eight maids a milking

January 1, 2016

If we continue with the idea that every day is about a different bird then this one is about magpies. If you see the song providing guidance as to how to run an estate then we have now moved from food (the first seven being about birds) to the staff needed to manage said estates. Mind you on that interpretation the next four are all about a party so to provides a rather restricted staffing list. Mind you dairy products are pretty important. If you take the retro-fitted catholic catechism view then it is the eight beatitude. I also found explanations of the term milk maid with an on line search that I really don’t want to think about, let alone share. Mind you further research revealed that in the 19th Century the phrase go a milking had a sense of sexual invitation (even up to marriage) about it. Images of maidens, milk and so on have a pretty obvious double meaning and anyone who has ever read Tess ….

The idea of it meaning magpies is an interesting one and I was initially tempted by that. The are strong portents in fortune telling and their is a fair amount of that around in OD practice. Indeed an OD variant on the following would be fun to put together.

One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret not to be told.
Eight for heaven, nine for hell,
And ten for the devil’s own sel’.

But try as I can I can’t find any explanation as to why there would be link between maids milking and magpies. Also it was far too great a coincidence that today’s 65th Anniversary edition of The Archers devoted itself entirely to issues in the dairy industry. The 60th anniversary saw Nigel being cast from the roof of the mansion setting up the whole Roy/Elizabeth thing which may become the Elizabeth/Dr Lock thing and so on. If you don’t know The Archers then you will never understand the British Middle Class. The Archers is older than me and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t listen to it. So following the well deserved Blues victory over the Scarlets at the Arms Park earlier this evening I pulled it down on the iPlayer and tormented by son by playing it before dropping him off at his flat in Bristol.

The tolerance for dairy products is an interesting aspect of exaptation applied to the culture sphere by the way. The frequency of alleles (alternative forms of the same gene) for lactose absorption correlates with the degree of adoption of diary farming within a culture.(Odin-Smee and others 2003). So a culture act (diary farming) changes the fitness landscape in cold climates and the genetic co-variance changes the SNA sequences within the population as a whole. There is a dynamic feedback look between cultural behaviour and the alleles. We are also starting to discover that these changes (epigenetic) can happen within one to two generations so it is a lot faster than we thought. So someone tenuously (but that is the beauty of adopting an extended them like the 12 gifts) we get to a key aspect of what should be (but in my experience never is) a key aspect of OD theory and practice namely experimental niche construction and then adaptive response to the results. OD should be more phenotype than genotype, more about modifying observed properties than attempting genetic engineering. Phenotypic plasticity is very high in organisations, which means any links between defined and/or designed aspects of a system and the results is fluid to say the least. Even with identical twins the phenotypes may be similar but always vary even though the genotype is similar. So if you want a quote for the new year then I offer this:

Design may constrain what is possible but it will rarely determine what happens; unintended consequences are inevitable, and if small enough to be managed, desirable.

Now the Neo-Lamarckism view of evolution is gaining credibility, but regardless of which side of that debate you fall on in biology (I am pro but recognise the limits of my knowledge so I am cautious) any organisation is by its nature Lamarckism not Darwinian in nature. For those not familiar with the idea, Layarckianism asserts that we can pass on characteristics developed during out life to our offspring.

The name for all of this is niche construction: the process by why an organism creates changes to its environment which create evolutionary advantage. It is now argued that this is at least as important to evolution as natural selection. We can modify our environment so we are not subject to the blind determinism of the supposedly selfish gene or that appalling metaphorical leap from gene to memes. This stuff is crude causality but in that may lie its appeal. For those not familiar with the idea it is a modern form of atomism, an attempt to reduce things to fundamental particles. I’m amazed people still take this seriously, the Greeks grew out of it early. But it appeals to those who lack the tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. In an earlier age such behaviour would have resulted in early death and a failure to breed. But a modern bureaucracy can create niches in which some pretty perverted behaviour and ideas can survive and this is one of them.

For those not familiar the idea behind selfish genes and memes is the idea that something small exists which seeks to replicate itself and by doing so seeks to subject everything else to this need. Talking to Eva Jablonka at Hay this year was interesting; she pointed out that Dawkins had little support amongst geneticists who understand that life is a little more complex. It is no coincidence that the popularity of The Selfish Gene coincides with the crude net-darwinist ideas of the Thatcher/Reagan era. Not only that Thatcher’s famous Is he one of us philosophy (a question asked of appointments to the supposed neutral civil service and even of appointments to Bishoprics) is replicated (sic) in a lot of the Dawkins polemic. This all got translated into the idea that culture is passed by memes single stories or themes that want to be told (replicated) and which suborn the overall cultural narrative to that need. Again you can see the popular appeal of this sort of thinking. It makes people thing they can create or design the replicator. I’ve seen this in well intentioned people trying to change the world. They pick up on memetic as a form of cultural evolution because they have a neo-colonial belief that they can and should define what the narrative should be. Both idealist and the fascist in organisational design share this characteristic in common, they want to decide, determine then design the narrative so that everyone is aligned to the needs of the powerful, or those who want to create an alternative power structure. I’ve upset a lot of very nice and very well intentioned people by pointing this out (sorry Joe from Seattle, I do it because I care).

I’ll be developing the idea of Niche Construction in this year’s Cognitive Edge courses, some soon to be announced open learning sessions as well as some CfAC programmes so expect more on the theme. In particular I want to look at the way semantics can create niches through multiple actors and actions over time – in effect a trope as an emergent property or strange attractor rather than the crude causality of the meme. For the moment I want to leave this with an example drawn from the theory. Beavers create dams and that has advantages for beavers, but the dam stays longer than the life of an individual beaver. Changes to nutrient cycles and decomposition change the wider ecology inflating other species. In effect the beavers are an apex species. Even if you kill the beavers the dams will persist, but if there are no beavers they will not be maintained and other specifies may differ inconsequence and in unexpected ways. The impact of Wolves in Yellowstone in this wonderful short video illustrates this point. Lots and lots of things become important when we study these things retrospectively. Time lags between changes can have major significance. Some traits opportunistically hitch hike on others at a macro and a micro level and so on. We can explain these things with the benefit of hindsight, we can modify our understanding of how to influence ecological change. BUT and it is a vital BUT, we cannot engineer it in advance.

So what we need is a language and theory of change which encourages us to think in resilient ways, rather than trying to engineer solutions in other that catastrophic conditions. Even then we need to try and create boundary conditions that will limit unintended and unexpected consequences. Actually limit is the wrong word there, maybe more early warning triggers is the most we should plan for or attempt. I’ve come a long way from the eight maids but the whole idea of this series was to force me to think about an issue from different perspectives so I’ve allowed by thought patterns to take me where they will, and to make that process visible in the Christmas blog sequence. I’ll do my best to pull it all together at the end.

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