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What are the underlying factors that make a toolbox function well in many different situations? Neil Shubin in his Hitchcock Lecture here at UC Berkeley, California brought up his specific development of a special case toolbox, that of 375 million year old bones, in his lecture about the arrival of the Tiktaalik roseae. That creature which came out of the water long ago and brought with it the foundation of the bone structures and general operating procedures of those bone structures which were the basis of nearly all successful larger creatures which have ever lived above the water.

My question was, have these same or similar types of toolbox functions developed in different types of environmental situations? Shubin brought up for a moment a parallel case to what I am thinking about in the form of the General Motors Corporation, Hummer all terrain vehicle. This was an easy comparison for him because the basic similarity of the function of a Tiktaalik and a Hummer, which is movement of a large self powered device over the Earths dry land. Both of these very different things had predecessors of which these particular items were derivative embodiments. Neither were very new at their beginnings but were just adaptations of already long existing and successful similar predecessors but they were new in the sense that they were exploring previously unexplored but preexisting niche possibilities. Some scientists like to use the rather clumsy idea of pre-adaptation but acknowledge that it is clearly a misleading and wrong headed term for a previous adaptation that just happens to confer advantages in some later but different situation. The idea is wrong because it implies foreknowledge about some future need and even humans with their massive brains have trouble with predicting the future. Natural Selection has absolutely no predictive power it just tinkers with what is available and when lucky has surviving life forms.

It seems obvious that there must be these kinds of toolboxes underlying everything which has the capacity to evolve but also perhaps even those things which have no power of evolution themselves but which have pre-existing constraints which would give the appearance of evolution because of the similarity of the final manifestations of various things derivative from those original constraints. Living things are the typical manifestations of natural evolution but the intellectual predecessors of these ideas of evolving processes were developed by Adam Smith back in the 1770s but relative to the economic market place not living things. His idea, usually compressed into the term invisible hand was the idea that a multiplicity of individual decisions responding to local environmental situations drove the development of products and all of their qualities and the organizations of businesses that supplied them. Those that were successful flourished and those which were not withered away.

There are constraints coming from different original places forcing developments into different patterns which some places like biology are call convergent evolution. But those constraints can come from the genes, physical properties of matter or the environment in which the visible physical embodiment must operate. However, in the world of the market place these constraints would be different from those of life habitat. These human derivative activities in turn would be different from the natural world of living, adapting life forms.

Publishing books would be different from publishing newspapers or magazines and each of these different publishing environments would tend to have their own toolboxes of necessary components. However, it would appear that there are basic constraints on these human publishing activities and that that are expected to follow forms like those of the Tiktaalik. In that case the joint to the body of a single large bone jointed to a double bone, jointed to a multiple of bones jointed to a group of bones that actually contact the external environment and directly with and manipulate it. In a publishing situation the toolbox would consist of a physical printing press, type, ink, paper coupled with written material, compiled, organized coupled with authors, editors, publishers coupled with wholesale distribution, retail distribution, sales clerks. Each of these would derive from a very similar toolbox but they could trace their roots to a common ancestor, Gutenberg, and each of the tools in that toolbox would have a somewhat different history which would lead to the different applications.

The silicone transistor age is an example of a new physical technology giving rise to a whole new toolbox of possibilities. If we were able to perceive the basics of each of the tools in the toolbox and how they could interact it might be possible to anticipate the possible uses and hurry things along to their most useful embodiments. A typical toolbox contains hammers, screw drivers, saws, drills, wrenches, glues, tapes, wire, string and other things. A modern toolbox contains, computers, internet links, search engines, input devices, monitors, speakers, motion feedback devices, data banks, filters, compressed information, standardized techniques and lots more. If we could pop into the future and see to what uses these tools would be put to we could achieve those results much more quickly.

Are there parallels between the Tiktaalik’s bones, old physical tools and the new electronic ones? Is a big single bone bringing a general proximity somehow related to a hammer banging into general shape, the articualtion to a double bone which brings a closer aproximation and a partial alignment, some wrist bones for adjustment and alignment for the final bones to do whatever activity needs to be done. A good search engine like Google sort of follows that trajectory, first getting a general sense of what is desired and then from past history of similar searches providing likely possibilities and then the individual like the wrist bones makeing some sort of alignment and then the final actions bringing the desired activity into process.

Just some ramblings on what I was trying to ask Neil Shubin.