Today, a lost bird raises questions about survival.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I've been co-authoring some
stuff on the future of information systems. That's
a tricky subject. Information is so close to our
jugular vein. We compete for information.
My co-author and I began by talking about Darwinian
competition among information systems -- like
letters versus e-mail. But systems don't compete,
people do. And how do people work on computer
networks? Actually, they cooperate more than they
compete. Maybe our pervasive ideas about
competition mislead us.
Last week my coauthor made that point accidentally.
I dropped copy off at her office and found her
feeding a baby bird in a cat cage. "He turned up in
the back yard," she said. "I want him to get to
where he can fly." Next day the bird was back. I
found myself stroking it while we worked.
Now here's the catch: Was this bird a robin? Was he
some bluebird of happiness? No, he was in fact -- a
For many people, a starling is the quintessential
junk bird. We compete with them. They steal our
farm produce. My friend's act of mercy seemed to
violate our own Darwinian equation.
But now biologists are asking if pure Darwinian
competition isn't too simple a mechanism. They're
finding more and more dimensions of cooperation in
the diversity of species. For example, the hated
starling seems to be paying in full for whatever
grain he steals -- by controlling insects.
Even that consummate Darwinian, Stephen Jay Gould,
mutes his argument for competitive individualism.
He quotes Rabbi Hillel: "If I am not for myself,
then who shall be for me. But if I am for myself
alone, then what am I?"
So I asked this woman about her unfinished bird --
this creature whose only competitive edge was its
unreasonable ability to waken a transcendent
respect for life. She shot back, "We kill ourselves
with bottom-line thinking." And so we do:
Look at competition with Japan. Most of our
companies aim for profit. They're wed to quarterly
balance sheets. Japan sets 20-year goals. Their
industry and government begin with the real goal of
engineering. That goal is a well-functioning
product. They figure if they get that right, profit
You and I also have to function well if we expect
to survive. So we ask: Do we function well -- do we
have any reason to survive -- if we can't call up
an unreasonable act of mercy?
Gould weighs self-serving individualism against
Hillel's question, "What're we worth if we serve
only ourselves?" In the end, he concludes that's
not outdated liberalism at all. We're beginning to
see -- that it's very sound biology.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gould, S.J., The Individual in Darwin's
World. Edinburgh: Waverly Graphics Ltd., 1990.
This episode echos an issue that biologists are
currently struggling with. It is the conflict
between Darwinian individualism and the notion that
the world is a large system that profits from
cooperation among its members. For more on this
essential idea, see Episodes 699, 700,
706, 720, 861,
947, and 1036.)
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John
H. Lienhard. All Rights Reserved.
University Libraries, University of
Houston, Houston, TX 77204-2091.
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