Monday, December 13, 2021

This is your life: birth, sex, and death!

Symmetry breaking is integral to biology. Spatial symmetry is broken as cells differentiate and also as organs form. Time reversal symmetry is broken in the life history of the development of individuals: from birth to death, it is heading just one way.

The fourth article in The Economist, Biology briefs, is Making your way in the world: An individual’s life story is a dance to the music of time. Here is the opening paragraph.

The organs of a body are a spatial division of labour, one created by different genes being turned on in different cells. The same process serves to give individual lives a division of labour over time. Complex algae, animals, fungi and plants all have predictable life histories which separate out three basic aspects of development—the creation of an autonomous individual, growth and reproduction—and run them sequentially.

There is also a fourth stage: death!

Individual identity is tied up with sex.

A lot of the complexity here is to do with sex... Sex is clearly the start of something new: a novel individual with a novel genetic blueprint...

When a human embryo is born as a baby, it already contains almost all of the organs which that individual will ever possess. This comes about first by the repeated division of the initial, fertilised egg into many cells that have the potential to become any part of the body.

Then symmetry breaking occurs: left and right, head and tail are delineated. 

Then, around the 16th day of development, the [human] embryo folds in on itself... [and the] body plan begin to take on a physical form, defining the head and the tail (for human embryos do, indeed, have tails), the left and the right, the inner and the outer.

...a butterfly embryo develops not only the organs needed in order to be a caterpillar, but also starter packs, called imaginal discs, for the organs that will be needed in adulthood.


Plants have two separate life histories, which alternate from generation to generation—though this is rarely obvious to human observers.

These two life histories (mating and dispersal) are associated with  "two, radically different, types of body": gametophytes, the mating body type, and sporophyte the dispersal body type. The life cycle of ferns is pictured below.

Here is a beautiful video of the life cycle of a butterfly.

Aside: There is a nice discussion of symmetry breaking and pattern formation in biology in chapter 7 of Fearful Symmetry: Is God a Geometer? by Ian Stewart and Marty Golubitsky.


Thursday, December 2, 2021

The tension between efficiency, innovation, and adaptability

 If organisations are emergent can they be managed? This is the question I discussed in a previous post, stimulated by an article, The Dialogic Mindset: Leading Emergent Change in a Complex World by Gervase Bushe and Robert Marshak. They make the following claims.

To be sustainably successful, organizations have to manage learning as well as performing. This is one of the core paradoxes of management and organization theory: how to create organizations that can be simultaneously innovative and efficient; that is, how to best organize in order to learn and perform at the same time? 
The most efficient forms of organizing, like assemblyline manufacturing, are also the least able to adapt and change. Our business models for succeeding in complex, uncertain environments, like popular music or pharmaceuticals, are highly inefficient and spend lots of money on innovation hoping for one monster hit to pay it all back. Learning and performing are paradoxically related because when someone is focused on performing well, they usually are not learning anything, and vice versa.

This tension is represented in the diagram below. 


I think a good metaphor for the desired combination of efficiency, innovation, and adaptability is a jet ski. This is nicely shown in this cool video (taken about 100 km south of Brisbane). 


My choice of metaphor was inspired by discussions with a colleague who has taken a  Prince2 Agile Project Management course. To illustrate the need for a combination of efficiency and agility they use the metaphor of a jet fighter. I do not like military metaphors, because of their association with violence and the corrupt military-industrial complex. I work with people in the Majority World and such a metaphor may have a negative association. For example, a recent article in The Economist expressed concern that Nigeria is falling apart, partly due to internal insurgencies. It contains the observation
Money could come from cutting wasteful spending by the armed forces on jet fighters, which are not much use for guarding schools. 

So the challenge for real leaders (not managers) is to foster an organisational culture that balances efficiency, adaptability, and innovation.