Saturday, July 05, 2014

Hierarchiology and the Phenomenon of Self-Organizing Organizational Collapse

Back in 1979, my original intent for softwarephysics was to help myself, and the IT community at large, to better cope with the daily mayhem of life in IT by applying concepts from physics, chemistry, biology, and geology to the development, maintenance, and support of commercial software. However, over the years I have found that this scope was far too limiting and that softwarephysics could also be applied to many other knowledge domains, most significantly to biology and astrobiology, and similarly, that softwarephysics could also draw additional knowledge from other disciplines as well, such as memetics. In this posting, I would like to expand the range of softwarephysics further into the domain of management theory by exploring the science of Hierarchiology as it pertains to IT professionals, but again the concepts of Hierarchilogy can certainly be applied to all human hierarchies wherever you might find them.

Hierarchiology is the scientific study of human hierarchies. Since nearly all human organizations are based upon hierarchies, it is quite surprising that the science of Hierarchiology was not developed until 1969. The late Professor Laurence Johnston Peter (September 16, 1919 - January 12, 1990) (sadly, not a known relation to myself) is credited as the founding father of the science of Hierarchiology. Like the Newtonian mechanics that Isaac Newton first introduced to the world in his Principia (1687), the science of Hierarchiology was first introduced by Professor Peter with his publication of The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong (1969). The Peter Principle can best be defined in Professor Peter’s own words as:

The Peter Principle: - In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence ... in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties ... Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.

By this, Professor Peter meant that in a hierarchical organizational structure, the potential of an employee for a promotion is normally based on their performance in their current job. Thus a competent engineer is likely to be promoted to become a manager of engineers, while an incompetent engineer will likely remain an engineer. Over time, this results in employees being promoted to their highest level of competence, and potentially to a level in which they are no longer competent, referred to as their "level of incompetence". The employee then has no further chance for promotion and will have reached their final level within the hierarchical organization. Amazingly, employees who have reached their “level of incompetence” are retained because letting them go would:

"violate the first commandment of hierarchical life with incompetent leadership: [namely that] the hierarchy must be preserved".

Indeed the tenets of softwarephysics would maintain that since hierarchical organizations are simply another form of self-replicating information they are endowed with one paramount trait, the ability to survive.

Now for the modern reader, the Peter Principle might seem to be rather quaint, and certainly not an accurate description of modern hierarchies. That is because the Peter Principle was originally developed to explain the American hierarchical organizations of the post-war 1950s and 1960s. In those days, the power and influence of a member of a hierarchical organization were solely based upon the number of people reporting to the member of the hierarchy. The number of competent subordinates that a manager might have was totally irrelevant, so long as there were a sufficient number of competent subordinates who had not yet reached their “level of incompetence” to guarantee that the subordinate organization could perform its prime objectives. Efficiency was not a concern in those days because in the 1950s and 1960s America had no foreign competition since the rest of the industrial world had effectively destroyed itself during World War II.

This all changed in the 1980s with the rise of foreign competition, principally from the once defeated Germany and Japan. In the 1980s, corporate America was once again faced with foreign competition, and in response, invented the concept of “downsizing”. Downsizing allowed hierarchies to clear out the dead wood of employees who had reached their “level of incompetence” through the compulsory dismissal of a significant percentage of each department. These downsizing activities were reluctantly carried out by the HR department of the organization, which cast HR as the villain and not by the management chain of the organization whose hands then became forced by external factors beyond their control. This reduced the hard feelings amongst the survivors in a hierarchy after a successful “downsizing”. And since all departments were required to equally reduce staff by say 15%, no single manager lost status by a drop in headcount because each manager in the hierarchy equally lost 15% of their subordinates, so the hierarchy was preserved intact. The elimination of incompetent employees was further enhanced by globalization over the past several decades. With globalization, it was now possible to “offshore” whole departments at a time of an organization and dispatch employees en masse, both the competent and the incompetent, without threatening the hierarchy because the number of subordinates might actually increase as work was moved to foreign countries with emerging economies, but significantly lower wage scales.

Now the nature of hierarchies may have substantially changed since Professor Peter’s time, but I believe that there are some enduring characteristics of hierarchies that do not change with time because they are based upon the fundamentals of memetics. All successful memes survive because they adapt themselves to two enduring characteristics of human beings:

1. People like to hear what they like to hear.

2. People do not like to hear what they do not like to hear.

Based on the above observation, I would like to propose:

The Time Invariant Peter Principle: In a hierarchy, successful subordinates tell their superiors what their superiors want to hear, while unsuccessful subordinates try to tell their superiors what their superiors need to hear. Only successful subordinates are promoted within a hierarchy, and eventually, all levels of a hierarchy will tend to become solely occupied by successful subordinates who only tell their superiors what their superiors want to hear.

This means that, like the original Peter Principle, organizations tend to become loaded down with “successful” employees who only tell their superiors what their superiors want to hear. This is not a problem, so long as the organization is not faced with any dire problems. After all, if things are moving along smoothly, there is no need to burden superiors with trivial problems. However, covering up problems sometimes does lead to disaster. For example, a subordinate telling the captain of the Titanic that it might be wise to reduce the Titanic’s speed down from its top speed of 21 knots to a lower speed during the evening of April 14, 1912, because there were reports of icebergs in the area coming in over the wireless would be ill-advised. Such a suggestion would certainly not have advanced the career of the captain’s subordinate, especially if his warning had been heeded, and the Titanic had not hit an iceberg and sunk. The subordinate would have simply been dismissed as a worrisome annoyance with a bad attitude and certainly not a team player worthy of promotion.

Some might argue that the Titanic is an overly dramatic example of the Time Invariant Peter Principle in action, and not representative of what actually happens when subordinates simply cast events in a positive light for their superiors. How can that lead to organizational collapse? For that, we must turn to Complexity Theory. One of the key findings of Complexity Theory is that large numbers of simple agents, all following a set of very simple rules, can lead to very complex emergent organizational behaviors. This is seen in the flocking of birds, the schooling of fish and the swarming of insects. For example, large numbers of ants following some very simple rules can lead to very complex emergent organizational behaviors of an entire ant colony. The downside of this is that large numbers of simple agents following simple rules can also lead to self-organized organizational collapse. The 2008 financial collapse offers a prime example, where huge numbers of agents in a large number of different hierarchies, all following the simple rule of the Time Invariant Peter Principle led to disaster (see MoneyPhysics for more details). Similarly, I personally witnessed the demise of Amoco during the 1990s through a combination of very poor executive leadership coupled with the Time Invariant Peter Principle in action. My suspicion is that the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, was also largely due to the Time Invariant Peter Principle in action over many decades.

For the interested, the Santa Fe Institute offers many very interesting online courses on Complexity Theory at:

Complexity Explorer

The study of large-scale organizational collapse is always challenging because of the breadth and scale of large organizations. What happens is that the Time Invariant Peter Principle in such failing organizations leads to a series of fiascos and disasters that slowly eat away at the organization until the organization ultimately collapses on its own. However, trying to add up all of the negative impacts from the large numbers of fiascos and disasters that occur over the span of a decade within a hierarchical organization in decline is nearly impossible. Consequently, it is much easier to focus upon individual disasters as case studies of the Time Invariant Peter Principle in action, and that will be our next topic.

The Challenger Disaster a Case Study of the Time Invariant Peter Principle in Action
In preparation for this posting, I just finished rereading Richard Feynman’s ”What Do You Care What Other People Think?” Further Adventures of a Curious Character (1988), probably for the fourth or fifth time. This book was a Christmas present from my wife, and I periodically reread it because it describes how Richard Feynman, one of the most productive physicists of the 20th century, was able to apply his scientific training to uncover and analyze the absurdities behind the Challenger Disaster. The book is a marvelous description of how the Time Invariant Peter Principle interacting with the absurd real world of human affairs can bring us to disaster.

Richard Feynman is most famous for his contributions to QED – Quantum Electrodynamics (1948) and his famous Feynman diagrams. This work ultimately led to the awarding of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics to Richard Feynman and to two other physicists for their work on QED (for more on this see The Foundations of Quantum Computing). Richard Feynman was also a very unique and dearly loved teacher of physics. I encourage you to view some of his wonderful lectures on YouTube.

The first half of the book covers some interesting stories from his youth and also the continuing love story of his relationship with his first wife Arlene. Arlene tragically died from tuberculosis while the two of them were stationed at Los Alamos and Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb. Richard Feynman married Arlene with the full knowledge that their time together as man and wife would be cut short, after Arlene’s diagnosis of tuberculosis became known. This did not bother the two of them as they proceeded to get married despite the warnings from friends and family to do otherwise - certainly a rare mark of loyalty that is not seen much today. In fact, the quote in the title of the book came from Arlene.

In the first half of the book, Richard Feynman goes on to describe how his father had decided that Feynman would become a scientist from the day he was born. So in Feynman’s childhood his father carefully taught Richard to have no respect for authority whatsoever, but to only have respect for knowledge. So later in life, Feynman did not really care who or what you were, he only cared about your story or hypothesis. If your story made sense to him and stood up to scrutiny, then Feynman would have respect for your story or hypothesis but otherwise watch out! Feynman would quickly reduce your story or hypothesis to a pile of rubble no matter who or what you were, but all during the process, he would still show respect for you as a fellow human being.

It all began shortly after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. Feynman received a phone call from William Graham, a former Caltech student of Feynman’s and now the recently appointed head of NASA. Graham had just been sworn in as the head of NASA on November 25, 1985, less than two months prior to the Challenger Disaster, and asked Feynman if he would agree to join the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident that was to be headed by the former Secretary of State William Rogers. Originally, Feynman did not want to have anything to do with a Washington commission, but his wife Gweneth wisely persuaded him to join saying, “If you don’t do it, there will be twelve people, all in a group, going around from place to place together. But if you join the commission, there will be eleven people – all in a group, going around from place to place together – while the twelfth one runs around all over the place, checking all kinds of unusual things. There probably won’t be anything, but if there is, you’ll find it. There isn’t anyone else who can do that like you can.” Gweneth certainly got the part about Feynman running around all over the place on his own trying to figure out what had actually gone wrong, but she did not get the part about the other Commission members doing the same thing as a group. What Feynman did find when he got to Washington was that William Rogers wanted to conduct a “proper” Washington-style investigation like you see on CNN. This is where a bunch of commissioners or congressman, all sitting together as a panel, swear in a number of managers and ask them probing questions that the managers then all try to evade. The managers responsible for the organization under investigation are all found to have no knowledge of any wrongdoing, and certainly would not condone any wrongdoing if they had had knowledge of it. We have all seen that many times before. And as with most Washington-based investigations, all of the other members on the Commission also were faced with a conflict of interest because they all had strong ties to NASA or to what NASA was charged with doing. When Feynman initially objected to this process, William Rogers confessed to him that the Commission would probably never really figure out what had gone wrong, but that they had to go through the process just the same for appearance's sake. So true to his wife’s prediction, Feynman then embarked upon a one-man investigation into the root cause of the Challenger Disaster. Due to his innate lack of respect for authority, Feynman decided to forgo discussions with NASA Management, and instead decided to only focus on the first-line engineers and technicians who got their hands dirty in the daily activities of running the space shuttle business. What Feynman found was that due to the Time Invariant Peter Principle, many of the engineers and technicians who actually touched the space shuttle had been bringing forth numerous safety problems with the shuttle design for nearly a decade, but that routinely these safety concerns never rose through the organization. Feynman also found that many of the engineers and technicians had been initially afraid to speak frankly with him. They were simply afraid to speak the truth.

This was a totally alien experience for Richard Feynman because he was used to the scientific hierarchies of academia. Unfortunately, scientific hierarchies are also composed of human beings, and therefore are also subject to the Time Invariant Peter Principle, but fortunately, there is a difference. Most organizational hierarchies are based upon seeking favor. Each layer in the hierarchy is seeking the favor of the layer directly above it, and ultimately, the whole hierarchy is seeking the favor of something. For corporations, the CEO of the organization is seeking the favor of Wall Street analysts, large fund managers and of individual investors. The seeking of favor necessarily requires the manipulation of facts to cast them in a favorable light. Scientific hierarchies, on the other hand, are actually trying to seek out knowledge and determine the truth of the matter, as best as we can determine the truth of the matter. Recently, I reread David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality (1997), another book that I frequently reread to maintain sanity. In the book, Deutsch explains the difference between scientific hierarchies that seek knowledge and normal hierarchies that seek favor by describing what happens at physics conferences. What happens at lunchtime during a typical physics conference is that, like in the 7th grade, all of the preeminent physicists of the day sit together at the “cool kids’ table” for lunch. But in the afternoon, one finds that when one of the most preeminent physicists in the world gives a presentation, one can frequently find the lowliest of graduate students asking the preeminent physicist to please explain why the approximation in his last equation is justifiable under the conditions of the problem at hand. Deutsch wisely comments that he cannot imagine an underling in a corporate hierarchy similarly challenging the latest business model of his CEO in a grand presentation.

Now it turns out that Feynman did have one ally on the Commission by the name of General Kutenya. General Kutenya had been in contact with an unnamed astronaut at NASA who put General Kutenya on to the fact that the space shuttle had a potentially fatal flaw with the rubber O-rings used to seal three joints in the solid booster rockets – SRBs that were manufactured by Morton Thiokol. These joints were sealed by two 37 foot long rubber O-rings, each having a diameter of only 1/4 of an inch. The purpose of the O-rings was to seal the joints when the SRBs were fired. Because the joints were three times thicker than the steel walls of the SRBs, the walls of the SRBs tended to bulge out a little because of the pressures generated by the burning fuel when the SRBs were lit. The bulging out of the SRB walls caused the joints to bend slightly outward, and it was the job of the rubber O-rings to expand and fill the gap when the SRB walls bulged out so that the joints maintained their seal and no hot gasses from the burning solid fuel in the SRBs could escape (see Figure 1). At the time of the launch, it was well known by NASA and Morton Thiokol Management that these O-rings suffered from burning and erosion by hot blow-by gasses from the burning of the solid rocket fuel, particularly when the shuttle was launched at lower temperatures. This was because the SRBs were ejected from the shuttle after their fuel had been expended and splashed down into the ocean to be later recovered and reused for later flights. On the morning of January 28, 1986, the Challenger was launched at a temperature of 28 to 29oF, while the previous coldest shuttle launch had been at a temperature of 53oF.

Figure 1 – The two rubber O-rings of the SRB were meant to expand when the walls of the SRB bulged out so that hot burning gasses could not escape from the SRB joints and cause problems.

Figure 2 - On the right, we see that the two O-rings in an SRB joint are in contact with the clevis (male part of the joint) when the SRB has not been lit. On the left, we see that when an SRB is lit and there is pressure in the SRB that causes the walls to bulge out, a gap between the O-rings and the clevis can form if the O-rings are not resilient enough to fill the gap. Richard Feynman demonstrated that cold O-rings at 32oF are not resilient.

Figure 3 - How the O-rings failed.

Figure 4 – A plume of burning SRB fuel escaping from the last field joint on the right SRB eventually burns through the supports holding the SRB onto the Challenger.

Figure 5 – When the right SRB breaks free of the Challenger it slams into the large tanks holding the liquid oxygen and hydrogen used to power the main engine of the Challenger. This causes a disastrous explosion.

Figure 6 – Richard Feynman demonstrates that the O-ring rubber of the SRB joints is not resilient at 32oF. The Challenger was launched with a temperature of about 28 – 29 oF. The previous lowest temperature for a shuttle launch had been 53oF.

Figure 7 – After the Disaster, several changes were made to the field joints between segments of the SRBs, including the addition of a third O-ring. This finally fixed the decades-old problem that had been ignored by NASA Management all along.

For a nice montage of the events surrounding the Challenger Disaster see the following YouTube link that shows Richard Feynman questioning a NASA Manager and then demonstrating to him that what he was saying was total …..

For a nice synopsis of all of the events, please see this Wikipedia link at:

The Truth About the Time Invariant Peter Principle
Now that we have seen a case study of the Time Invariant Peter Principle in action, it is time for all of us to fess up. Everybody already knows about the Time Invariant Peter Principle because, as human beings, we all live within hierarchical organizations. We just do not talk about such things. In fact, the Time Invariant Peter Principle actually prevents work teams from talking about the Time Invariant Peter Principle. So what I am proposing here is nothing new. It is as old as civilization itself. Now as Richard Feynman used to remind us, “The most important thing is to not fool yourself, because you are the easiest one to fool.”. So the important thing about the Time Invariant Peter Principle is not discovering it for yourself, the important thing is to articulate it in difficult times, and that takes some courage, as Richard Feynman demonstrated in ”What Do You Care What Other People Think?”:

I invented a theory which I have discussed with a considerable number of people, and many people have explained to me why it’s wrong. But I don’t remember their explanations, so I cannot resist telling you what I think led to this lack of communication in NASA.

When NASA was trying to go to the moon, there was a great deal of enthusiasm: it was a goal everyone was anxious to achieve. They didn’t know if they could do it, but they were all working together.

I have this idea because I worked at Los Alamos, and I experienced the tension and the pressure of everybody working together to make the atomic bomb. When somebody’s having a problem — say, with the detonator — everybody knows that it’s a big problem, they’re thinking of ways to beat it, they’re making suggestions, and when they hear about the solution they’re excited, because that means their work is now useful: if the detonator didn’t work, the bomb wouldn’t work.

I figured the same thing had gone on at NASA in the early days: if the space suit didn’t work, they couldn’t go to the moon. So everybody’s interested in everybody else’s problems.

But then, when the moon project was over, NASA had all these people together: there’s a big organization in Houston and a big organization in Huntsville, not to mention at Kennedy, in Florida. You don’t want to fire people and send them out in the street when you’re done with a big project, so the problem is, what to do?

You have to convince Congress that there exists a project that only NASA can do. In order to do so, it is necessary — at least it was apparently necessary in this case — to exaggerate: to exaggerate how economical the shuttle would be, to exaggerate how often it could fly, to exaggerate how safe it would be, to exaggerate the big scientific facts that would be discovered. “The shuttle can make so-and-so many flights and it’ll cost such-and-such; we went to the moon, so we can do it!”

Meanwhile, I would guess, the engineers at the bottom are saying, “No, no! We can’t make that many flights. If we had to make that many flights, it would mean such-and-such!” And, “No, we can’t do it for that amount of money, because that would mean we’d have to do thus-and-so!”

Well, the guys who are trying to get Congress to okay their projects don’t want to hear such talk. It’s better if they don’t hear, so they can be more “honest” — they don’t want to be in the position of lying to Congress! So pretty soon the attitudes begin to change: information from the bottom which is disagreeable — “We’re having a problem with the seals; we should fix it before we fly again” — is suppressed by big cheeses and middle managers who say, “If you tell me about the seals problems, we’ll have to ground the shuttle and fix it.” Or, “No, no, keep on flying, because otherwise, it’ll look bad,” or “Don’t tell me; I don’t want to hear about it.”

Maybe they don’t say explicitly “Don’t tell me,” but they discourage communication, which amounts to the same thing. It’s not a question of what has been written down, or who should tell what to whom; it’s a question of whether, when you do tell somebody about some problem, they’re delighted to hear about it and they say “Tell me more” and “Have you tried such-and-such?” or they say “Well, see what you can do about it” — which is a completely different atmosphere. If you try once or twice to communicate and get pushed back, pretty soon you decide, “To hell with it.”

So that’s my theory: because of the exaggeration at the top being inconsistent with the reality at the bottom, communication got slowed up and ultimately jammed. That’s how it’s possible that the higher-ups didn’t know.

What Has Been Learned From the Challenger Disaster
Since the Challenger Disaster, there have been a number of dramatic video renditions of the facts surrounding the case produced for various reasons. Most of these renditions have been produced to warn the members of an organizational hierarchy about the dangers of the Time Invariant Peter Principle, and are routinely shown to the managers in major corporations. The classic scene concerns the teleconference between NASA Management and the Management of Morton Thiokol and its engineers the night before the launch of the Challenger. In the scene, the Morton Thiokol engineers are against the Challenger being launched at such a low temperature because they think the O-ring seals will fail and destroy the Challenger and all those who are on board. The hero of the scene is Roger Boisjoly, a Morton Thiokol engineer who courageously stands up to both Morton Thiokol Management and the Management of NASA to declare that a launch of the Challenger at such a low temperature would be wrong. Roger Boisjoly is definitely one of those unsuccessful subordinates in the eyes of the Time Invariant Peter Principle. In the scene, Roger Boisjoly is overruled by Morton Thiokol Management, under the pressure from NASA Management, and the Challenger is approved for launch on the very cold morning of January 28, 1986. Strangely, it seems that it was the very cold, in combination with the Time Invariant Peter Principle that doomed both the Titanic and the Challenger.

My Own Experience with the Challenger Case Study
Now in the 1990s, I was a Technical Consultant in Amoco’s IT department. Our CEO in the 1990s decided that it was time to “Renew” Amoco’s corporate culture in keeping with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost (increased openness and transparency) and Perestroika (organizational restructuring) of the late 1980s that was meant to prevent the Soviet Union from collapsing under its own weight. Indeed, Amoco’s command and control management style of the 1990s was very reminiscent of the heydays of the former Soviet Union. The purpose of “Corporate Renewal” was to uplift Amoco from its normal position as the #4 oil company in the Big Eight to being the “preeminent oil company” of the world. Amoco was originally known as Standard Oil of Indiana and was one of the many surviving fragments of the Standard Oil Trust that was broken up in 1911 by the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. The Standard Oil Trust went all the way back to 1863 when John D. Rockefeller first formed the Standard Oil Company, and thus Amoco was just a little bit older than the Battle of Gettysburg. Now in order to renew the corporate culture, our CEO created the Amoco Management Learning Center (AMLC) and required that once each year everybody above a certain pay grade had to attend a week-long course at the AMLC. The AMLC was really a very nice hotel in the western suburbs of Chicago that Amoco used for the AMLC classes and attendees. We met in a large lecture hall as a group, and also in numerous breakout rooms reserved for each team to work on assignments and presentations of their own. Now back in the mid-1990s, there were no cell phones, no laptops, no Internet, no pagers and no remote access to the Home Office. There was a bank of landline telephones that attendees could use to periodically check in with the Office, but because the AMLC classes and group exercises ran all day long and most of the night too, there really was little opportunity for attendees to become distracted by events back in the Office, so the attendees at the AMLC were nearly completely isolated from their native hierarchies for the entire week.

One year at the AMLC, the topic for the week was Management Courage, and as part of the curriculum, we studied the Challenger Disaster in detail as an example of a dramatic Management Failure that could have been prevented by a little bit of Management Courage. Now, something very strange began to happen for my particular AMLC class. It was composed primarily of Amoco managers who had been pulled out of their normal hierarchies so they did not normally work with each other or even really know each other very well because they all came from very different parts of the Amoco hierarchical structure. But all of these managers did have something in common. They had all suffered from the consequences of the many fiascos and disasters that our new CEO had embarked upon in recent years, and because of the Time Invariant Peter Principle, there was a great deal of suppressed and pent-up unspoken animosity amongst them all. As the class progressed, and the instructors kept giving us more and more case studies of disasters that resulted because of a lack of Management Courage, the class members finally began to totally break down and they began to unload all sorts of management horror stories on us, like an AA meeting gone very badly wrong. I have never seen anything like it before or since. As the week progressed, with open rebellion growing within the ranks, there were even rumors that our rebellious AMLC class would be adjourned early and everybody sent home before the week was out. Finally, to quell the uprising, the AMLC staff brought in one of our CEO’s direct reports on an emergency basis to once again reestablish the dominance of the hierarchy and get everybody back in line. After all, the hierarchy must always be preserved.

A few years later, after nearly a decade of debacle, Amoco was so weakened that we dropped to being #8 in the Big Eight and there was even a rumor going around that we did not have enough cash on hand to come up with our normal quarterly dividend, something that we had been paying out to stockholders for nearly a century or so without a break. Shortly after that, we came to work one day in August of 1998 to learn that our CEO had sold Amoco to BP for $100 million. Now naturally BP paid a lot more than $100 million for Amoco, but that is what we heard that our CEO cleared on the deal. With the announcement of the sale of Amoco, the whole Amoco hierarchy slowly began to collapse like the former Soviet Union. Nobody in the hierarchy could imagine a world without Amoco. For example, my last boss at Amoco was a third generation Amoco employee and had a great deal of difficulty dealing with the situation. Her grandfather had worked in the Standard Oil Whiting Refinery back in the 19th century.

When the British invasion of Amoco finally began, all corporate communications suddenly ceased. We were all told to simply go into standby mode and wait. I was in the IT Architecture department at the time, and all of our projects were promptly canceled, leaving us with nothing to do. Similarly, all new AD development ceased as well. For six months we all just came into work each day and did nothing while we were in standby mode waiting to see what would happen. But it’s hard to keep IT professionals idle, and we soon learned that a group of Amoco’s IT employees had essentially taken over the Yahoo Message Board for Amoco stockholders. The Yahoo Message Board suddenly became an underground means of communications for Amoco employees all over the world. People were adding postings that warned us that HR hit teams, composed of contract HR people, were making the rounds of all of Amoco’s facilities and were laying off whole departments of people en masse. This was still the early days of the corporate use of the Internet, so I don’t think we even had proxy servers in those days to block traffic because BP never was able to block access to the Yahoo Message Board for the idle Amoco workers on standby mode, so we spent the whole day just reading and writing postings for the Yahoo Message Board about the British invasion of Amoco, sort of like a twentieth-century rendition of the Sons of Liberty. In the process, I think the Amoco IT department may have accidentally invented the modern concept of using social media to foment rebellion and revolution way back in 1998!

Then things began to get even stranger. It seems that the CEO of ARCO had learned about the $100 million deal that our CEO got for the sale of Amoco. So the CEO of ARCO made an unannounced appearance at the home office of BP in London and offered to sell ARCO to BP for a similar deal. BP was apparently quite shocked by the unsolicited windfall, but eagerly took up the deal offered by ARCO’s CEO, and so the whole process began all over again for the employees of ARCO. Now we began to see postings from ARCO employees on the Yahoo Message Board trying to figure out what the heck was going on. The Amoco employees warned the ARCO employees about what was coming their way, and we all began to exchange similar stories on the Yahoo Message Board with each other, and many of us became good friends in cyberspacetime. Then one day I rode up in the elevator with the HR hit team for Amoco’s IT Architecture department. Later that morning, we all took our turns reporting to Room 101 for our severance packages. Several months later, I had to return to the Amoco building for some final paperwork, and I decided to drop by my old enclosed office for just one last time. I found that my former office had now been completely filled with old used printer cartridges stacked from floor to ceiling! Each used printer cartridge represented the remains of one former Amoco employee.

With the assets of Amoco and ARCO in hand, combined with the assets that it had acquired when it took over control of Standard Oil of Ohio back in 1987, BP heavily expanded its operations within North America. But BP’s incessant drive to maximize profits by diminishing maintenance and safety costs led to the Texas City Refinery Disaster in 2005 that killed 15 workers and burned and injured more than 170 others. For details see:

As the above Wikipedia article notes:

BP was charged with criminal violations of federal environmental laws and has been named in lawsuits from the victims' families. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration gave BP a record fine for hundreds of safety violations, and in 2009 imposed an even larger fine after claiming that BP had failed to implement safety improvements following the disaster. On February 4, 2008, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal heard arguments regarding BP's offer to plead guilty to a federal environmental crime with a US $50 million fine. At the hearing, blast victims and their relatives objected to the plea, calling the proposed fine "trivial." So far, BP has said it has paid more than US $1.6 billion to compensate victims. The judge gave no timetable on when she would make a final ruling. On October 30, 2009, OSHA imposed an $87 million fine on the company for failing to correct safety hazards revealed in the 2005 explosion. In its report, OSHA also cited over 700 safety violations. The fine was the largest in OSHA's history, and BP announced that it would challenge the fine. On August 12, 2010, BP announced that it had agreed to pay $50.6 million of the October 30 fine, while continuing to contest the remaining $30.7 million; the fine had been reduced by $6.1 million between when it was levied and when BP paid the first part.

These same policies then led to the Deepwater Horizon Disaster in 2010 that killed 11 workers and injured 16 others, and polluted a good portion of the Gulf of Mexico, costing many businesses billions of dollars. For details see:

As the above Wikipedia article notes:

On 4 September 2014, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier ruled BP was guilty of gross negligence and willful misconduct under the Clean Water Act (CWA). He described BP's actions as "reckless," while he said Transocean's and Halliburton's actions were "negligent." He apportioned 67% of the blame for the spill to BP, 30% to Transocean, and 3% to Halliburton.

So remember, even though the Time Independent Peter Principle may lead members of a hierarchical organization to cover up problems, there may come a day of reckoning, no matter how large the hierarchy may be, and the costs of that day of reckoning may be far greater than one can even hope of imagining.

What Does This Mean for IT Professionals?
As an IT professional you will certainly spend most of your career in private or governmental hierarchical organizations. Now, most times you will find that these hierarchical organizations will be sailing along over smooth waters with a minimum of disruption. But every so often you may become confronted with a technical ethical dilemma, like the engineers and technicians working on the space shuttle. You may find that, in your opinion, that the hierarchy is embarking upon a reckless and dangerous, or even unethical, course of action. And then you must make a decision for yourself to either remain silent or to speak up. I hope that this posting helps you with that decision.

I would like to conclude with the concluding paragraph from Richard Feynman’s Appendix F - Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle that was attached to the official Presidential Commission Report.

Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Comments are welcome at

To see all posts on softwarephysics in reverse order go to:

Steve Johnston

Saturday, June 14, 2014

How to Use an Understanding of Self-Replicating Information to Avoid War

Periodically events in the “real world” of human affairs seem to intervene in our lives, and so once again, we must take a slight detour along our path to IT enlightenment, as we did with MoneyPhysics in the fall of 2008 with the global financial meltdown, and with The Fundamental Problem of Everything as it relates to the origins of war. With the 100 year anniversary of the onset of World War I in August of 1914 close at hand, which led to the deaths of 20 million people and 40 million casualties for apparently no particular reason at all, once again we see growing turmoil in the world, specifically in the Middle East and a multitude of conflicts converging. World War I basically shattered the entire 20th century because it led to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 and to the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s that led to World War II, and the ensuing Cold War of the latter half of the 20th century. This ongoing turmoil has continued on well into the 21st century in the Middle East because the end of World War I brought with it a number of manufactured countries in the Middle East that were arbitrarily carved up out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire that, unfortunately, aligned itself with the Central Powers, and thus chose to be on the losing side of World War I. With such rampant mass insanity once again afoot in the Middle East, one must naturally ask why is the real world of human affairs so absurd, and why has it always been so? I think I know why.

In the analysis that follows there will be no need to mention any current names in the news because, as in The Fundamental Problem of Everything, this is a human problem that is not restricted to any particular group or subgroup of people. It is a problem that stems from the human condition and applies to all sides of all conflicts for all times.

It’s The Fundamental Problem of Everything Again
In The Fundamental Problem of Everything, I left it to the readers to make the final determination for themselves, but for me, the fundamental problem of everything is ignorance. Let me explain.

About 15 years ago it dawned upon me that I only had a finite amount of time left and that it sure would be a shame to have lived my whole life without ever having figured out what’s it all about or where I had been, so I started reading a popular book on science each week or a scientific college textbook over a span of several months in an attempt to figure it all out as best I could. The conclusion I came to was that it is all about self-replicating information and that there are currently three forms of self-replicating information on the Earth – the genes, memes and software, with software rapidly becoming the dominant form of self-replicating information on the planet. As human beings, it seems that our entire life, from the moment of conception, to that last gasp, is completely shaped by the competitive actions of these three forms of self-replicating information. So as a sentient being, in a Universe that has become self-aware, if you want to take back control of your life, it is important to confront them now and know them well. Before proceeding, let us review what self-replicating information is and how it behaves.

Self-Replicating Information – Information that persists through time by making copies of itself or by enlisting the support of other things to ensure that copies of itself are made.

The Characteristics of Self-Replicating Information
All forms of self-replicating information have some common characteristics.

1. All self-replicating information evolves over time through the Darwinian processes of innovation and natural selection, which endows self-replicating information with one telling characteristic – the ability to survive in a Universe dominated by the second law of thermodynamics and nonlinearity.

2. All self-replicating information begins spontaneously as a parasitic mutation that obtains energy, information and sometimes matter from a host.

3. With time, the parasitic self-replicating information takes on a symbiotic relationship with its host.

4. Eventually, the self-replicating information becomes one with its host through the symbiotic integration of the host and the self-replicating information.

5. Ultimately, the self-replicating information replaces its host as the dominant form of self-replicating information.

6. Most hosts are also forms of self-replicating information.

7. All self-replicating information has to be a little bit nasty in order to survive.

8. The defining characteristic of self-replicating information is the ability of self-replicating information to change the boundary conditions of its utility phase space in new and unpredictable ways by means of exapting current functions into new uses that change the size and shape of its particular utility phase space. See Enablement - the Definitive Characteristic of Living Things for more on this last characteristic.

For a good synopsis of how self-replicating information has dominated the Earth for the past 4 billion years, and also your life, take a quick look at A Brief History of Self-Replicating Information. Basically, we have seen several waves of self-replicating information dominate the Earth:

1. Self-replicating autocatalytic metabolic pathways of organic molecules
2. RNA
3. DNA
4. Memes
5. Software

Note that because the self-replicating autocatalytic metabolic pathways of organic molecules, RNA and DNA have become so heavily intertwined over time that I now simply call them the “genes”.

The Ongoing Battle Between the Genes, Memes and Software For World Domination
In school, you were taught that your body consists of about 100 trillion cells and that these cells use DNA to create proteins that you need to replicate and operate your cells. The problem, as always, is that this is an entirely anthropocentric point of view. As Richard Dawkins explains in the The Selfish Gene (1976), this is totally backwards. We do not use genes to protect and replicate our bodies; genes use our bodies to protect and replicate genes, so in Dawkins’ view we are DNA survival machines, and so are all other living things. Darwin taught us that natural selection was driven by survival of the fittest. But survival of the fittest what? Is it survival of the fittest species, species variety, or possibly the fittest individuals within a species? Dawkins notes that none of these things actually replicate, not even individuals. All individuals are genetically unique, so it is impossible for individuals to truly replicate. What does replicate are genes, so for Dawkins, natural selection operates at the level of the gene. These genes have evolved over time to team up with other genes to form bodies or DNA survival machines that protect and replicate DNA, and that is why the higher forms of life are so “inefficient” when it comes to how genetic information is stored in DNA. For example, the human genome consists of about 23,000 genes stored on a few percent of the 6 feet of DNA found within each human cell, which is a rather inefficient way to store genetic information because it takes a lot of time and resources to replicate all that DNA when human cells divide. But that is the whole point, the DNA in higher forms of life is not trying to be an “efficient” genetic information storage system, rather it is trying to protect and replicate as much DNA as possible, and then build a DNA survival machine to house it by allocating a small percentage of the DNA to encode for the genes that produce the proteins needed to build the DNA survival machine. From the perspective of the DNA, these genes are just a necessary evil, like the taxes that must be paid to build roads and bridges.

Prokaryotic bacteria are small DNA survival machines that cannot afford the luxury of taking on any “passenger” junk DNA. Only large multicellular cruise ships like ourselves can afford that extravagance. If you have ever been a “guest” on a small sailing boat, you know exactly what I mean. There are no “guest passengers” on a small sailboat; it's always "all hands on deck" - and that includes the "guests"! Individual genes have been selected for one overriding trait, the ability to replicate, and they will do just about anything required to do so, like seeking out other DNA survival machines to mate with and rear new DNA survival machines. In Blowin’ in the Wind Bob Dylan asked the profound question,”How many years can a mountain exist; Before it's washed to the sea?”. Well, the answer is a few hundred million years. But some of the genes in your body are billions of years old, and as they skip down through the generations largely unscathed by time, they spend about half their time in female bodies and the other half in male bodies. If you think about it, all of your physical needs and desires are geared to ensuring that your DNA survives and gets passed on, with little regard for you as a disposable DNA survival machine. I strongly recommend that all IT professionals read the The Selfish Gene, for me the most significant book of the 20th century because it explains so much. For a book written in 1976, it makes many references to computers and data processing that you will find extremely interesting.

As DNA survival machines, our genes create our basic desires to survive and to replicate our genes through sexual activity in a Dawkinsian manner. When you factor in the ensuing human desires for food and comfort, and for the wealth that provides for them, together with the sexual tensions that arise in the high school social structures that seem to go on to form the basis for all human social structures, the genes alone probably account for at least 50% of the absurdity of the real world of human affairs because life just becomes a never-ending continuation of high school. This is all part of my general theory that nobody ever really graduates from their culturally equivalent form of high school. We all just go on to grander things in our own minds. Certainly, the success of Facebook and Twitter are a testament to this observation.

Our Minds were formed next by the rise of the memes over the past 2.5 million years, again this was first proposed by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. The concept of memes was later advanced by Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained (1991) and Richard Brodie in Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme (1996), and was finally formalized by Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine (1999). For those of you not familiar with the term meme, it rhymes with the word “cream”. Memes are cultural artifacts that persist through time by making copies of themselves in the minds of human beings and were first recognized by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Dawkins described memes as “Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”. Just as genes come together to build bodies, or DNA survival machines, for their own mutual advantage, memes also come together from the meme pool to form meme-complexes for their own joint survival. DNA survives down through the ages by inducing disposable DNA survival machines, in the form of bodies, to produce new disposable DNA survival machines. Similarly, memes survive in meme-complexes by inducing the minds of human beings to reproduce memes in the minds of others. Meme-complexes come in a variety of sizes and can become quite large and complicated with a diverse spectrum of member memes. Examples of meme-complexes of increasing complexity and size would be Little League baseball teams, clubs and lodges, corporations, political and religious movements, tribal subcultures, branches of the military, governments and cultures at the national level, and finally the sum total of all human knowledge in the form of all the world cultures, art, music, religion, and science put together.

To the genes and memes, human bodies are simply disposable DNA survival machines housing disposable minds that come and go with a lifespan of less than 100 years. The genes and memes, on the other hand, continue on largely unscathed by time as they skip down through the generations. However, both genes and memes do evolve over time through the Darwinian mechanisms of innovation and natural selection. You see, the genes and memes that do not come together to build successful DNA survival machines, or meme-complexes, are soon eliminated from the gene and meme pools. So both genes and memes are selected for one overriding characteristic – the ability to survive. Once again, the “survival of the fittest” rules the day. Now it makes no sense to think of genes or memes as being either “good” or “bad”; they are just mindless forms of self-replicating information bent upon surviving with little interest in you as a disposable survival machine. So in general, these genes and memes are not necessarily working in your best interest, beyond keeping you alive long enough so that you can pass them on to somebody else.

According to Susan Blackmore, we are not so much thinking machines, as we are copying machines. For example, Blackmore maintains that memetic-drive was responsible for creating our extremely large brains and also our languages and cultures as well, in order to store and spread memes more effectively. Many researchers have noted that the human brain is way over-engineered for the needs of a simple hunter-gatherer. After all, even a hundred years ago, people did not require the brain-power to do IT work, yet today we find many millions of people earning their living doing IT work, or at least trying to. Blackmore then points out that the human brain is a very expensive and dangerous organ. The brain is only 2% of your body mass, but burns about 20% of your calories each day. The extremely large brain of humans also kills many mothers and babies at childbirth, and also produces babies that are totally dependent upon their mothers for survival and that are totally helpless and defenseless on their own. Blackmore asks the obvious question of why the genes would build such an extremely expensive and dangerous organ that was definitely not in their own self-interest. Blackmore has a very simple explanation – the genes did not build our exceedingly huge brains, the memes did. Her reasoning goes like this. About 2.5 million years ago, the predecessors of humans slowly began to pick up the skill of imitation. This might not sound like much, but it is key to her whole theory of memetics. You see, hardly any other species learns by imitating other members of their own species. Yes, there are many species that can learn by conditioning, like Pavlov’s dogs, or that can learn through personal experience, like mice repeatedly running through a maze for a piece of cheese, but a mouse never really learns anything from another mouse by imitating its actions. Essentially, only humans do that. If you think about it for a second, nearly everything you do know, you learned from somebody else by imitating or copying their actions or ideas. Blackmore maintains that the ability to learn by imitation required a bit of processing power by our distant ancestors because one needs to begin to think in an abstract manner by abstracting the actions and thoughts of others into the actions and thoughts of their own. The skill of imitation provided a great survival advantage to those individuals who possessed it, and gave the genes that built such brains a great survival advantage as well. This caused a selection pressure to arise for genes that could produce brains with ever-increasing capabilities of imitation and abstract thought. As this processing capability increased there finally came a point when the memes, like all of the other forms of self-replicating information that we have seen arise, first appeared in a parasitic manner. Along with very useful memes, like the meme for making good baskets, other less useful memes, like putting feathers in your hair or painting your face, also began to run upon the same hardware in a manner similar to computer viruses. The genes and memes then entered into a period of coevolution, where the addition of more and more brain hardware advanced the survival of both the genes and memes. But it was really the memetic-drive of the memes that drove the exponential increase in processing power of the human brain way beyond the needs of the genes.

A very similar thing happened with software over the past 70 years. When I first started programming in 1972, million dollar mainframe computers typically had about 1 MB (about 1,000,000 bytes) of memory with a 750 KHz system clock (750,000 ticks per second). Remember, one byte of memory can store something like the letter “A”. But in those days, we were only allowed 128 K (about 128,000 bytes) of memory for our programs because the expensive mainframes were also running several other programs at the same time. It was the relentless demands of software for memory and CPU-cycles over the years that drove the exponential explosion of hardware capability. For example, today the typical $600 PC comes with 8 GB (about 8,000,000,000 bytes) of memory and has several CPUs running with a clock speed of about 3 GHz (3,000,000,000 ticks per second). Last year, I purchased Redshift 7 for my personal computer, a $60 astronomical simulation application, and it alone uses 382 MB of memory when running and reads 5.1 GB of data files, a far cry from my puny 128K programs from 1972. So the hardware has improved by a factor of about 10 million since I started programming in 1972, driven by the ever-increasing demands of software for more powerful hardware. For example, in my current position in Middleware Operations for a major corporation we are constantly adding more application software each week, so every few years we must upgrade all of our servers to handle the increased load.

The memes then went on to develop languages and cultures to make it easier to store and pass on memes. Yes, languages and cultures also provided many benefits to the genes as well, but with languages and cultures, the memes were able to begin to evolve millions of times faster than the genes, and the poor genes were left straggling far behind. Given the growing hardware platform of an ever-increasing number of Homo sapiens on the planet, the memes then began to cut free of the genes and evolve capabilities on their own that only aided the survival of memes, with little regard for the genes, to the point of even acting in a very detrimental manner to the survival of the genes, like developing the capability for global thermonuclear war and global climate change. The memes have since modified the entire planet. They have cut down the forests for agriculture, mined minerals from the ground for metals, burned coal, oil, and natural gas for energy, releasing the huge quantities of carbon dioxide that its genetic predecessors had sequestered within the Earth, and have even modified the very DNA, RNA, and metabolic pathways of its predecessors.

We can now see these very same processes at work today with the evolution of software. Software is currently being written by memes within the minds of programmers. Nobody ever learned how to write software all on their own. Just as with learning to speak or to read and write, everybody learned to write software by imitating teachers, other programmers, imitating the code written by others, or by working through books written by others. Even after people do learn how to program in a particular language, they never write code from scratch; they always start with some similar code that they have previously written, or others have written, in the past as a starting point, and then evolve the code to perform the desired functions in a Darwinian manner (see How Software Evolves). This crutch will likely continue for another 20 – 50 years until the day finally comes when software can write itself, but even so, “we” do not currently write the software that powers the modern world; the memes write the software that does that. This is just a reflection of the fact that “we” do not really run the modern world either; the memes in meme-complexes really run the modern world because the memes are currently the dominant form of self-replicating information on the planet. In The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore goes on to point out that the memes at first coevolved with the genes during their early days, but have since outrun the genes because the genes could simply not keep pace when the memes began to evolve millions of times faster than the genes. The same thing is happening before our very eyes to the memes, with software now rapidly outpacing the memes. Software is now evolving thousands of times faster than the memes, and the memes can simply no longer keep up.

As with all forms of self-replicating information, software began as a purely parasitic mutation within the scientific and technological meme-complexes, initially running on board Konrad Zuse’s Z3 computer in May of 1941 (see So You Want To Be A Computer Scientist? for more details). It was spawned out of Zuse’s desire to electronically perform calculations for aircraft designs that were previously done manually in a very tedious manner. So initially software could not transmit memes, it could only perform calculations, like a very fast adding machine, and so it was a pure parasite. But then the business and military meme-complexes discovered that software could also be used to transmit memes, and software then entered into a parasitic/symbiotic relationship with the memes. Software allowed these meme-complexes to thrive, and in return, these meme-complexes heavily funded the development of software of ever-increasing complexity, until software became ubiquitous, forming strong parasitic/symbiotic relationships with nearly every meme-complex on the planet. In the modern day, the only way memes can now spread from mind to mind without the aid of software is when you directly speak to another person next to you. Even if you attempt to write a letter by hand, the moment you drop it into a mailbox, it will immediately fall under the control of software. The poor memes in our heads have become Facebook and Twitter addicts.

So in the grand scheme of things, the memes have replaced their DNA predecessor, which replaced RNA, which replaced the original self-replicating autocatalytic metabolic pathways of organic molecules as the dominant form of self-replicating information on the Earth. Software is the next replicator in line, and is currently feasting upon just about every meme-complex on the planet, and has formed very strong parasitic/symbiotic relationships with all of them. How software will merge with the memes is really unknown, as Susan Blackmore pointed out in her TED presentation which can be viewed at:

Memes and "temes"

Once established, software then began to evolve based upon the Darwinian concepts of innovation and natural selection, which endowed software with one telling characteristic – the ability to survive in a Universe dominated by the second law of thermodynamics and nonlinearity. Successful software, like MS Word and Excel, competed for disk and memory address space with WordPerfect and VisiCalc and out-competed these once dominant forms of software to the point of extinction. In less than 70 years, software has rapidly spread across the face of the Earth and outward to every planet of the Solar System and many of its moons, with a few stops along the way at some comets and asteroids. And unlike us, software is now leaving the Solar System for interstellar space on board the Pioneer 1 & 2 and Voyager 1 & 2 probes.

Currently, software manages to replicate itself with the support of you. If you are an IT professional, then you are directly involved in some, or all of the stages in this replication process, and act sort of like a software enzyme. No matter what business you support as an IT professional, the business has entered into a parasitic/symbiotic relationship with software. The business provides the budget and energy required to produce and maintain the software, and the software enables the business to run its processes efficiently. The ultimate irony in all this is the symbiotic relationship between computer viruses and the malevolent programmers who produce them. Rather than being the clever, self-important, techno-nerds that they picture themselves to be, these programmers are merely the unwitting dupes of computer viruses that trick these unsuspecting programmers into producing and disseminating computer viruses! And if you are not an IT professional, you are still involved with spreading software around because you buy gadgets that are loaded down with software, like smartphones, notepads, laptops, PCs, TVs, DVRs, cars, refrigerators, coffeemakers, blenders, can openers and just about anything else that uses electricity.

The Genes, Memes and Software of War
In times of war, successful meme-complexes appeal primarily to two gene-induced emotions – the desire for social status and the fear of a perceived enemy. Social status in a group of similar DNA survival machines is always a good thing for the replication of genes because it brings with it the necessities of life that are required to maintain a healthy DNA survival machine and also provides for more opportunities for a DNA survival machine to couple with other DNA survival machines and to replicate its genes. Fear of a perceived enemy is another gene-induced emotion because it is a known fact that an enemy can destroy the DNA survival machines that are used to house genes as they move about from place to place.

Meme-complexes can do wonderful things, as is evidenced by the incredible standard of living enjoyed by the modern world, thanks to the efforts of the scientific meme-complex, or the great works of art, music, and literature handed down to us from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods, not to mention the joys of jazz, rock and roll, and the blues. However, other meme-complexes, like the memes of war, can also turn incredibly nasty. Just since the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century we have seen the Thirty Years War (1618 -1648), the Salem witch hunts (1692), the French Reign of Terror (1793 – 1794), American slavery (1654 – 1865), World War I (all sides) (1914 – 1918), the Stalinist Soviet Union (1929 – 1953), National Socialism (1933 – 1945), McCarthyism (1949 – 1958), Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1969 – 1976), and Pol Pot’s reign of terror (1976 – 1979).

The problem is that when human beings get wrapped up in a horrible meme-complex, they can do horrendous things without even being aware of the fact. This is because, in order to survive, the first thing that most meme-complexes do is to use a meme that turns off human thought and reflection. To paraphrase Descartes, ”I think, therefore I am" a heretic. So if you ever questioned any of the participants caught up in any of the above atrocious events, you would find that the vast majority would not have any qualms about their deadly activities whatsoever. In fact, they would question your loyalty and patriotism for even bringing up the subject. For example, during World War I there were few dissenters beyond Albert Einstein in Germany and Bertrand Russell in Great Britain, and both suffered the consequences of not being on board with the World War I meme-complex. Unquestioning blind obedience to a meme-complex through unconditional group-think is definitely a good survival strategy for any meme-complex.

In the modern world, during times of distress, we now see a very interesting interplay between the genes, memes and software of war. This certainly was true during the Arab Spring which began on December 18, 2010, and was made possible by the spreading of the memes of revolution via social media software. The trouble with the memes of war is that, like all meme-complexes, once they are established they are very conservative and not very open to new memes that might jeopardize the ongoing survival of the meme-complex, and consequently, they are very hard to change or eliminate. Remember, every meme-complex is less than one generation away from oblivion. So normally, meme-complexes are very resistant to the Darwinian processes of innovation and natural selection, and just settle down into a state of coexistence with the other meme-complexes that they interact with. But during periods of stress, very violent and dangerous war-like meme-complexes can break out of this equilibrium, rapidly forming a new war-like meme-complex in a manner similar to the Punctuated Equilibrium model of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge (1972), which holds that species are usually very stable and in equilibrium with their environment and only rarely change when required.

In times of peace, the genes, memes and software enter into an uneasy alliance of parasitic/symbiotic relationships, but in times of war, this uneasy truce breaks down, as we have again seen in the Middle East. The Middle East is currently plagued by a number of warring religious meme-complexes that are in the process of destroying the Middle East, as did the warring Catholic and Protestant religious meme-complexes of the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648), which nearly destroyed Europe. But at the same time that the Thirty Years War raged in Europe, people like Kepler, Galileo and Descartes were laying the foundations of the 17th century Scientific Revolution which led to the 18th century European Enlightenment. So perhaps the warring meme-complexes of a region have to eliminate the belligerent genes of the region before rational thought can once again prevail.

Application to the Foreign Policy of the United States
The foreign policy of the United States keeps getting into trouble because Americans do not understand the enduring nature of meme-complexes. Because all successful meme-complexes have survived the rigors of Darwinian natural selection, they are very hardy forms of self-replicating information and not easily dislodged or eliminated once they have become endemic in a region. Yes, by occupying a region it is possible to temporarily suppress what the local meme-complexes can do, but it is very difficult to totally eliminate them from the scene because successful meme-complexes have learned to simply hide when confronted by a hostile intruding meme-complex, only later to reemerge when the hostile meme-complex has gone. The dramatic collapse of South Vietnam in less than two months (March 10 – April 30 1975) after spending more than a decade trying to alter the meme-complexes of the region is evidence of that fact. Similarly, the dramatic collapse of Iraq and Afghanistan after another decade of futile attempts to subdue the local meme-complexes of the region that are thousands of years old is another example of a failed foreign policy stemming from a naïve understanding of the hardiness of meme-complexes. History has taught us that the only way to permanently suppress the local meme-complexes of a region is to establish a permanent empire to rule the region with a heavy hand, and this is something Americans are loath to do, having once freed ourselves from such an empire.

Currently, in the United States the polls are showing that Americans, on one hand, do not want to get involved in the Middle East again, but on the other hand, perceive that the foreign policy of the United States is weak and that we are not showing leadership. Apparently, Americans are now so confused by the varying warring factions in the Middle East that they can no longer even tell who the potential enemy is. This confusion also stems from an old 20th-century meme that world leadership equates to military action, which is probably no longer true in the 21st century because the 21st century will be marked by the rise of software to supremacy as the dominant form of self-replicating information on the planet. This self-contradictory assessment troubling the minds of Americans is further exasperated by an old 20th century meme currently floating about that, if the Middle East should further spin out of control, that governmental safe havens will be established for the training of combatants that might again strike the United States as they did with the September 11, 2001 attacks, specifically those on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But in the modern world, with the dramatic rise of software, there is no longer a need for physical safe havens in the Middle East to train and equip combatants. Indeed, training combatants to effectively attack modern 21st-century countries, and the technology that they rely upon, is best done in locations with modern 21st-century technology and good Internet connectivity close at hand. For example, Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier conspired to conduct the Oklahoma City bombing attack that killed 168 people and injured over 600 on April 19, 1995, by training within the United States itself. Similarly, the September 11, 2001 combatants also trained within the United States prior to the attack. After all, it’s hard to learn how to fly a modern jetliner in a cave. Ironically, in the 21st century, it would actually be a good defensive strategy to try to isolate your enemies to the deserts and caves of the Middle East because deserts and caves have such poor Internet connectivity and access to modern technology.

For example, currently I am employed in the Middleware Operations group of a major U.S. corporation, and I work out of my home office in Roselle, IL, a northwest suburb of Chicago. The rest of our onshore Middleware Operations group is also scattered throughout the suburbs of Chicago and hardly ever goes into our central office for work. And about 2/3 of Middleware Operations works out of an office in Bangalore India. But the whole team can collaborate very effectively in a remote manner using CISCO software. We use CISCO IP Communicator for voice over IP phone conversations and CISCO WebEx for online web-meetings. We use CISCO WebEx Connect for instant messaging and the sharing of desktops to view the laptops of others for training purposes. Combined with standard corporate email, these technologies allow a large group of Middleware Operations staff to work together from locations scattered all over the world, without ever actually being physically located in the same place. In fact, when the members of Middleware Operations do come into the office for the occasional group meeting, we usually just use the same CISCO software products to communicate while sitting in our cubicles, even when we are sitting in adjacent cubicles! After all, the CISCO collaborative software works better than leaning over somebody else’s laptop and trying to see what is going on. I believe that many enemies of the United States now also work together in a very similar distributed manner as a network of agents scattered all over the world. Now that memes can move so easily over the Internet and are no longer confined to particular regions, even the establishment of regional empires will no longer be able to suppress them.

So in the 21st century dominated by software, the only thing that the enemies of the United States really need is money. From a 21st century military perspective, control of territory is now an obsolete 20th century meme because all an enemy really needs is money and the complicit cooperation of worldwide financial institutions to do things like launch cyber-attacks, create and deliver dirty bombs, purchase surface to air missiles to down commercial aircraft or purchase nuclear weapons to FedEx to targets. For the modern 21st century economies, it really makes more sense to beef up your Cyber Defense capabilities rather than trying to control territories populated by DNA survival machines infected with very self-destructive war-like meme-complexes that tend to splinter and collapse on their own. So for the present situation, the most effective military action that the United States could take would be to help the world to cut off the money supply to the Middle East by ending the demand for oil and natural gas by converting to renewable sources of energy. This military action would also have the added benefit of preventing many additional future wars fought over the control of Middle Eastern oil and wars that would be induced by global climate change as it severely disrupts the economies of the world (see How to Use Your IT Skills to Save the World and 400 PPM - The Dawn of the SophomorEocene for more details).

Since the “real world” of human affairs only exists in our minds, we can change it by simply changing the way we think by realizing that we are indeed DNA survival machines with minds infected with memes and software that are not necessarily acting in our own best interests. We are sentient beings in a Universe that has become self-aware and perhaps the only form of intelligence in our galaxy. What a privilege! The good news is that conscious intelligence is something new. It is not a mindless form of self-replicating information, bent on replicating at all costs with all the associated downsides of a ruthless nature. We can do much better with this marvelous opportunity once we realize what is really going on. It is up to all of us to make something of this unique opportunity that we can all be proud of – that’s our responsibility as sentient beings.

Comments are welcome at

To see all posts on softwarephysics in reverse order go to:

Steve Johnston

Monday, May 19, 2014

Software Embryogenesis

In my last posting An IT Perspective on the Origin of Chromatin, Chromosomes and Cancer I proposed that the chromatin and chromosomes of multicellular eukaryotic organisms, like ourselves, might have arisen in nature as a common solution to the same problem that IT faced when trying to process 14 miles of magnetic computer tape just to process the rudimentary account data for 50 million customers. The problem was how do you quickly find the account information for a single customer on 14 miles of tape? Multicellular organisms faced this very same challenge when large-scale multicellular organism first appeared during the Cambrian explosion 541 million years ago. How does each cell in a multicellular organism, consisting of billions or trillions of differentiated cells, find the genes that it needs in order to differentiate into the correct cell type for the tissue that it is forming? For example, Humans are made up of about 100 trillion eukaryotic cells, and each cell of the 100 trillion contains about 23,000 genes for coding proteins, stored on a small percentage of the 6 feet of DNA that is carefully wound up around a large number of histone proteins, and is packaged into 23 pairs of chromosomes within each cell, like the magnetic computer tape of yore that was wound up around 2400 foot reels, and was carefully stored in the tape racks of times gone by. The 100 trillion eukaryotic cells of a human are composed of several hundred different cell types, and each cell at each location within a human body must somehow figure out what kind of cell to become. So how does each differentiated cell within a human being find the proper genes, and at the proper time, to develop into a human baby from a single fertilized egg cell? This is a very perplexing problem because each human being begins as a spherically symmetric fertilized egg cell. How can it possibly grow and differentiate into 100 trillion cells, composed of several hundred different cell types, and ultimately forming the myriad varied tissues within a body that perform the functions of life? In biology, the study of this incredible feat is called embryogenesis or developmental biology, and this truly amazing process from a data processing perspective is certainly worthy of investigation from an IT perspective.

Human Embryogenesis
Most multicellular organisms follow a surprisingly similar sequence of steps to form a complex body, composed of billions or trillions of eukaryotic cells, from a single fertilized egg. This is a sure sign of some inherited code at work that has been tweaked many times to produce a multitude of complex body plans or phyla by similar developmental processes. Since many multicellular life forms follow a similar developmental theme let us focus, as always, upon ourselves and use the development of human beings as our prime example of how developmental biology works. For IT professionals and other readers not familiar with embryogenesis, it would be best now to view this short video before proceeding:

Medical Embryology - Difficult Concepts of Early Development Explained Simply

Basically, a fertilized egg, or zygote, begins to divide many times over, without the zygote really increasing in size at all. After a number of divisions, the zygote becomes a ball of undifferentiated cells that are all the same and is known as a morula. The morula then develops an interior hollow center called a blastocoel. The hollow ball of cells is known as a blastula and all the cells in the blastula are undifferentiated, meaning that they are all still identical in nature.

Figure 1 – A fertilized egg, or zygote, divides many times over to form a solid sphere of cells called a morula. The morula then develops a central hole to become a hollow ball of cells known as a blastula. The blastula consists of identical cells. When gastrulation begins some cells within the blastula begin to form three layers of differentiated cells – the ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm. The above figure does not show the amnion which forms just outside of the infolded cells that create the gastrula. See Figure 2 for the location of the amnion.

The next step is called gastrulation. In gastrulation one side of the blastula breaks symmetry and folds into itself and eventually forms three differentiated layers – the ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm. The amnion forms just outside of the gastrulation infold.

Figure 2 – In gastrulation three layers of differentiated cells form - the ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm by cells infolding and differentiating.

Figure 3 – Above is a close-up view showing the ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm forming from the primitive streak.

The cells of the endoderm go on to differentiate into the internal organs or guts of a human being. The cells of the mesoderm, or the middle layer, go on to form the muscles and connective tissues that do most of the heavy lifting. Finally, the cells of the ectoderm go on to differentiate into the external portions of the human body, like the skin and nerves.

Figure 4 – Some examples of the cell types that develop from the endoderm, mesoderm and ectoderm.

Figure 5 – A human being develops from the cells in the ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm as they differentiate into several hundred different cell types.

This is all incredibly impressive from a data processing perspective. The nagging question in biology has always been if each of the 100 trillion cells in the human body all have the very same 23,000 genes strung out along some small percentage of the 6 feet of DNA found in the 23 pairs of chromosomes of each cell, how do the 100 trillion cells figure out what to do?

Alan Turing’s Morphogenesis Model
In biology, the currently accepted paradigm for how the spherically symmetric cells of a blastula differentiate into the 100 trillion cells of the human body, forming very complex tissues and organs, stems from a paper that Alan Turing published in 1952 entitled The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis. Yes, the very same Alan Turing of early computer science fame. In 1936 Alan Turing developed the mathematical concept of the Turing Machine in On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem that today underlies the architecture for all modern computers. Alan Turing’s work was completely conceptual in nature, and in the paper, he proposed the theoretical concept of a Turing Machine. A Turing Machine was composed of a read/write head and an infinitely long paper tape. On the paper tape was stored a sequential series of 1s and 0s, and the read/write head could move back and forth along the paper tape in a motion based upon the 1s and 0s that it read. The read/write head could also write 1s and 0s to the paper tape as well. In Turing’s paper, he mathematically proved that such an arrangement could be used to encode any mathematical algorithm, like multiplying two very large numbers together and storing the result on the paper tape. In many ways, a Turing Machine is much like a ribosome reading mRNA and writing out the amino acids of a polypeptide chain that eventually fold up into an operational protein.

Figure 6 - A Turing Machine had a read/write head and an infinitely long paper tape. The read/write head could read instructions on the tape that were encoded as a sequence of 1s and 0s and could write out the results of following the instructions on the paper tape back to the tape as a sequence of 1s and 0s.

Figure 7 – A ribosome read/write head behaves much like the read/write head of a Turing Machine. The ribosome reads an mRNA tape that was transcribed earlier from a section of DNA tape that encodes the information in a gene. The ribosome read/write head then reads the A, C, G, and U nucleobases that code for amino acids three at a time. As each 3-bit byte is read on the mRNA tape, the ribosome writes out an amino acid to a growing polypeptide chain, as tRNA units bring in one amino acid at a time. The polypeptide chain then goes on to fold up into a 3-D protein molecule.

In a sense, all modern computers are loosely based upon the concept of a Turing Machine. Turing did not realize it, but at the same time he was formulating the concept of a Turing Machine back in 1936, Konrad Zuse was constructing his totally mechanical Z1 computer in the bathroom of his parent’s apartment in Germany, and the Z1 really did use a paper tape to store the program and data that it processed, much like a Turing Machine. Neither one of these early computer pioneers had any knowledge of the other at the time. For more about how Konrad Zuse independently developed a physical implementation of many of Alan Turing’s mathematical concepts, but also implemented them in practical terms in the form of the world’s very first real computers, see the following article that was written in his own words:

Figure 8 - A reconstructed mechanical Z1 computer completed by Konrad Zuse in 1989. The Z1 was not a full-fledged modern computer, like Zuse’s Z3 computer that became operational in May of 1941 because it read programs from a punched tape that were not stored in the mechanical memory of the Z1. In that regard, the Z1 was more like a Turing Machine than are modern computers.

Now back to Turing and morphogenesis. The essential element of Turing’s model for the development of embryos was the concept of a morphogen. A morphogen is an organic molecule that is found in the cells of an embryo or diffuses between the cells of an embryo and that can affect embryonic development. In Turing’s model when a morphogen reached a critical concentration it could activate or inhibit some of the genes in the growing embryo that controlled the differentiation and migration of the embryonic cells. Today we call morphogens that are secreted by one cell and diffuse to other nearby cells a paracrine factor and they are primarily protein molecules that are generated by the cells of a developing embryo. The problem with morphogenesis was that if all the cells in the hollow ball of cells that formed a blastula were all identical, how could embryonic development get initiated? Turing proposed that there would naturally be some slight variations in the concentrations of the morphogens from place to place along the surface of the blastula, and eventually, these variations, or instabilities, in the concentrations of the morphogen molecules would naturally cause the blastula to break spherical symmetry. It’s like trying to balance a pencil on its point. Initially, the pencil stands straight up and is totally symmetric with respect to all directions. But eventually the pencil will fall down, due to a slight instability, and then it will point in some specific direction, like due north.

Turing proposed that the spherical symmetry of the blastula could be broken in a similar manner, by means of varying diffusion rates of the morphogen molecules. For example, suppose the genes within a human being can generate two proteins A and B. Protein A can enhance the generation of protein A itself, and can also enhance the generation of another protein B by epigenetic means, like binding to the promoter sections of the DNA for the genes that make proteins A and B. Now suppose that protein B can also inhibit the production of protein A by similar means and that protein B is a smaller molecule that diffuses faster than protein A. A negative feedback loop will then develop between proteins A and B. If protein A increases, it will enhance the production of protein B in the nearby cells of the blastula, which will then inhibit the production of protein A in the local vicinity, and consequently, will help to keep the local production of protein A in check. Proteins A and B will then arrive at some equilibrium level that never changes due to the controlling negative feedback loops operating in the vicinity of the cells. But what if in one isolated section of the blastula an instability should develop, and the concentration of protein A spontaneously peaks far above normal? This will produce more of protein A in the neighboring cells, and also more of protein B too because protein A enhances the production of both proteins A and B. But because protein B can diffuse faster than protein A, the concentration level of protein B at some distance from the protein A peak will be higher than normal and will suppress the production of protein A in a surrounding ring centered upon the protein A peak. The end result will be a protein A peak surrounded by a ring of protein B, like the foothills around a mountain peak. This will break the spherical symmetry of the blastula because now we no longer have constant concentrations of protein A and B throughout the blastula. Once the spherical symmetry of the blastula has been broken an explosive cascade of logical operations are unleashed as a torrent of morphogens, or paracrine factors, are released in a large number of parallel chain reactions that transform the spherically symmetric blastula into a highly nonsymmetrical human being with great rapidity.

Figure 9 – A spontaneous spike in the concentration of protein A can create a permanent peak of protein A surrounded by a foothill ring of protein B and break the spherical symmetry of the hollow ball of cells that form a blastula.

The huge expanse of logical operations that are encoded in the network of genes, combined with epigenetic information that is encoded within the structures of the chromosomes themselves, is quite remarkable because not only do they have to rapidly develop the embryo into a viable organism that can live on its own, but they also have to keep the growing embryo alive at all stages of development, as it greatly changes in size, shape and function.

Figure 10 – The cascades of morphogens, or paracrine factors, rapidly change the spherical blastula into a highly nonsymmetrical human being.

Many of the morphogen, or paracrine factor, cascades are very similar for all multicellular organisms, leading to very similar patterns of development, a sure sign that inherited reusable code is in action.

Figure 11 – The development of embryos across species is remarkably similar because of the reuse of the code found within the cascades of morphogen, or paracrine factors.

I recently finished the ninth edition of Developmental Biology 2010 by Scott F. Gilbert, a 711 page college textbook. Now that I am 62 years old, I frequently like to read current college textbooks from cover to cover, without the least worry about problem sets or exams. The striking realization that I came to from reading this textbook was that for IT professionals struggling with the new SOA architecture, it is critical to focus upon the network of logical operations that the billions of Objects that the SOA architecture generates, and to focus less upon the individual methods within any given Object. There will be more on that in the next section.

The Development of Embryos in Commercial Software
With the advent of SOA (Service Oriented Architecture) about 10 years ago we have seen the evolution of a very similar pattern of embryogenesis in commercial software. For more about SOA please see:

Service-oriented architecture

As I have mentioned in many previous softwarephysics postings, commercial software has been evolving about 100 million times faster than biological software over the last 70 years, or 2.2 billion seconds, ever since Konrad Zuse cranked up his Z3 computer in May of 1941, and that the architectural history of commercial software has essentially recapitulated the evolutionary history of life on Earth over this same period of time through a process of convergence. Over the years, the architecture of commercial software has passed through a very lengthy period of prokaryotic architecture (1941 – 1972), followed by a period of single-celled eukaryotic architecture (1972 – 1992). Multicellular organization took off next with the Object-Oriented revolution of the early 1990s, especially with the arrival of Java in 1995. About 10 years ago, commercial software entered into a Cambrian explosion of its own with the advent of SOA (Service Oriented Architecture) in which large-scale multicellular applications first appeared, chiefly in the form of high-volume corporate websites. For more on this see the SoftwarePaleontology section of:SoftwareBiology.

Object-Oriented Programming Techniques Allow for the Multicellular Organization of Software
Before proceeding with the development of embryos in commercial software, we first need to spend some time exploring how multicellular organization is accomplished in commercial software. Multicellular organization in commercial software is based upon the use of Object-Oriented programming languages. Object-Oriented programming actually began in 1962, but it did not catch on at first. In the late 1980s, the use of the very first significant Object-Oriented programing language, known as C++, started to appear in corporate IT, but Object-Oriented programming really did not become significant in IT until 1995 when both Java and the Internet Revolution arrived at the same time. The key idea in Object-Oriented programming is naturally the concept of an Object. An Object is simply a cell. Object-oriented languages use the concept of a Class, which is a set of instructions for building an Object (cell) of a particular cell type in the memory of a computer. Depending upon whom you cite, there are several hundred different cell types in the human body, but in IT we generally use many thousands of cell types or Classes in commercial software. For a brief overview of these concepts go to the webpage below and follow the links by clicking on them.

Lesson: Object-Oriented Programming Concepts

A Class defines the data that an Object stores in memory and also the methods that operate upon the Object data. Remember, an Object is simply a cell. Methods are like biochemical pathways that consist of many steps or lines of code. A public method is a biochemical pathway that can be invoked by sending a message to a particular Object, like using a ligand molecule secreted from one Object to bind to the membrane receptors on another Object. This binding of a ligand to a public method of an Object can then trigger a cascade of private internal methods within an Object or cell.

Figure 12 – A Class contains the instructions for building an Object in the memory of a computer and basically defines the cell type of an Object. The Class defines the data that an Object stores in memory and also the methods that can operate upon the Object data.

Figure 13 – Above is an example of a Bicycle Object. The Bicycle Object has three data elements - speed in mph, cadence in rpm, and a gear number. These data elements define the state of a Bicycle Object. The Bicycle Object also has three methods – changeGears, applyBrakes, and changeCadence that can be used to change the values of the Bicycle Object’s internal data elements.

Figure 14 – Above is some very simple Java code for a Bicycle Class. Real Class files have many data elements and methods and are usually hundreds of lines of code in length.

Figure 15 – Many different Objects can be created from a single Class just as many cells can be created from a single cell type. The above List Objects are created by instantiating the List Class three times and each List Object contains a unique list of numbers. The individual List Objects have public methods to insert or remove numbers from the Objects and also an internal sort method that could be called whenever the public insert or remove methods are called. The internal sort method automatically sorts the numbers in the List Object whenever a number is added or removed from the Object.

Figure 16 – Objects communicate with each other by sending messages. Really one Object calls the exposed public methods of another Object and passes some data to the Object it calls, like one cell secreting a ligand molecule that then plugs into a membrane receptor on another cell.

Figure 17 – In Turing’s model cells in a growing embryo communicate with each other by sending out ligand molecules called morphogens or paracrine factors that bind to membrane receptors on other cells.

Figure 18 – Calling a public method of an Object can initiate the execution of a cascade of private internal methods within the Object. Similarly, when a paracrine factor molecule plugs into a receptor on the surface of a cell, it can initiate a cascade of internal biochemical pathways. In the above figure, an Ag protein plugs into a BCR receptor and initiates a cascade of biochemical pathways or methods within a cell.

Embryonic Growth and Differentiation of a High-Volume Corporate Website
When a high-volume corporate website, consisting of many millions of lines of code running on hundreds of servers, starts up and begins taking traffic, billions of Objects (cells) begin to be instantiated in the memory of the servers in a manner of minutes and then begin to exchange messages with each other in order to perform the functions of the website. Essentially, when the website boots up, it quickly grows to a mature adult through a period of very rapid embryonic growth and differentiation, as billions of Objects are created and differentiated to form the tissues of the website organism. These Objects then begin exchanging messages with each other by calling public methods on other Objects to invoke cascades of private internal methods which are then executed within the called Objects.

For example, today most modern high-volume corporate websites use the MVC pattern – the Model-View-Controller pattern. In the mid-1990s IT came upon the concept of application patterns. An application pattern is basically a phylum, a basic body plan for an application, and the MVC pattern is the most familiar. For example, when you order something from Amazon, you are using an MVC application. The Model is the endoderm or “guts” of the application that stores all of the data on tables in relational databases. A database table is like an Excel spreadsheet, containing many rows of data, and each table consists of a number of columns with differing datatypes and sizes. For example, there may be columns containing strings, numbers and dates of various sizes in bytes. Most tables will have a Primary Index, like a CustomerID, that uniquely identifies each row of data. By joining tables together via their columns it is possible to create composite rows of data. For example, by combining all the rows in the Customers table with the rows in the Orders table via the CustomerID column in each table, it is possible to find information about all of the orders a particular customer has placed. Amazon has a database Model consisting of thousands of tables of data that store all of the information about their products on millions of rows, like descriptions of the products and how many they have in stock, as well as tables on all of their orders and customers. The View in an MVC application comprises the ectoderm tissues of the application and defines how the application looks to the end-user from the outside. The View consists mainly of screens and reports. When you place an order with Amazon, you do so by viewing their products online and then filling out webpage screens with data. When you place an order, the View code takes in the data and validates it for errors. Reports are static output, like the final webpage you see with your order information and the email you receive confirming your order. The Controller code of an MVC application forms the muscular mesoderm connective tissue that connects the View (ectoderm) layer to the Model (endoderm) layer and does most of the heavy lifting. The Controller code has to connect the data from the Model and format it into the proper View that the end-user sees on the surface. The Controller code also has to take the data from the View and create orders from it and send instructions to the warehouse to put the order together. The Controller has to also do things like debit your credit card. So as you can see, Controller code, like mesoderm, is the most muscular code and also the most costly to build.

Figure 19 – The endoderm of an MVC application forms the “guts” of the application and consists of a large number of database Objects that hold the selected data from thousands of relational database tables.

Figure 20 – An online order screen is displayed by Objects in your browser that form the ectoderm layer of an MVC application. The information on the screen comes from HTML that is sent to your browser from the middleware (mesoderm) layer of an MVC application.

The mesoderm layer of website MVC applications runs on middleware that lies between the ectoderm Objects running on an end-user’s browser and the database Objects running on the endoderm layer. Figure 21 shows that the middleware (mesoderm) layer is composed of components that are protected by several layers of firewalls to ward off attacks from the outside. The middleware feeds HTML to the end-user’s browser that kicks off Objects within the end-users browser that display the HTML as webpages.

Figure 21 - The mesoderm layer of website MVC applications runs on middleware that lies between the ectoderm Objects running on an end-user’s browser and the database Objects running on the endoderm layer. The middleware (mesoderm) layer is composed of components that are protected by several layers of firewalls to ward off attacks from the outside. The middleware feeds HTML to the end-user’s browser that kicks off Objects within the end-users browser that display the HTML as webpages.

This is accomplished with mesoderm middleware running on J2EE Application Server software like IBM’s WebSphere or Oracle’s WebLogic. A J2EE Application Server contains a WEB Container that stores pools of Servlet Objects and an EJB Container that stores pools of EJB Objects (see Figure 22). The EJB Objects get data from relational databases (DB) and process the data and then pass the information on to Servlet Objects. The Servlet Objects generate HTML based upon the data processed by the EJB Objects and pass the HTML to HTTP webservers like Apache. The HTTP webservers then send out the HTML to the Objects in your browser to be displayed on your PC or smartphone. When you fill out an order screen on your PC to purchase an item, the flow of information is reversed and ultimately updates the data in the relational databases (DB). Each J2EE Application Server runs in its own JVM (Java Virtual Machine), and a modern high-volume corporate website might be powered by thousands of J2EE Application Servers in JVMs, running on dozens of physical servers, and each J2EE Application Server might contain millions of Objects.

With SOA (Service Oriented Architecture) some of the J2EE Application Servers run in Service Cells that provide basic services to other J2EE Application Servers running in Consumer Cells. The Objects in Service Cells perform basic functions, like looking up a customer’s credit score or current account information and provide the information as a service via SOAP or REST calls to Objects in Consumer Cells. Essentially, the Objects in a Service Cell of J2EE Application Servers perform the services that the cells in an organ, like the lungs or kidneys perform, for other somatic cells elsewhere in the body of an organism.

Figure 22 - A J2EE Application Server contains a WEB Container that stores pools of Servlet Objects and an EJB Container that stores pools of EJB Objects. The EJB Objects get data from relational databases (DB) and processes the data and then passes the information to Servlet Objects. The Servlet Objects generate HTML based upon the data processed by the EJB Objects and pass the HTML to HTTP webservers like Apache.

As you can see the middleware mesoderm tissues, composed of billions of Objects running on thousands of J2EE Application Server JVMs, does most of the heavy lifting in the MVC applications running on high-volume corporate websites. This is accomplished by running the middleware software on banks of clustered servers with load balancers between each layer that spray traffic to the next layer. This allows for great flexibility and allows MVC applications to scale to any load by simply adding more servers to each layer to handle more Objects in the middleware mesoderm tissues.

Figure 23 – As you can see the middleware mesoderm tissues, composed of billions of Objects, does most of the heavy lifting in the MVC applications running on high-volume corporate websites. This is accomplished by running the middleware software on banks of clustered servers with load balancers between each layer that spray traffic to the next layer. This allows for great flexibility and allows MVC applications to scale to any load by simply adding more servers to each layer to handle more Objects in the middleware mesoderm tissues.

When you login to a high-volume corporate website many thousands of Objects are created for your particular session. These Objects consume a certain amount of memory on the banks of servers in each layer of middleware, and this can lead to problems. For example, one of the most common forms of software disease is called an OOM (Out Of Memory) condition. As I mentioned previously, there are several billion Objects (cells) running at any given time within the middleware mesoderm tissues of a major corporation. These Objects are created and destroyed as users login and then later leave a corporate website. These Objects reside in the JVMs of J2EE Appservers. These JVMs periodically run a “garbage collection” task every few minutes to release the memory used by the “dead” Objects left behind by end-users who have logged off the website. The garbage collection task frees up memory in the JVM so that new “live” Objects can be created for new end-users logging into the website. In biology, the programmed death of cells is called apoptosis. For example, between 50 and 70 billion cells die each day due to apoptosis in the average human adult, and when apoptosis fails, it can be a sign of cancer and the uncontrolled growth of tumor cells. Similarly, sometimes, for seemingly unknown reasons, Objects in the JVMs refuse to die and begin to proliferate in a neoplastic and uncontrolled manner, similar to the cells in a cancerous tumor, until the JVM finally runs out of memory and can no longer create new Objects. The JVM essentially dies at this point and generates a heap dump file. MidOps has a tool that allows us to look at the heap dump of the JVM that died. The tool is much like the microscope that my wife used to look at the frozen and permanent sections of a biopsy sample when she was a practicing pathologist. The heap dump will show us information about the tens of millions of Objects that were in the JVM at the time of its death. Object counts in the heap dump will show us which Objects metastasized, but will not tell us why they did so. So after a lot of analysis by a lot of people, nobody can really figure out why the OOM event happened and that does not make IT management happy. IT management always wants to know what the “root cause” of the problem was so that we can remove it. I keep trying to tell them that it is like trying to find the “root cause” of a thunderstorm! Yes, we can track the motions of large bodies of warm and cold air intermingling over the Midwest, but we cannot find the “root cause” of a particular thunderstorm over a particular suburb of Chicago because the thunderstorm is an emergent behavior of a complex nonlinear network of software Objects. See Software Chaos for more details.

Do Biologists Have It All Wrong?
As we have seen, the evolution of the architecture of commercial software over the past 70 years, or 2.2 billion seconds, has closely followed the same architectural path that life on Earth followed over the past 4 billion years. The reason for this is that both commercial software and living things are forms of self-replicating information. For more on that see A Brief History of Self-Replicating Information. Because both commercial software and living things have converged upon very similar solutions to combat the second law of thermodynamics in a nonlinear Universe, I contend that the study of commercial software by biologists would provide just as much research value as studying any alien life forms that we might eventually find on Mars, or the moons Europa, Enceladus or Titan, if we should ever get there, and why bother, when all you have to do is spend some time in the nearby IT department of a major corporation in the city that your University resides?

Based upon this premise, I would like to highlight some of Professor Dick Gordon’s work on embryogenesis which goes well beyond Alan Turing’s theory that gradients of morphogens are solely responsible for embryonic growth and differentiation. I recently attended the 2014 winter session of Professor Gordon’s Embryo Physics course which met every Wednesday afternoon at 4:00 PM CT in a Second Life virtual world session. I would highly recommend this course to all IT professionals willing to think a bit outside of the box. For more on this very interesting ongoing course please see:

Embryogenesis Explained

Dick Gordon’s theory of embryogenesis is best explained by his The Hierarchical Genome and Differentiation Waves - Novel Unification of Development, Genetics and Evolution (1999). But here is a nice summary of his theory that he presented as a lecture to the students of the Embryo Physics class on March 20, 2012:

Cause and Effect in the Interaction between Embryogenesis and the Genome

Basically, his theory of morphogenesis is that the genes in the genomes of multicellular organisms that control embryogenesis are organized in a hierarchical manner and that as mechanical differentiation waves pass through the cells of a growing embryo, they trigger cascades of epigenetic events within the cells of the embryo that cause them to split along differentiation trees. As more and more differentiation waves impinge upon the differentiating cells of an embryo, the cells continue down continuously bifurcating differentiation trees. This model differs significantly from Alan Turing’s model of morphogenesis that relies upon the varying diffusion rates of morphogens, creating chemical gradients that turn genes on and off. In Dick Gordon’s model it is the arrival of mechanical expansion and contraction waves at each cell that determines how the cell will differentiate by turning specific genes on and off in cascades, and consequently, the differentiation waves determine what proteins each cell ultimately produces and in what quantities. In his theory, each cell has a ring of microtubules that essentially performs the functions of a seismometer that senses the passage of differentiation waves and is called a cell state splitter. When an expansion differentiation wave arrives, it causes the cell state splitter to expand, and when a contraction differential wave arrives, it causes the cell state splitter to contract. The expansion or contraction of the cell state splitter then causes the nucleus of the cell to distort in a similar manner.

Figure 24 – A circular ring of microfilaments performs the functions of a seismometer that senses the passage of expansion and contraction differentiation waves passing by and is called a cell state splitter. The cell state splitter then passes along the signal to the nucleus of the cell (From slide 75 of Dick Gordon’s lecture).

The distortion of the cell’s nucleus then causes one of two possible gene cascades to fire within the cell. Dick Gordon calls this binary logical operation the nuclear state splitter.

Figure 25 – Changes in the cell state splitter seismometer, caused by a passing contraction or expansion differentiation wave triggers the nuclear state splitter to fire in one of two possible gene cascades (From slide 96 of Dick Gordon’s lecture).

Figure 26 – Groups of cells of one cell type bifurcate along differentiation tree paths when a cell state splitter seismometer fires (From slide 51 of Dick Gordon’s lecture).

Figure 27 – As each contraction or expansion wave impinges upon a cell it causes the cell to split down one branch or the other of a differentiation tree by launching a gene cascade within the cell (From slide 52 of Dick Gordon’s lecture).

The distinguishing characteristic of Dick Gordon’s model is that the information needed by a cell to differentiate properly is not biochemically passed from one cell to another. Rather the information is transmitted via differentiation waves. For example, in Alan Turing’s morphogen model, morphogenic proteins are passed from one cell to another as paracrine factors that diffuse from one cell to another along a gradient. Or the morphogenic proteins pass directly from one cell to another across their cell membranes. Or morphogen generating cells are transported to other sites within an embryo as the embryo grows and then do both of the above.

Figure 28 – In Alan Turing’s model for morphogenesis, the information necessary for a cell to differentiate properly is passed from cell to cell purely in a biochemical manner (From slide 92 of Dick Gordon’s lecture).

In Dick Gordon’s model, it is the passage of differentiation waves that transmits the information required for cells to differentiate. In Figure 29 we see that as a differentiation wave passes by and each cell gets squished, the cell state splitter of the cell launches a cascade of genes that generate internal morphogenic proteins within the cell that cause the cell to differentiate. Superficially, this leaves one with the false impression that there is a gradient of such morphogenic proteins in play.

Figure 29 - As a differentiation wave passes by, each cell gets squished, and the cell state splitter of the cell launches a cascade of genes that generate internal morphogenic proteins within the cell. (From slide 93 of Dick Gordon’s lecture).

I am certainly not a biologist, but from the perspective of an IT professional and a former exploration geophysicist, I find that Dick Gordon’s theory merits further investigation for a number of reasons.

1. From an IT perspective it seems that the genomes of eukaryotic multicellular organisms may have adopted hierarchical indexed access methods to locate groups of genes and to turn them on or off during embryogenesis
As I pointed out in An IT Perspective on the Origin of Chromatin, Chromosomes and Cancer, IT professionals had a very similar problem when trying to find a particular customer record out of 50 million customer records stored on 14 miles of magnetic tape back in the 1970s. To overcome that problem, IT moved the customer data to disk drives and invented hierarchical indexed access methods using hierarchical indexes, like ISAM and VSAM to quickly find the single customer record. Today we store all commercial data on relational databases, but those relational databases still use hierarchical indexes under the hood. For example, suppose you have 200 customers, rather than 50 million, and would like to find the information on customer 190. If the customer data were stored as a sequential file on magnetic tape, you would have to read through the first 189 customer records before you finally got to customer 190. However, if the customer data were stored on a disk drive, using an indexed sequential access method like ISAM or VSAM, you could get to the customer after 3 reads that get you to the leaf page containing records 176 – 200, and you would only have to read 14 records on the leaf page before you got to record 190. Similarly, the differentiating cells within a growing embryo must have a difficult time finding the genes they need among the 23,000 genes of our genome that are stored on some small percentage of the 6 feet of DNA tape in each cell. So it is possible that the chromatin and chromosomes of the eukaryotic cells found within multicellular organisms provide for a hierarchical indexed access method to locate groups of genes and individual genes, and that the passage of Dick Gordon’s differentiation waves provide for the epigenetic means to initiate the hierarchical indexed access methods needed to differentiate the cells of a growing embryo. Comparing Figure 27 and Figure 30 you will find that they both form hierarchical tree structures. In Figure 30 if you think of the intermediate levels as being composed of gene cascades, rather than pointers to customer records, you essentially get an upside-down version of Dick Gordon’s Figure 27.

Figure 30 – To find customer 190 out of 200 on a magnetic tape would require sequentially reading 189 customer records. Using the above hierarchical B-Tree index would only require 3 reads to get to the leaf page containing records 176 – 200. Then an additional 14 reads would get you to customer record 190.

2. Where is the system clock that controls embryogenesis?
The current paradigm seems to rely heavily upon Alan Turing's theory of chemical morphogenesis, where cascades of regulatory proteins are generated at different foci within a growing embryo, and the concentration gradients of these regulatory proteins turn genes on and off in neighboring cells by enhancing or suppressing the promoters of genes. Based upon a great deal of experimental work, I think much of this may be true at a superficial level. But based on my IT experience, I also think something is missing. Alan Turing's theory of chemical morphogenesis is very much like the arrays of logic gates on a CPU chip that come together to form a basic function in the instruction set of a CPU, like adding two binary numbers together in two registers. At the lowest level we have billions of transistor switches turning on and off in a synchronized manner to form AND, OR, and NOT logic gates which are then combined to form the instruction set of a CPU. So we have billions of transistor switches causing billions of other transistor switches to turn on or off in cascades, just as we have billions or trillions of genes turning on and off in cascades of morphogenic proteins. But where is the overall system clock in a growing embryo? We definitely have a system clock in all CPUs that synchronizes all of the switch cascades.

Figure 31 – All CPUs have a system clock that fires many billions of times each second. The system clock sends out an electromagnetic wave as a series of pulses to all of the billions of transistors on a CPU chip. As each pulse arrives at a particular transistor, the transistor must determine if it is to keep its current state of being a 1 or a 0, or to change its state based upon the current state of the logic gate that it finds itself in. Similarly, each cell in a growing embryo must make the same decision via its state splitter when a differentiation wave passes by.

This is why I like Dick Gordon’s theory of differentiation waves that traverse throughout a growing embryo and which perform the same function as a system clock in a CPU by coordinating the turning on and off of genes across all of the cells in an embryo. In a sense, Dick Gordon’s theory can be used to view a growing embryo as a mechanical-chemical computer, using a mechanical system clock driven by mechanical differentiation waves to synchronize events, like Konrad Zuse’s mechanical Z1 computer that was loosely based upon Alan Turing’s conceptual Turing machine. Figure 32 shows a diagram from Konrad Zuse's May 1936 patent for a mechanical binary switching element, using mechanical flat sliding rods that were a fundamental component of the Z1, and which essentially performed the function of Dick Gordon’s cell state splitter. Ironically, Zuse’s patent was granted in the same year that Alan Turing developed the mathematical concept of the Turing Machine in On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem. Again, Turing and Zuse were not aware of each other’s work at the time and were soon to find themselves on opposite sides during World War II. For more on the Z1 see:

Figure 32 – A diagram from Zuse's May 1936 patent for a binary switching element, using mechanical flat sliding rods that were a fundamental component of the Z1.

In commercial software, at the level of Objects communicating with other Objects by calling public methods, it superficially appears as though differentiated Objects are brought into existence by paracrine morphogens passing from one Object to another, but don’t forget that this is an abstraction of many abstractions. At the lowest level, it is all really controlled by the system clocks on thousands of CPU chips in hundreds of servers sending out electromagnetic pulses across the surfaces of the chips.

3. Differentiation waves enable the GPS units of growing embryos
As a former geophysicist, what I really like about Dick Gordon’s theory is that the sequence and arrival times of differentiation waves will depend upon a cell’s location in a growing 3-D embryo. In that regard, it is very much like seismology. When an earthquake occurs many different types of mechanical waves are generated and begin to propagate along the Earth’s surface and throughout the Earth’s body. P-waves are compressional longitudinal waves that have the highest velocities, and therefore, arrive first at all recording stations as primary or p-waves. S-waves are transverse waves that have a lower velocity than p-waves, and therefore, arrive later at all recording stations as secondary or s-waves. By measuring the number of seconds between the arrival of the first p-waves and the arrival of the first s-waves, it is possible to tell how far away the epicenter of the earthquake is from a recording station, and by timing the arrival of the first p-waves and the first s-waves from an earthquake at a number of recording stations, it is possible to triangulate the epicenter of the earthquake. For more on that see:

For example, in Figure 35 we see that for the Kobe earthquake of January 17, 1995, a recording station in Manila received p-waves and s-waves from the earthquake first. Receiving stations in Stockholm and Honolulu both received p-waves and s-waves from the earthquake at later times, and the number of seconds between the arrival of the p-waves and s-waves at those distant locations was greater than it was for the Manila seismic station because Stockholm and Honolulu are both much farther away from Kobe than is Manila. By plotting the arrival times for all three recording stations, it was possible for geophysicists to triangulate the location of the epicenter of the earthquake.

GPS units work just the opposite. With a GPS system, we have a single recording station and electromagnetic waves coming from multiple “earthquakes” in the sky on board a number of GPS satellites that orbit the Earth with an orbital radius of 16,500 miles. Again, by comparing the arrival times of the electromagnetic waves from several GPS satellites, it is possible to triangulate the position of a GPS receiver on the Earth.

Similarly, because each seismic recording station on the Earth has a unique position on the Earth’s surface, the first p-waves and s-waves arrive at different times and in different sequences when several earthquakes at different locations on the Earth are all happening around the same time. Since there are always many little earthquakes going on all over the Earth all the time, the Earth’s natural seismicity can be used as a very primitive natural GPS system. Essentially, by comparing p-wave arrival times at one seismic station with the p-wave arrival times of surrounding seismic stations, you can also figure out the location of the seismic station relative to the others.

I imagine this would be a great way to create a closed feedback loop between the genes and a developing embryo. Since each cell in a growing embryo occupies a unique 3-D location, and thus will experience a unique timing and sequencing of differentiation waves, it’s a wonderful way for the genes in an individual cell to obtain its GPS location in an embryo and to differentiate accordingly by switching on certain genes, while switching other genes off. One could still maintain that all of this is still under the control of the genes in a Richard Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype 1982 manner. But communicating via waves seems like a much more efficient way to coordinate the growth and differentiation of an entire embryo, rather than trying to rely on morphogens diffusing across the bulk mass of an embryo that is essentially many light years in diameter at the molecular level. Indeed most information transmission in the Universe is accomplished via waves. It would only make sense that living things would stumble upon this fact at the cellular level. We certainly see macroscopic organisms using sound and light waves for communications, in addition to the primitive communications that are accomplished by the diffusion of scent molecules.

Figure 33 – When built up tectonic strain is released near the Earth’s surface sudden rock motions release mechanical waves that propagated away from the earthquake focus. When these mechanical waves reach you, they are felt as an earthquake.

Figure 34 – P-waves have the highest velocity and therefore arrive at each recording station first.

Figure 35 – By recording the arrival times of the p-waves and s-waves at a number of recording stations, it is possible to triangulate the epicenter of an earthquake. For example, by comparing the arrival times of the p-waves and s-waves from an earthquake at recording stations in Stockholm, Manila and Honolulu it was possible to pinpoint the epicenter of the January 17, 1995 earthquake in Kobe Japan.

Figure 36 – GPS systems do just the opposite. You can find your location on the Earth by comparing the arrival times of electromagnetic waves from several different satellites at the same time. If you think of each arriving satellite signal as a separate earthquake, it is possible to use them to triangulate your position.

Figure 37 – A conceptual view of the seismic waves departing from an earthquake in Italy.

Figure 38 – An ectoderm contraction wave in amphibian embryos. At hourly intervals, the image was digitally subtracted from the one 5 minutes earlier, showing the moving ectoderm contraction wave. The arc-shaped wave moves faster at its ends than in the middle, reforming a circle which then vanishes at what will be the anterior (head) end of the embryo. (These sets of images are from three different embryos.) The Bar in slide 10 = 1 mm. (Reprint of slides 80 and 81 of Dick Gordon’s lecture).

4. Déjà vu all over again
The current model that biologists use for morphogenesis reminds me very much of the state of affairs that classical geology found itself in back in 1960, before the advent of plate tectonics. I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1973 with a B.S. in physics, only to find that the end of the Space Race and a temporary lull in the Cold War had left very few prospects for a budding physicist. So on the advice of my roommate, a geology major, I headed up north to the University of Wisconsin in Madison to obtain an M.S. in geophysics, with the hope of obtaining a job with an oil company exploring for oil. These were heady days for geology because we were at the very tail end of the plate tectonics revolution that totally changed the fundamental models of geology. The plate tectonics revolution peaked during the five year period 1965 – 1970. Having never taken a single course in geology during all of my undergraduate studies, I was accepted into the geophysics program with many deficiencies in geology, so I had to take many undergraduate geology courses to get up to speed in this new science. The funny thing was that the geology textbooks of the time had not yet had time to catch up with the new plate tectonics revolution of the previous decade, so they still embraced the “classical” geological models of the past which now seemed a little bit silly in light of the new plate tectonics model. But this was also very enlightening. It was like looking back at the prevailing thoughts in physics prior to Newton or Einstein. What the classical geological textbooks taught me was that over the course of several hundred years, the geologists had figured out what had happened, but not why it had happened. Up until 1960 geology was mainly an observational science relying upon the human senses of sight and touch, and by observing and mapping many outcrops in detail, the geologists had figured out how mountains had formed, but not why.

In classical geology, most geomorphology was thought to arise from local geological processes. For example, in classical geology, fold mountains formed off the coast of a continent when a geosyncline formed because the continental shelf underwent a dramatic period of subsidence for some unknown reason. Then very thick layers of sedimentary rock were deposited into the subsiding geosyncline, consisting of alternating layers of sand and mud that turned into sandstones and shales, intermingled with limestones that were deposited from the carbonate shells of dead sea life floating down or from coral reefs. Next, for some unknown reason, the sedimentary rocks were laterally compressed into folded structures that slowly rose from the sea. More compression then followed, exceeding the ability of the sedimentary rock to deform plastically, resulting in thrust faults forming that uplifted blocks of sedimentary rock even higher. As compression continued, some of the sedimentary rocks were then forced down into great depths within the Earth and were then placed under great pressures and temperatures. These sedimentary rocks were then far from the thermodynamic equilibrium of the Earth’s surface where they had originally formed, and thus the atoms within recrystallized into new metamorphic minerals. At the same time, for some unknown reason, huge plumes of granitic magma rose from deep within the Earth’s interior as granitic batholiths. Then over several hundred millions of years, the overlying folded sedimentary rocks slowly eroded away, revealing the underlying metamorphic rocks and granitic batholiths, allowing human beings to cut them into slabs and to polish them into pretty rectangular slabs for the purpose of slapping them up onto the exteriors of office buildings and onto kitchen countertops. In 1960, classical geologists had no idea why the above sequence of events, producing very complicated geological structures, seemed to happen over and over again many times over the course of billions of years. But with the advent of plate tectonics (1965 – 1970), all was suddenly revealed. It was the lateral movement of plates on a global scale that made it all happen. With plate tectonics, everything finally made sense. Fold mountains did not form from purely local geological factors in play. There was the overall controlling geological process of global plate tectonics making it happen. For a comparison of the geomorphology of fold mountains with the morphogenesis of an embryo, please take a quick look at the two videos down below:

Fold Mountains

Medical Embryology - Difficult Concepts of Early Development Explained Simply

Figure 39 – Fold mountains occur when two tectonic plates collide. A descending oceanic plate first causes subsidence offshore of a continental plate which forms a geosyncline that accumulates sediments. When all of the oceanic plate between two continents has been consumed, the two continental plates collide and compress the accumulated sediments in the geosyncline into fold mountains. This is how the Himalayas formed when India crashed into Asia.

Now the plate tectonics revolution was really made possible by the availability of geophysical data. It turns out that most of the pertinent action of plate tectonics occurs under the oceans, at the plate spreading centers and subduction zones, far removed from the watchful eyes of geologists in the field with their notebooks and trusty hand lenses. Geophysics really took off after World War II, when universities were finally able to get their hands on cheap war surplus gear. By mapping variations in the Earth’s gravitational and magnetic fields and by conducting deep oceanic seismic surveys, geophysicists were finally able to figure out what was happening at the plate spreading centers and subduction zones. Actually, the geophysicist and meteorologist Alfred Wegner had figured this all out in 1912 with his theory of Continental Drift, but at the time Wegner was ridiculed by the geological establishment. You see, Wegner had been an arctic explorer and had noticed that sometimes sea ice split apart, like South America and Africa, only later to collide again to form mountain-like pressure ridges. Unfortunately, Wegner froze to death in 1930 trying to provision some members of his last exploration party to Greenland, never knowing that one day he would finally be vindicated. In many ways, I suspect that Dick Gordon might be another Alfred Wegner and that his embryogenesis model built upon differentiation waves, cell state splitters and differentiation trees might just be the plate tectonics of embryology. Frankly, geophysicists would just love to know that geologists came from seismic waves traveling over the surfaces and through the bodies of growing embryos!

Final Thoughts
Based upon this posting and An IT Perspective on the Origin of Chromatin, Chromosomes and Cancer, together with my experience of watching commercial software evolve over the past 42 years, it may have gone down like this. About 4.0 billion years ago some very ancient prokaryotic archaea began to wrap their DNA around histone proteins to compact and stabilize the DNA under the harsh conditions that the archaea are so fond of. Basically, these ancient archaea accidentally discovered the value of using computer tape reels to store their DNA on tape racks. This innovation was found to be far superior to the simple free-floating DNA loops of normal prokaryotic bacteria that basically stored their DNA tape loosely sprawled all over the computer room floor. During this same interval of time, a number of parasitic bacteria took up residence within these archaea and entered into parasitic/symbiotic relationships with them to form the other organelles of eukaryotic cells in accordance with the Endosymbiosis theory of Lynn Margulis. These early single-celled eukaryotes then serendipitously discovered that storing DNA on tape reels that were systematically positioned on tape racks in identifiable locations in the form of chromosomes, allowed for epigenetic factors to control the kinds and amounts of proteins that were to be generated at any given time. This was a far superior access method for genes compared to the simple sequential access methods used by the prokaryotes. With time, this innovation that originally was meant to stabilize DNA under harsh conditions was further exapted into full-fledged indexed hierarchical B-Tree access methods like ISAM and VSAM. With the Cambrian explosion 541 million years ago these pre-existing indexed hierarchical B-Tree access methods were further exapted into Dick Gordon’s hierarchical differentiation trees by exapting the passage of differentiation waves through the body of developing embryos. I am guessing that originally the differentiation waves in a growing embryo served some other unrelated useful purpose, or perhaps they were just naturally occurring mechanical waves that arose to relieve the strains that accumulated in a growing embryo, like little earthquakes, or perhaps they were just a spandrel for some other totally unrelated function. However, once the cells in a growing embryo discovered the advantages of using wave communications to keep development in sync, there was no turning back.

For both biologists and IT professionals, the most ponderous thing about all of this is how can all that information possibly be encoded within a single fertilized egg? Somehow it must be encoded in stretches of DNA that we call genes, stretches of DNA that we do not call genes, in the complex structure of the chromatin and chromosomes of the single cell, and the complex structure of the fertilized egg itself, creating a complex network of interacting logical operations that ultimately produce a mature newborn.

Figure 40 – The Star Child from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey gazes down upon the planet from which it came and wonders how it all can be.

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Steve Johnston