RSS & Punctuated Equilibrium

All this talk about RSS & the social media ecosystem evolving now that Google Reader is end-of-life has me thinking of Niles Eldredge & Stephen Jay Gould’s 1972 groundbreaking work, Punctuated Equilibrium.

Wikipedia explains it better than I can:

Punctuated equilibrium (also called punctuated equilibria) is a hypothesis in evolutionary biology which proposes that most species will exhibit little net evolutionary change for most of their geological history, remaining in an extended state called stasis. When significant evolutionary change occurs, the hypothesis proposes that it is generally restricted to rare and geologically rapid events of branching speciation called cladogenesis. Cladogenesis is the process by which a species splits into two distinct species, rather than one species gradually transforming into another.

Punctuated equilibrium is commonly contrasted against the theory of phyletic gradualism, which states that evolution generally occurs uniformly and by the steady and gradual transformation of whole lineages (called anagenesis). In this view, evolution is seen as generally smooth and continuous. In 1972, paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould published a landmark paper developing this theory and called it punctuated equilibria. Their paper built upon Ernst Mayr’s theory of geographic speciationI. Michael Lerner‘s theories of developmental and genetic homeostasis, as well as their own empirical research. Eldredge and Gould proposed that the degree of gradualism commonly attributed to Charles Darwin is virtually nonexistent in the fossil record, and that stasis dominates the history of most fossil species.

Technology seems to follow the same patterns. Some low-grade gradualism that adds relatively minor features to existing products, but it’s largely stasis until the occasional disruptive technology comes along. Even Gould’s statement about transitional forms has some parallels:

“Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again…as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups.”

Hybrid drives & disk arrays, network switches that do both OpenFlow and traditional switching, the Apple Lisa, the Palm Pilot… lots of examples of transitional forms out there between product lines. With RSS it’s probably best described as a particularly large extinction event, but an event nonetheless. I do feel punctuated.

My goal now, of course, is to try avoiding the transitional forms.

Comments on this entry are closed.