Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Almost All Innovations Are Lethal

This one is really pretty simple. It is a first principle of evolutionary biology – wherein it is expressed as “almost all mutations are lethal,” a fairly obvious truism when it comes to incredibly complex living organisms that manifest a truly spooky degree of thoughtful robust design. It has direct, immediate and palpable – i.e., painful – application in almost every domain of human activity. It goes like this: take something that is working pretty much, hobbling along from one day to the next without dying altogether, and then change it so as to make it work better according to your bright stupid idea; how likely is it that you are going to succeed in your project of reform?

Not likely, right? I mean, really: how likely is it that you will have thought of just what needs to be done with a procedure that has been cooking along for decades without your help? A procedure that has hobbled along from one day to the next for say 30 years is probably doing OK, mutatis mutandis. Mess with it, and you are likely to do no more than mess with it, at the very best.

So, in messing with it, you are almost certainly wasting your time.

So, hello, stop messing with things.

Anyone who has worked with his hands will instantly see that the likelihood of improvement on a process that is pretty much working OK is minuscule, whereas the likelihood that the process will be deeply messed up by any experimentation is extremely high. This is why software development proceeds in sandboxes completely insulated from the environments of the working applications it aims to improve. Ditto for the trades, for engineering, and indeed for philosophy in the broadest sense of that term (as denoting, i.e., all the sciences, including theology) – albeit, not so often for practical religion, arts, education, politics, and the other “softer” “disciplines,” alas; in which, the general attitude seems to be, “throw it out there and see what works.” In the softer disciplines, wherein perverse consequences are not so immediate, painful and direct as in, say, plumbing, innovation is the sine qua non, the main thing that garners attention, and money, and unfortunately the only reason to pay attention to their exponents. So is it that the perverse innovations of the softer “disciplines” enjoy a greater half-life, and so can do more damage before their perversity is generally acknowledged.

Thus the key question, that all reformers should ask is, this: what could possibly go wrong? The sandboxes of IT developers are a way to ask that question, and then answer it, without ruining everything irrecoverably.

Does any legislative body employ such sandboxes? Does any legislative body run simulations of proposed changes to policy algorithms? It is to laugh. No; those idiots just forge ahead, blithely ignorant of the consequences of their blind acts. God help us, all.

In practice, it is not really too difficult to figure out whether a proposed reform is likely to help. You don’t need a simulation program encoded in millions of instructions. For almost all proposals, all you need is the gedanken policy test. The results of the test are almost always immediately obvious, and rule out almost all proposed reforms – including the misguided reforms of earlier days.

Ergo, tradition. Mess with it at your peril. Because why? Because *it is the thing that has delivered you to your present moment.* It is *all you have to go on.* Ruin it, and in all likelihood you shall ruin yourself.

8 thoughts on “Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Almost All Innovations Are Lethal

  1. Hogwash.
    The kind of “reformers” you are talking about here are not stupid people inadvertently making mistakes, they are evil people deliberately causing harm. In most cases they have been remarkably honest about their intentions, too.
    Through known human history there are plenty of examples of changes, both technological and societal, which have been by and large successful improvements. The thing is, those changes have always been motivated by good intentions.
    The problem now is that all people in power in the Western world are evil. It’s that simple.
    Making a better system – such as what you call tradition – isn’t going to work. So long as evil people remain in power, things will continue getting worse.

    When it comes to worldly matters there are basically two options now, as I see it:
    1) do what it takes to remove evil people from power
    2) accept that Western civilization is dead and try to preserve the seeds of it for a better time to
    Neither option is of course guaranteed any success, though the first option is certainly guaranteed to be destructive (evil people do not relinquish power willingly).

    At any rate as Christians our callings are faith, hope and love, and our ultimate end is not of this world. Salvation only comes through Jesus Christ and Christ did not pray for this world (John 17:9). Ergo, this world is already destined to burn, regardless of what we say or do. We should do what good we can where we are, but our hopes should not be centered here.

    • I’ll see your hogwash and raise you a fiddlestick.

      We don’t disagree, despite your impression to the contrary. I wasn’t talking about the wreckers you imagine I was talking about. In fact, I mentioned no particular reformers at all. I was talking about reforms as such: policy innovations. Most of them do not work as advertised, no matter what the intentions of their promoters. Nothing in your comment controverts that notion.

      From the fact that most innovations are lethal it does not follow that there have been or can be no improvements, and so I never suggested any such thing. Lots of things, obviously, are better than they once were. It would be idiotic to suggest otherwise, and I did not. Indeed, traditional culture is a basket of innovations that did work.

      With your other points, and apart from these clarifications, I have no disagreement.

      • I would agree that – in a sane society – the inclination should be conservative, in the proper rather than modern sense of that word. Since none of us really understand much about the causalities of human history there is not much reason to think we will know the consequences of any adopted change.
        But “stop messing with things” can easily become an extremely destructive dictum. The later period of the Qing dynasty in China might be an example. Not allowing for change when conditions change can be every bit as harmful as ill-considered reforms, and man-made tradition can only be a partial guide to new situations.
        A healthy society simply needs the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and in this process I do believe intentions are paramount. Only a reasonably honest ruling class that actually wants things to work can make changes and then continually correct course as the consequences emerge.

        An example: What contributed more to the fall of the Roman republic? The military reforms of Marius which eventually led to generals commanding functionally private armies, or the violent resistance of the senatorial class to any meaningful social reform in the second and first century BC? Too much or too little change? I have no clue how to answer that question (I think an argument can be made for both), but it does seem that if Rome had not allowed any military reform it might well have been physically annihilated in the Cimbrian war. An acute change was surely necessary for survival even if it turned out to have unforeseen consequences in the long run. And note that even after the fall of the republic, Rome continued to have many reasonably virtuous men in the ruling class, men who actually wanted Rome to survive and prosper. Because of that, Rome actually did manage to survive and more or less prosper for centuries afterwards. A viable society can make a drastic change when necessary, face the inevitable unforeseen consequences and adapt well enough to muddle through – which is probably the best one can hope for.

        Whether tradition or reforms has been most responsible for delivering us to our present moment, I am unsure, but I would not consider it a point in favour of either…
        At the current moment, I do believe that SOME sort of major change is inevitable, and even if it should be a change for the better it necessarily must involve a break with quite a few elements of tradition. The past two centuries of liberal democracy for a start.

      • Again, I don’t quite see where we disagree. I did not suggest that there should *never* be reforms. That would be silly. Some reforms are in the nature of things always going to be apposite, because society cannot ever finish adjusting itself to its circumstances. My suggestion is rather only that reforms should be undertaken warily, and carefully; which seems a caveat rather trivial, when it comes down to it; so, rather anodyne.

        Democracies rarely undertake reforms carefully. Viz., Obamacare. Democracies have a harder time doing the right thing than other political orders.

        It seems to me too that some sort of fundamental turbulence looms now before us. Its passage is likely to be nasty. We may hope that we shall issue from the rapids we now seem to be entering, into calmer waters. But it may of course be that we shall go from a great rapid into a great falls.

  2. Descartes nailed the problem here when he noted that there was a professional advantage in academia in proposing novel explanations and ideas, regardless of their merit. The same holds true in the market, where the latest peddler who promises miracle cures and fantastic results will attract a lot of interest — and buyers. We see the same among elected officials. Candidates run on how they’re “going to bring meaningful change to Washington,” blah, blah, blah. The masses are always looking for something new, sweet, and cheap, and they’ll patronize anyone who will sell it to them.

    • Yes. The same goes in particular for music, architecture, and the arts, and especially fashion. Wearing these outfits on the street might be literally lethal, given the intense revulsion they would provoke in normal men:

      • Kristor, I thought that you had to have a press pass in order to take pictures of high-ranking federal officials in their place of employment. You, sir, are a man of many talents.

      • This is the way they dress when they are allowing themselves to be photographed so that their images can be propagated to their subjects. Imagine how they dress in private!

        Actually, come to think of it, in private they probably dress in jeans and t shirts, like everyone else.

        It is only when they want to ridicule and so subjugate us that they – or their vassals – appear in these outlandish, absurd costumes. I find it odd, extremely odd, that they cannot see how in so doing they ensure their own ridicule in the eyes of their subjects.

        What’s really shocking about these images is the thought of how much creative talent, hard won skill, and sheer work must have gone into their preparation. Some few people at least must have thought their work in that preparation was somehow important. Each of those shots above is a result of hundreds of hours of work, thought, care and attention.


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