Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies


Coevolutionary understanding: a larger system

Posted on February 28, 2008 by daviding

The word coevolving as the domain name for this blog is based mostly on the idea that business organizations and information technologies continually develop in inter-related ways. From a systems perspective, it’s worth checking the how the term is used more formally. To check on alignment, I obtained a copy of News That Stayed News 1974-1984: Ten Year of Coevolution Quarterly1. In the introduction to the first article of the volume, Stewart Brand wrote:

CoEvolution got its title and its bent partly because I was bit early on by a series of biologists — Ed Ricketts (via John Steinbeck’s Monterey books), Aldous Huxley (in print and in person), Paul Ehrlich, and last and deepest, Gregory Bateson. Assistant Professor Ehrlich supervised my tarantula “research” at Stanford in 1959, when the Stanford Biology Department was still mostly molecular biology and an ecologist was hard to find. (In truth, they’re still hard to find, amid the proliferation of “ecologists.”) [….]

This latest paper of Ehrlich’s* is still one of the best scans of coevolution as idea and as natural history that I’ve seen, and it sounds like Paul talking, that is, like Walter Winchell. How better to start this book than with its founding metaphor, from Issue 1 (Spring 1974) 2

In the paper presented in a 1968 colloquium, Ehrlich described contrasting approaches to ecology:

In recent years ecologists have been focusing more and more attention on the properties of communities of organisms. There has been a renaissance of what we used to call “synecology,” and several new schools of community ecologists have emerged. One school has focused it interest on the concepts of niche, species diversity, and related topics. [….] Another approach to communities which have gained prominence recently is a holistic-mathematical approach. […]

This colloquium deals with another new way of looking at the properties of communities. This way consists of examining the patterns of interaction not in an entire community but between two groups of organisms, groups which do not exchange genetic information, but which do have a close and evident ecological relationship. Peter Raven and the author called the evolutionary interactions within such systems “coevolution” in order to emphasize the reciprocal nature of the relationship.3

The paper then describes coevolution in five systems:

  • plants and herbivores;
  • predator-prey;
  • parasite-host;
  • mimicry; and
  • plants and pollinators.

The focus for Ehrlich is in living systems, excluding the non-living. However, in the conclusion of the paper, Ehrlich provides a motivation for taking an approach based on coevolution.

Taking a coevolutionary approach to problems of community biology lessens the chance of being seduced into “explanations,” such as “competition from X limited the distribution of Y.” If the limitation of X is due to Y, then the two usually make up a coevolutionary system. In order to understand the limitation, it is necessary to understand the system.4

Moving from the context of biology to a context of business, I won’t dispute the fact that machines are non-living. However, unlike machines of the industrial age completely constructed of physical parts, machines in the 21st century are programmed with software. The programming of the machine can be updated, so the behaviour of that non-living thing can change over time. Software can be modified either on demand (e.g. with intervention within an appointed time or period) or in the background (e.g. automatically via an Internet connection).

The perspective of a sociologist is that organizations change, and technologies infrastructures evolve less rapidly. The perspective of an information technologist is that software changes, and organizations evolve less rapidly. The most interesting cases today see both business organizations and information technologies changing rapidly. The coevolutionary perspective aims to understand the larger system that includes both.


1News That Stayed News: Ten Years of CoEvolution Quarterly, Art Kleiner and Stewart Brand (editors), North Point Press, 1986.2Stewart Brand, Introduction to Paul R. Ehrlich, “CoEvolution and the Biology of Communities”, News That Stayed News, p. 3.

*This paper was the introduction to a symposium at the twenty-ninth Annual Biology Colloquium, 1968, published in Biochemical Coevolution, 1970, Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, Or., Kent L. Chambers, ed. [original embedded footnote]

3Ehrlich, pp. 3-4

4Ehrlich, p. 9.

1 to “Coevolutionary understanding: a larger system”

  1. agel says:

    I read the articles contained within “News that stayed news” a while ago and was fascinated by the difference between bilogical coevolution and the technological one as we seem to cross the border in this time that even technological inventions take on more and more biological features such as nanobots and AI.



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