Evolution Has No Goal

February 27, 2024 • #

There’s a common misconception that evolution is “seeking” fitness — that there’s some inherent motivation in the process pushing toward a particular objective.

But evolution is an undirected process of mutation, testing, and accidental discovery of fitness. Within the genes of an organism, there is no memory acquiring feedback from these experimental genetic guesses. Genetic drift, mutation, and natural selection are evolution’s conjecture and criticism. But the criticism feedback loop doesn’t close in a single generation.

Evolution’s feedback loop is survival. If a gene survives, it will replicate. If it doesn’t, that mutation is “found” not to have worked (though the genes themselves never receive the message directly)1. A gene’s only goal (if one can call it that) is to copy itself. The environment provides the pressure to select one mutation over another. But the environment has no goal either. It merely is, and genes have evolved to continually mutate, then poke and prod at the environment to perpetuate their replication.

DNA replication

Though from the Big Bang to now it appears evolution is seeking ever-higher forms of intelligence, this too is deceiving. There are no steps on a ladder, no “global maximum” on offer. Further complexity often confers an advantage, but not always. This fact fools us into believing evolution is in search of higher-order complexity on purpose.

We’re fooled into believing there’s an objective because humans have a tendency to seek patterns. Because we ourselves can conceptualize abstract goals and proceed incrementally on a planned path, we imbue evolution with a similar characteristic.

Evolution is a soup of primitive ingredients being continually mixed, matched, and tested against the chaotic environment around it. When thought of as its own form of knowledge creation distinct from the way human-created knowledge works, it’s a helpful mental model for thinking about all forms of complex adaptive systems.

  1. The theory that genes receive feedback within a single generation is called “Lamarckism”, a fascinating subject in itself. A story of humans projecting our own means of knowledge creation on evolution’s purely undirected, emergent process. 

The Two Enlightenments

February 20, 2024 • #

We learn about “The Enlightenment” as a singular entity, a historical age associated with rationality, scientific inquiry, humanism, and liberty. The Enlightenment and scientific revolution were defining moments that spawned an unprecedented period of progress and human flourishing. But in his book The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch adds useful texture for better understanding the motivations of the Enlightenment’s contributors.

He divides the movement into two broad forms: the “British” and the “Continental”.

Both branches agree on the core principles of rationality, progress, and freedom. Where they disagree is on how to achieve these goals. They pursue the same ends, but disagree on the means. The British model builds on the concept of fallibilism: progress happens through conjecture, empirical evidence, and falsification. The Continental relies on pure reason, and our theoretical ability to find final, objective truth. Thinkers like Kant, Rousseau, and Voltaire best fit in the Continental camp. The likes of John Locke, Edmund Burke, Karl Popper, and Adam Smith in the British.

Here’s a summary of qualities that differentiate these two approaches to pursuing human progress:

Continental Enlightenment British Enlightenment
Utopianism Fallibilism
Society can be perfected Society can only be indefinitely improved
Problems are soluble, NOT inevitable Problems are soluble, AND inevitable
Perfect the state through design Improve the state through gradual evolution
Top-down Bottom-up
Comprehensive reform of institutions Messy, improvement of imperfect forms

Deutsch himself favors the British form. As with issues of contemporary politics and philosophy, it’s important to understand not only the goals a particular philosophy seeks, but how it proposes we go about doing so.

Screenshot Essays

February 14, 2024 • #

A recent tweet from David Perell prompted me to give this concept a shot.

I’ve done 3 screenshot essays in the past week, and it’s invigorating. I struggle going from messy, one-liner level notes, or jumbles of bullet points into longer form pieces. The screenshot format is fun because ideas don’t have to be big to contain enough substance to fit a screenshot. In fact, the more compact, the better. 200-250 words.

What I’ve noticed so far is it makes it much easier to remove the friction to expand on tiny seeds from my notebook. For example, right now I have a single bullet in my notes that says “Build for yourself”. If I wanted to write 1,000 words on that idea, it sounds like a big hill. I don’t even know where to start. But 200 words? I could mash that out. Then in the process of the 200ish words, the seed develops into a seedling. There’s some forward progress that kickstarts the creative engine. My last Res Extensa essay began as an expansion on a fleeting clipped quote.

There’s a lower barrier to producing them, easy to consume, easy to share, and importantly, easy to produce consistently.

The Cynefin Framework

November 30, 2023 • #

I recently discovered the Cynefin framework, a mental model for situational decision making created by IBM’s Dave Snowden over 20 years ago. Now I’m a big “Business Process System” skeptic these days. I’ve seen way too many of them wildly overfit, seen them become bibles for teams where it seems like we’re working for the process, and not the other way around. Cynefin seems useful because it’s a course mental model more than some sort of Agile-like totalizing system for how to get work done. It intends to help you classify problems and orient yourself versus telling you what to do.

In the framework, there are 4 domains, each with their own definition and suggested order of operations to how to react to a given situation in each domain.

Domain Description Response
Clear Tightly constrained, no degrees of freedom Sense, categorize, respond
Complicated Governing constraints, tightly coupled Sense, analyze, respond
Complex Enabling constraints, loosely coupled Probe, sense, respond
Chaotic Lacking constraints, de-coupled Act, sense, respond

So what it demonstrates is things like the difference between something being complicated vs. complex. Sounds like a subtle difference, but there are important distinctions which prompt conflicting reactions in how to proceed. A complicated problem has lots of moving parts, but we know what all the parts are and what they do, just need to put ‘em together. A complex problem involves many interrelationships between factors, along with Rumsfelds famous “unknown unknowns” — we don’t even know what all the involved pieces look like yet. Discovery is required.

Cynefin framework

Here are a few simplified examples to conceptualize the distinctions between domains:


Restocking office supplies. This is a straightforward task where the need and the solution are clear, and best practices like inventory management can be directly applied. Just go do it.


Building a simple todo-list app. There are countless examples to follow, pre-existing primitives and libraries to use, and a known set of basic functions. The developer just needs some programming know-how, and a list of functions we want the app to perform.


Addressing a city’s traffic congestion problem. This involves tons of variables and unpredictable human behaviors. Solutions might emerge from trialing different traffic management approaches, analyzing impacts, and iteratively refining strategies. The problem in truly complex spaces is like squeezing a balloon — you squeeze one end and the air just moves elsewhere. “Nailing jell-o to a wall” comes to mind.


Natural disasters. No clear cause and you’re taken by surprise. And because of the public safety danger, you have no time for conference room analysis and whiteboarding sessions. Immediate, decisive action is required to establish stability, followed by strategies to move the situation into a more manageable domain. “You go to war with the army you have.”

Madvillainy's Secret Ingredient

October 27, 2023 • #

Brandon from Digging the Greats breaks down Madlib and MF DOOM’s epic collaboration:

I remember in this extended interview with MF DOOM him talking about the lackadaisical approach to making the record. Madlib would make a beat upstairs, give it to DOOM, and he’d spend time separately writing and recording vocals. Slowly and gradually building up a catalog of ridiculously inventive music.

Subscribe here to receive my newsletter, Res Extensa, a companion to the blog including long form posts on my interests in product design, history, systems thinking, and more.