Design vs Darwinism and “skin in the game”

Every boat is copied from another boat. . . . Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages and thus never be copied. . . . One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying others.

– Alain, A French philosopher, writing about fishing boats in Brittany

This is one famous example of non-biological Darwinism (Darwinism of non-organic organisms).

But here’s what’s especially interesting: some people may object that the creation of boats does not always follow that pattern; many ship designs are engineered in a top-down manner.

For example, the invention of steam-powered and ironclad boats led to revolutions in ship design. The design of the USS Monitor was considered so unusual that many doubted that it would even float. Despite this, it ended up hugely successful and influential.

You can argue that the gradualistic process started back up following such discoveries. Many industries are like this: horizontally-long slopes of innovation (Darwinism), punctuated by sudden spikes of innovation (top-down design).

But top-down designs are themselves eventually subject to Darwinistic pressures. Some ideas travel a far distance (good or bad) before they are accepted or rejected. As much as you can travel a far distance in the direction towards good change, it is far more common to get carried away and loose touch with reality by traveling far off-base.

From a Darwinistic perspective, the above represents the amount of “variation,” and testing against the real world is “selection.” The Darwinistic process serves as a reality-checker. It will tell you if your idea actually works, as opposed to only looking good on paper.

When we say that something is “too theoretical,” we mean it wouldn’t survive interaction with the real world. Some fields are “inbred;” ideas based on ideas based on ideas, none of which have been reality-tested, and each is more disconnected from reality than the last.

The beauty of the scientific process is that it has reality-testing built into it via experiment. Many of the “social sciences,” by contrast, are not scientific, because they have no reliable method of falsification.

This is why people distrust “experts” who pay no price for being wrong. The general population does trust experts, but their experts (mechanics, electricians, sailors, engineers, etc.) as opposed to the experts appointed for them by the rich and politically powerful.

The problem with the latter is a perceived lack of “skin in the game,” which is a concept famously explored by Taleb’s book of the same name. Skin in the game essentially means that you experience positive incentive (you are rewarded for your successes) and more importantly, negative incentives (you are punished for your mistakes).

For example, a sailor experiences more skin in the game than the ship designer. If the ship is badly designed, the designer will loose his job, while the sailor will be at the bottom of the ocean. We can rectify this asymmetry with rules, like how Hammurabi would put architects to death if their buildings collapsed.

Skin in the game is exposure to the selection mechanism of Darwinism. It destroys “BS-artists” who get by on affectation alone. They dislike Darwinism, because it destroys the safe bubble in which their ideas are unchallenged.

Darwinism can actually increase equality, by killing the weak. When only green-skinned rodents are camouflaged in the jungle, non-green rodents will die, technically reducing diversity among rodents. Diversity is good – as long as you have a selection mechanism to eventually leave only the best. That sounds cruel, but those are the only two sustainable choices: killing the weak, or top-down control. It’s nonsensical to support diversity but not competition.

There is a fundamental trade-off between top-down design vs. mimetic gradualism (what I’ve been calling “Darwinism”). The advantage of design is that it allows you to overcome the adaptive valley. For more on that, start reading this, starting from “plan, don’t roam.” TL;DR: for an individual to achieve extraordinary success, they need to break radically from established trends.

Meanwhile, the advantage of the gradualist process is that it guarantees contact with truth, and it is extremely good at optimizing/fine-tuning inordinately complex systems. The best of both worlds? Design with skin in the game.