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In order to improve something, a certain number of elements must be present.

I’m speaking quite generally of the gradual, incremental improvement of things, but many of these same elements are present in Darwinian evolution, as evidenced in biological organisms. I think they’re also present in what we sometimes call cultural evolution.

1. Type of Thing

In order to improve something, you need to have some type of thing to improve. The thing could be a primate, a society, a note-taking application, a business, a business process, an airplane or a laptop computer. A type of thing will always have some function.

2. Function

A Type of Thing must have some function. That is, it must use some inputs and produce some output. Some outputs we can identify as useful (in some sense), while others may be categorized as waste, and others may be damaging or destructive. Often, amounts of these inputs and outputs can be quantified. And we generally want to minimize the inputs required, minimize the waste and damaging output, and maximize the useful output, in order to improve a type of thing.

3. Type Design

In order to improve a type of thing, one must have a means of reliably producing such a thing, and this usually means having the instructions needed to produce or replicate it. For biological organisms, this is the genome. For a software application, it is the source code. For an airplane, this is a large collection of design documents, such as drawings and parts lists (or 3-D models). For a nation, it is a constitution.

Note that a type design must always be composed using a known type design language.

4. Type Design Language

In order to make use of a type design, there must first exist some language(s) that can be used to reliably and repeatably interpret such a set of instructions.

5. Change

In order to improve a type of thing, we must make some change to it.

This will generally consist of some change to the type design of the thing.

Note that a change can be accidental and made at random (as is the case with biological evolution), or it can be made with some forethought and anticipation of the consequences (as is often the case with human design).

6. Retention

Change can bring both opportunities and danger, and so our brains are finely attuned to pay special attention to things that are changing.

We also associate change with progress, and so it is easy for us to think of change as the most important element of improvement.

But this impression is deceptive. Some degree of change is essential, but the amount of change that is introduced is generally dwarfed by the numbers of characteristics that are retained without modification.

In order for things to continue to fulfill their functions, design attributes that work must largely be retained. Changing everything at once is generally a recipe for disaster. As in classic scientific experimentation, it’s best to keep all of the variables constant except one.

7. Cooperation

Some types of things often work out cooperative arrangements with other types of things, for their mutual benefit. The output from one type of thing, for example, might provide the input to some other type.

8. Composition

One form of cooperation happens when a larger type of thing is composed of a number of smaller types of things. These could be atoms within a molecule, cells in an organism, states in a nation, departments in a company, or individual humans within a team.

In all of these cases, some function is achieved or improved through joint cooperative composition.

9. Testing

In order to determine whether a change has produced an actual improvement, some form of testing must be employed.

Such testing can be performed by measuring the performance of the starting type design and then comparing those numbers to comparable measurements from the changed design.

In a biological environment, such testing is performed “in the field,” with outcomes generally determined by increasing vs. decreasing quantities of the new type design vs. the old type design, as they compete with one another for scarce resources.

In free markets, such testing is often performed through competition between competing type designs.

In sports, such testing is ultimately performed on the playing field, as individuals and groups compete with each other.

In science and engineering, such testing is often performed in a lab.

10. Modification of Type Design

If the testing has confirmed that the change has resulted in functional improvements, then the type design used to produce additional units will generally be modified to incorporate the change.

Next: The Four-Fold Way