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Why We’re Doomed: Our Delusional Faith in Incremental Change

Why We’re Doomed: Our Delusional Faith in Incremental Change

Better not to risk any radical evolution that might fail, and so failure is thus assured.

When times are good, modest reforms are all that’s needed to maintain the ship’s course. By “good times,” I mean eras of rising prosperity which generate bigger budgets, profits, tax revenues, paychecks, etc., eras characterized by high levels of stability and predictability.

Since stability has been the norm for 75 years, institutions and conventional thinking have both been optimized for incremental change. This is an analog of natural selection in Nature: when the organism’s environment is stable, there’s little pressure to favor random mutations, as these can be risky.

Why risk big changes when everything’s working fine as is?

Absent any big changes in their environment, organisms’ genetic programming remains stable. Unlike natural selection’s process of generating random mutations and testing their efficacy and advantages over the existing programming, human organizations quickly habituate to stable eras by institutionalizing incremental changes as the only available process for reform / change.

Radical reforms are not just frowned on as 1) unneccesary and 2) needlessly risky, there is no institutionalized process to propose, test and adopt radical changes because there is no need for such a process.

Nature has such a process: punctuated equilibrium. When faced with a rapidly changing environment, organisms face intense evolutionary pressure to adapt or die. Mutations which confer a significant advantage in the new environment become part of the species’ genetic programming as those with the adaptation bear offspring who carry the advantageous adaptation. Those without the advantageous adaptation die and those with the adaptation thrive and multiply.

Once the environment stabilizes in “the new normal,” the evolutionary pressure lets up and the species returns to the stability of relatively few changes in its genetic programming.

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