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No. 707:
A Lost Bird

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 starling.

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 should follow.

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 work.

(Theme music)

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 699700706720861947, and 1036.)