneficial genes (those that produce red seeds) are most likely selected by nature to survive.
But what if the jar of seeds wasn’t randomly mixed? What if there were clumps of a single color of seed throughout the jar? Maybe blue seeds have a propensity to stick together, while red seeds tend to slip to the bottom regardless of how we placed them back into the jar. If a blue clump happened to be near the lid of the jar when someone drew the seed then the most probable draw would not be a red seed, despite there being 90% red seeds in the jar.
This concept of non-random structure, like our clumps of blue seeds, is a fully expected pattern in complex systems. Complex systems are not like uniform gases at equilibrium, where any molecule can be assumed to be in the same environment as any other molecule. There are aggregate-level correlations, that produce asymmetries and structure, and it is this structure that completely changes how individual agents in a complex system, like genes, will be selected. In our example, blue “genes” (seeds) are being selected because of how they happen to work together, not because of some frequency of occurrence.
Richard Dawkins, knowingly or not, is applying mean field theory to biological systems when he promotes the selfish gene. He is saying that all genes are mixing in a random fashion and that better genes will be brought to the forefront of evolutionary advantage via their ability to increase their population.
But increasing your population is not enough if there is higher-level, aggregate structure in the population. It makes little mathematical sense to take an average in order to represent what genes are doing. There is structure in the way organisms group together, causing things like trait divergence and habitat heterogeneity, where animals of the same species show marked differences.
This is the kind of “symmetry-breaking” that invalidates the use of mean field theories applied to complex systems. It is not genes that are the “immortal” competing characteristics of a system that evolves as Dawkins suggests, rather it is these higher-level asymmetries that pop out when things mix in aggregate. THIS is what nature selects on. THIS is how nature “chooses” what survives.
Bringing this back to our conversation on defining things, it is not the list of attributes of a single organism that will dictate how well it adapts, it’s more to do with how well organisms blend together to create aggregate patterns that are commensurate with nature.
Nature will select what works, and what works is not predetermined at the individualistic level. Look no further than the immense variation we see in all areas of life as it pertains to success and this should be obvious.
As I discuss regularly, the most invariant parts of any situation are always the ones that exist at higher levels. The emergent patterns that only exist in aggregate. It is these properties that remain fixed, while the swirling mess of internal details come and go. Nature must use these unmoving parts to solve its host of complex challenges. It doesn’t make mechanistic sense that selection would act primarily on the low-level details of an individual. The truly persistent parts of any system are the ones that exist in aggregate.
We can’t help but define a thing by its characteristics. We can’t resist assigning value to people and things by virtue of their descriptions. It’s how we organize information and develop frameworks for taking action in the world.
But when it comes to nontrivial situations such individualist thinking increases the probability of producing bad outcomes. The culture of Western experimentation brought about far more innovation than competing nations who invented the actual pieces. A focus on the high-level command of soldiers beat out warrior nations. The rapid replacement of Allied soldiers won out over Japan’s inability to restore their highly trained fighters. And the exaggerated focus on powerful individual weapons like nuclear bombs proved detrimental in a war where ground combat is all that mattered.
We usually think of the characteristics associated with a piece of technology or person as defining the parameters of what’s possible, leaving everything else to some mysterious human instinct. But I argue that the parameters of what’s possible are not located within an individual thing or person, but instead reside at the top level, where many things come together.
What constitutes useful knowledge is what exists in aggregate. This is a very different narrative than what mainstream reductive science teaches us. To peel back the layers is not to reveal something more profound, for the most timeless truths are patterns that keep repeating; and invariance occurs at the top.
Emergent characteristic are so decisive that they can even be the target. The German bombing campaign against the United Kingdom between 1940 and 1941 included dropping bombs on civilians. The idea was to destroy a country’s morale. Morale is the capacity of a group to maintain belief in a goal in the face of opposition or hardship. It is something that exists in aggregate. The Germans knew that morale was perhaps the greatest target of all.
Of course we all know the history. Britain’s morale only grew stronger after The Blitz. Another testament to the fact that morale is emergent. Again, the most invariant parts of any situation are always the ones that exist at higher levels.
The beautiful thing about all of this is that being successful in nontrivial situations doesn’t require some deep internal knowledge of the systems we are meant to engineer, or the situations we are meant to navigate. It is about letting nature work the way it does, and only paying attention to the high-level patterns that emerge over time.
When we truly comprehend how to operate effectively in our complex world we realize that there are very few levers worth pulling. This is because there are always far less aggregate parameters than low-level parameters.
As I like to say, complexity is simpler than simplicity.