I’m re-posting this from The Whole Earth Catalog archives because I think it’s an excellent summary of the core principles needed to evaluate natural systems. This also speaks to the foundation of much of my own thought about human social, cultural, and technological evolution.
The Nine Laws of God
By Kevin Kelly * Whole Earth Catalog * Spring 1994
Distribute being. The spirit of a beehive, the behavior of an economy, the thinking of a supercomputer, and the life in me are distributed over a multitude of smaller units (which themselves may be distributed). When the sum of the parts can add up to more than the parts, then that extra being (that something from nothing) is distributed among the parts. Whenever we find something from nothing, we find it arising from a field of many interatting smaller pieces. All the mysteries we find most interesting – life, intelligence, evolution – are found in the soil of large distributed systems.
Control from the bottom up. When everything is connected to everything in a distributed network, everything happens at once. When everything happens at once, wide and fast-moving problems simply route around any central authority. Therefore, overall governance must arise from the most humble interdependent acts done locally in parallel, and not from a central command. A mob can steer itself, and in the territory of rapid, massive, and heterogeneous change, only a mob can steer. To get something from nothing, control must rest at the bottom within simplicity.
Sow increasing returns. Each time you use an idea, a language, or a skill, you strengthen it, reinforce it, and make it more likely to be used again.
Grow by chunking. The only way to make a complex system that works is to begin with a simple system that works. Attempts to instantly install highly complex organization – such as intelligence, or a market economy – without growing it, inevitably lead to failure.
Maximize the fringes. In heterogeneity is creation of the world. A uniform entity must adapt to the world by occasional monumental revolutions, one of which is sure to kill it. A diverse heterogeneous entity, on the other hand, can adapt to the world in a thousand daily mini-revolutions, staying in a state of permanent, but never fatal, churning.
Honor your errors. A trick will only work for a while, until everyone else is doing it. To advance from the ordinary requires a new game, or a new territory. But the process of going outside the conventional method, game, or territory is indistinguishable from error. Even the most brilliant act of human genius, in the final analysis, is an act of trial and error.
Pursue no optima, but multiple goals. Simple machines can be efficient, but complex adaptive machinery cannot be. A complicated structure has many masters and none of them can be served exclusively. Rather than striving for optimization of any function, a large system can only survive by “satisficing” (making “good enough”) a multitude of functions.
Seek persistent disequilibrium. Neither constancy nor relentless change will support a creation. A good creation, like good jazz, must balance the stable formula with frequent offbeat, out-of-kilter notes. Equilibrium is death. Yet unless a system stabilizes to an equilibrium point, it is no better than an explosion, and just as soon dead. A Nothing, then, is both equilibrium and disequilibrium.
Change changes itself. Change can be structured. This is what large complex systems do: they coordinate change. When extremely large systems are built up out of complicated systems, then each system begins to influence and ultimately change the organizations of other systems. That is, if the rules of the game are composed from the bottom up, then it is likely that interacting forces at the bottom level will alter the rules of the game as it progresses. Over time, the rules for change get changed themselves.
Evolution – as used in everyday speech – is about how an entity is changed over time. Deeper evolution – as it might be formally defined – is about how the rules for changing entities over time changes over time. To get the most out of nothing, you need to have self-changing rules.
These nine principles underpin the awesome workings of prairies, flamingoes, and cedar forests, eyeballs, natural selection in geological time, and the unfolding of a baby elephant from a tiny seed of elephant sperm and egg.
These same principles of bio-logic are now being implanted in computer chips, electronic communication networks, robot modules, pharmaceutical searches, software design, and corporate management, in order that these artificial systems may overcome their own complexity.
When the tecfinos is enlivened by bios, we get artifacts that can adapt, learn, and evolve. When our technology adapts, learns, and evolves, then we will have a neobiological civilization.