A few years back, I read “The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World” by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart. As a popular science addict, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I particularly remember it for introducing me to Stephen Jay Gould’s Panda principle. All of us have seen the Panda’s principle in action, yet few of us know of it. The following lines will, I hope, shed some light on this principle. I will start by exposing how it came to be discovered. Then I will look at a couple of typical examples to show that it reaches beyond biology. Finally I will explain why the Panda principle is relevant in the context of this blog — because for a couple of paragraphs, you will wonder.
The Panda’s Thumb: Survival of the Fit-ish
In “The Origin of the Species“, Charles Darwin popularized the concept of natural selection. Here it is, summed up by the man himself:
I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection.
Contrary to popular belief, Darwin did not coin the phrase “Survival of the Fittest”, Herbert Spencer did when he applied Darwin’s theory to human societies. This phrase suggests that only the cream of the cream thrives, the rest being condemned to extinction.
Enter the panda.
Check out this thumb! How could such a poorly formed appendage be the result of millions of years of natural selection. Should it not be the best possible thumb to manipulate bamboo shoots? Stephen Jay Gould answers this question by observing that pandas might have evolved better thumbs but their current thumb is good enough — and sufficiently widespread among the panda population — to prevent improved thumbs from being a selective advantage. He named this the Panda Principle. As Cohen and Stewart put it:
Evolution leads to the occupation of niches by locally optimal creatures, not by globally optimal ones.
In effect, once locally optimal creatures get a foothold they prevent globally optimal ones from occupying the same niche.
The Panda Principle in action
The Panda Principle manifests itself in a wide range of domains. Stephen Jay Gould uses the example of keyboard layouts. Christopher Sholes, an early typewriter inventor, realized that his original design suffered from one problem: fast typists would frequently jam the type-bars. He had to slow them down. He came up with the QWERTY layout by trial and error in 1873. It is fair to say that QWERTY is a slow-ptimized layout! That hardly makes it the most efficient design for today’s usage where RSI sufferers’ fingers are the only thing that can actually jam.
In the 1930s, Dr. August Dvorak found that virtually any random layout leads to faster typing speed than the QWERTY layout — Sholes had worked hard to reach this (global) minimum. Dvorak invented the Dvorak layout — I am sure the amazing and unlikely coincidence is not lost on you. Throughout his life Dvorak fought unsuccessfully to get his layout adopted. He died a bitter man in 1975. Sadly, the man had a point: in every single comparative study, the Dvorak layout proved faster, more comfortable and less error-prone. There is still a community of Dvorak layout users, most of them programmers who have decided to use the fittest layout. But by all account, the QWERTY specimen is here to stay. It might well be the least fit specimen in the keyboard-layout-space but it will not be replaced any day soon. A perfect example of the Panda Principle in action.
At first, I thought the Betamax v. VHS war was another manifestation of the principle. I had it all typed and it looked promising: “despite Betamax being superior to VHS in technical terms — and being the Simpsons’ favourite videotape format — it lost the war”. Then I discovered that the original Betamax tapes were only one hour long, whereas VHS would stretch up to 3 hours long. In hindsight, this is a huge argument against Betamax’s fitness. As it turned out, in the videotape space, fitness is strongly correlated with the record-ability of hollywood movies. Hardly a good example to illustrate the Panda Principle.
Panda sighting #1: Smalltalk
Now, you must be wondering where I am going to with this principle and what is the link with this blog. Well, I have recently stumbled upon two manifestations, or so I believe, of the Panda Principle in the realm of software development.
The first one was a couple of weeks ago when I decided to pick up a Smalltalk book from Stéphane Ducasse’s collection and learn the language. Smalltalk is a fascinating and beautiful language. It was destined to be the next best thing. Then came Java. We all know what happened next.
The more I read about or play with Smalltalk, the more I wonder how Java won the match. It seems to me that Smalltalk had everything Java does and much more — yes, I am once again talking about metaprogramming, but there are so many other aspects. The two most common arguments to Java’s dominance are:
- Java was an incremental step from C++. Whereas Smalltalk was influenced by the far less popular Simula and Sketchpad. It was therefore easier for Java to gather momentum as it appealled to a larger audience
- Sun made the JDK available for free. Smalltalk development kits where expensive and more often than not incompatible.
Both arguments seem to forget that at the beginning, Sun envisaged Applets as being Java’s spearhead. Ironically, Java only really took off when people started using it on the server side.
What surprises me is the impressive list of contributions the Smalltalk community made to the Java community. Take Eclipse, arguably one of the most successful open-source Java project. Eclipse was originally derived from IBM’s VisualAge Micro Edition. VisualAge, up to the Micro Edition release, was Smalltalk based. As Joe Winchester puts it
From a technology point of view Eclipse has a lot of Smalltalk DNA in it.
Take the JUnit framework, written by Erich Gamma and Kent Beck. It has inspired countless testing frameworks in virtually any programming language. Well, JUnit actually had a precursor: SUnit, also written by Kent Beck.
Martin Fowler’s classic “Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code“, although not a pure Java book, is on the bookshelf of most Java programmers (go buy it if is not!). The foundations of this book lie in Smalltalk as Fowler acknowledges in the preface.
It is hard to conceive that a language so ahead of its time and yet so simple failed to overcome the challenge of what seems a less evolved language. Moreover, Smalltalk had been preparing since 1971 for the advent of OOP‘s widespread acceptance. Java’s inception, on the other hand, only dates from 1990. When C++’s dominance came to pass, how did the fittest lose to the slightly fitter? Is this another manifestation of the Panda Principle?
Panda sighting #2: Mac/OS X
I have always been curious about Operating Systems and more particularly OSes for personal computers. I still remember my Pentium-75 triple-booting OS/2 WARP, Windows 95 and Linux. For quite a few years I have been a proponent of Linux and FreeBSD. I rarely use Windows, I get rashes and spots when exposed to it for more than a couple of minutes.
But lately, through the Ruby and Io community, I have been frequenting a bad bunch: Mac users. I heard so much about the Mac that I decided to have a closer look. I looked a bit too close. Here I am proud owner of a brand new iMac. I have been using it for less than a week and I have no doubt: this is the best machine I have ever had the pleasure to work with. My wife used to complain about my excessive usage of computers. Now, we are almost fighting about whose turn it is to use the Mac. I thought it would take me a while to get use to the Mac idiosyncrasies. After only a couple of hours, I feel pretty comfortable with the interface. Not only is it gorgeous, it is also far more comfortable and consistent than most systems I have used in the past.
A typical example of consistency is the key bindings. No matter what application I use I know
command-F will let me search whatever this application manipulates. Compare that with Windows,
ctrl-F is used by most applications but not all: see for yourself, try it in IE. It actually opens a side panel to let you search the web. If you look in the main menu, you will discover that
ctrl-F is indeed the binding for searching into the current page… and sometimes it does — let me know if there is a cartesian explanation for this infuriating behaviour. The problem also exists in Gnome and KDE. It tends to be related to non-native applications like X-based ones.
But let’s go back to the Panda Principle, nobody can dispute Windows dominance in terms of marketshare. It is however hard to fathom how Windows could be considered the fittest OS for personal computers. I am talking fitness in the market space, not fitness in my own little OS fanatic space. Since I work in computers, I tend to get called by other people to fix their computers. I am pretty sure this resonates with your own experience. Are these people masochistic? How much pain can they endure? That repeatedly? Microsoft is losing the trust of its own customers. This has been going on for quite a few years, and yet only few people switch to alternatives. And there are many viable alternatives! I think this is a typical manifestation of the Panda Principle. Windows might not be the fittest but the shear number of users virtually guarantees that it will keep its place.
That is fine by me. I am quite happy with my very own globally optimum machine!