Debate Magazine

Variation and Selection

By Stevemiranda

I just started reading Tim Harford’s most recent book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.

Harford insists that Darwinian adaptation—he refers to it as “variation and selection”—contains a wisdom that we can apply to business, government, even our own personal lives. The enemy of evolution, he suggests, is standardization.

He writes,

It seems neater and fairer to provide a consistent standard for everything, whether it’s education, the road network or the coffee at Starbucks. Such uniformly high standards sound tempting: as Andy Warhol once commented, ‘You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.’

But Warhol found Coke intriguing because it was an exception; and it still is. Producing a sweet, fizzy drink is a static, solved problem. No further experimentation is necessary, and it is perfectly possible to set uniformly high standards in the production of Coca-Cola.

Running a hospital or a school is another matter altogether. We love the idea that every single one should deliver the same high quality. . . . We want all of our public services to be like Coca-Cola: all identical, all good. And they can’t be.

If we are to take the ‘variation’ part of ‘variation and selection’ seriously, uniformly high standards are not only impossible but undesirable. When a problem is unsolved or continually changing, the best way to tackle it is to experiment with many different approaches. If nobody tries anything different, we will struggle to figure out new and better ways to do anything.

* * *

Schools are set up to work serve human beings, which makes it the opposite of a static, solved problem. There can be no one right way to teach kids, because they’re all different. Not only that, but as soon as you figure out the best way to reach one individual child, she changes!

They’re all different, and they’re all constantly changing.

Our society’s response is a standardized approach. This doesn’t work because, well, it can never work. The fundamental problem with school is that it’s a design problem. We respond to that problem by blaming individuals—lazy kids, lazy teachers, etc.—instead of the dysfunctional design.

* * *

Harford finishes that last paragraph with an important idea. It may help explain why lawmakers continue to put their faith in standardization:

 But if we are to accept variation, we must also accept that some of these new approaches will not work well. That is not a tempting proposition for a politician or chief executive to try to sell.

For a state superintendant to tell the truth—that the best way to educate kids is to try many different approaches, replicate the ones that are successful and ditch the ones that fail—requires admitting up front that some of the policies will fail.

So year after year we avoid admitting the inevitability of some marginal error, and settle instead for the catastrophic error in which one-third of kids don’t earn a high school diploma.

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