top of page
  • Writer's pictureAdam Timlett

Understanding 'Natural Search' via clocks & watches

Updated: Sep 26, 2021

In Nature some things were discovered once and are now utilised in that same form universally, across all of life. An example is ATP the biochemical battery packs of biology. ATP was discovered once early on in the history of life and follows the same recipe in every organism, animal, plant or bacteria. But other things in Nature are not like this. And one thing that is not standardised is Nature's clocks, even within the same organism. Research shows that many biochemical oscillators in the mammalian body are likely to be partly utilised as biological clocks in different parts of the body and used to organise development. This is very different to the single clock internal to a digital computer which synchronises internal coordination between all digital circuits, oscillating at frequencies in the gigahertz range. And the main reason I argue, is likely the lack of design in Nature, which due to the working of evolution can't help but leverage the sheer ubiquity of potential, simple, even if sub-optimal, 'clock utility' in diverse biological oscillators within the biochemistry of organisms.

The prevalence of sub-optimal clocks in economics

So, one might ask if there is a general 'ubiquity of sub-optimal utility' principle that governs scenarios like biological clocks that might also apply to economics. Is the typical clock mechanism in economics likely to be functioning and optimal in utility, or is it likely to be sub-optimal, like in biology? Due to rational human choices and market forces creating improvements via competition it might seem inevitable that the human world will be filled with clocks which are efficient and work usefully so as to be almost optimal in their design, like the clock of a digital computer. Let's see: What is the most common type of clock, a wristwatch? This can be pretty optimal. It can be used anywhere (usually even in water) and very rarely needs charging. A grandfather clock, a carriage clock? These are relatively useful, even if ornamental too, but are less optimal since they are only available where they are located, and take up lots of space. Sure enough, grandfather clocks and carriage clocks are less common than wristwatches. So, you would think that the optimal wristwatch dominates in frequency of use. But what about hybrid watches and clocks? I would guess that in most countries this, hybrid category is actually now likely the largest category and so most typical, nowadays, outstripping even the wristwatch.

Your sub-optimal 'clock-phone'

Mobile phones now dominate as a type of clock over wristwatches. They can also tell the time, but are not optimal compared to wristwatches as they need constant charging and so can sometimes be unavailable. Also, a mobile phone is larger and heavier than a watch needs to be, but if you need a mobile anyway then this does not much matter. This notion of the clock as a cheap, actually free, addition to something you need anyway, is a theme in products. There are many other kinds of 'hybrid' clock which add free extra functionality of a clock forming a sub-optimal clock usually due to the limited portability of the product it is part of. Ovens, cars, microwaves, laptops, desktop computers, alarm clock radios. So, actually then, the most common type of clock is indeed likely to be the hybrid clock that makes serious compromises in portability and ease of use. But because clocks come for free with so many products there is also a huge amount of redundancy in clocks actually typically owned versus required. Every household likely has many clocks. And this redundancy means if one clock is wrong other clocks will let you know this. You are not reliant on one timepiece. Further, this redundancy means the fact that each clock is not that portable is also not a problem as there is now a clock in almost every room. So for these reasons sub-optimal clocks now rule, led, of course, by the ubiquitous mobile phone.

Status symbols weigh in, confusing many economists

Incidentally, most wristwatches are arguably hybrid clocks too, since they are also, or actually mostly, jewellery or status symbols. This type of hybrid inefficiency confuses some economists who assume people who buy expensive watches are actually 'irrational' since the utility of knowing the time is typically the same whether the watch cost £5 or £5000. But if you need jewellery or status symbols anyway, then telling the time is just a free extra thing, even if it is also, independently, essential. For all these reasons hybrid clocks will dominate the market even though they are individually sub-optimal; Collectively they manage to be 'better' in both price and accessibility than even a single 'optimal' £5 wristwatch.

Some things come for free

This idea about clocks and sub-optimality came to me via some stand up comedy about clocks that come with a free car built-in. So it was the subject of some quite funny stand up, but has a serious point. Utility is found in more places when you consider sub-optimal versions of that utility, even if it seems possible to design a more optimal product. This is so, especially when the utility can be provided with little additional cost to some existing function or product. The more sub-optimality you are willing to accept for an item to qualify as a member of a given utility category, the more broad the category becomes, until sub-optimal versions of that utility formed by such hybrid products can vastly outnumber the more optimal versions, by definition. But, because these sub-optimal versions are so numerous, collectively they can be selected for and even be better than the optimal product, due to redundancy, etc.

I can typically use very many different devices to tell the time as a result of so many free clocks in the things that I already own. If my phone is off I can ask someone else who has a phone. And, since the sub-optimal clocks are so much more common, it is cheaper to use them collectively to replace the potential singular optimal product.

This is an important principle: We must consider how the prevalence of a utility type affects whether it is likely to be discovered and used, not just its individual optimality, and so ubiquity of sub-optimal function can often trump optimal function, even if a singular optimal function seems easier and better as a solution.

This is important when we consider how natural selection works; Nature will also tend to leverage utility, wherever it is found. Sometimes it will find things once and stick to that product. Other times the utility in question may be so prevalent that the same utility is leveraged again and again, in many different sub-optimal forms. This principle can be called 'ubiquinomics' and the ubiquity of 'sub-optimal clocks' is an example, but is the thin edge of a larger wedge, which becomes obvious when one considers how adaptation works: The ubiquinomic principle is also involved in how any new clock comes to be in the first place.

Everything is potentially a clock

Another reason to look at how Nature uses ubiquitous sub-optimal utility in how it computes the time or does any other things is because of the link to understanding adaptation itself. Consider this: The situation for optimal clocks versus their more prevalent sub-optimal rivals is even worse when one considers potential utility as a clock. A typical product with the potential of a clock does not even need to look anything like a clock to begin with. For example, anything that casts a shadow is potentially useful as a sundial and can be said to be a potential clock for humans to use. So when sub-optimality is stretched that far, there's no question that hybrid, potential sundial sub-optimal clocks are the most common type of potential clock, as anything that can cast a shadow qualifies, it is really just a function of how simple the concept of a clock can be, once we allow for less accuracy and utility.

Zero to one clocks

'Zero to One' is a book about the problem of being the founder of a company that produces something really new. So the title refers to when the world goes from producing zero of some innovative product, to one or more. If you're interested in how that happens you should be interested in potential utilities which begin as highly sub-optimal sub-utilities of something else. This is because to produce something new you must inevitably start with zero productivity. Therefore, the first new thing will necessarily be a hybrid of an existing old thing and some potential utility for something new. That means understanding innovation is another big reason we should look at understanding hybrid potential products in Nature and economics which are highly sub-optimal, at least to begin with, even if they look more optimal by the end of the adaptive process.

One can start with an object for some purpose which also casts a shadow that means it could also be used as a sundial. From here we can go from zero to one, sundials. The equivalent of the potential sundial to a biological clock is any biochemical process that oscillates in the concentration of a chemical in a reasonably regular, rhythmic, way. So one might assume Nature will have been doing the same experiments. But to really understand how this approach has promise it is necessary to see that, like biochemical oscillators as potential clocks, many kinds of utility can start with the same kind of potential to go from zero of some type of utility, to non-zero utility of some type.

Stretching things versus combining things

There are patterns in this stretching of definitions from optimal, to sub-optimal to potential utilities of a given type. These patterns look more like a kind of 'process topology', than the combinatorics of basic building blocks which is the usual mathematics for analysing how innovation is produced in Nature and economics. Each is likely to have its advantages and disadvantages as a model. However, to create a rival or complementary process to combinatorics in the study of innovation one needs to arrive at something more general than how specific types of existing utility can have potential as other products like clocks or batteries.

The search for novelty

Instead of studying many different types of specific potential novel utility, like the potential to also be a new clock or potential to also be a new battery, one can choose to study the notion of the utility of the search for novelty itself. By doing this one can simultaneously study all processes that go from zero to one, regardless of the type of utility that is 'discovered'. When this is done one finds something very surprising: The most common type of search for novelty is like the most common type of clock - sub-optimal. This is because, from careful reasoning, it is possible to show there is a superabundance of processes that are hybrids in the same sense as the prevalence of hybrid clocks: There are very many processes with some existing purpose and which can also be considered to be performing a 'free' sub-optimal search for something novel. This free sub-optimal search for novelty while doing the main task, is like the addition of a free clock to an oven or car: It occurs at very little cost to the main function, but enough such free additions can add up to significant utility as searches.

The wonders of the 'schlep' to work

In economics, a simple example is the daily commuter journey to work. Due to the advertising placed in the tube and on bus stops etc, and due to the potential for new shops or new products in the shop windows along the route, the work commute can be thought of as a hybrid function that doubles as a sub-optimal search as well as the primary function of getting from one's home to the office. And it is easy to see that such sub-optimal searches are likely to be the most common type of search not just for human beings but also in Nature too. Evolution itself, in fact, can be thought of as just such a sub-optimal search for new organisms that happens as a by-product of the myriad processes involved in the struggle for life by each species. The incidental, free searches for novelty are a ubiquitous 'hybrid utility' of very many processes in a similar sense to the way so many products in Nature and economics are also almost, or very imperfect and simple, clocks. Just as many biochemical oscillators occur in a complex organism as it evolves and can sometimes also be leveraged for their clock-like abilities, so many processes can serve as imperfect, yet collectively effective, searches for novel function. This function of search is in addition to their day job of performing the routine processes within an organism. Such processes might conceivably include signal transduction, developmental processes generally, or even protein-folding.

The perspective of 'natural search'

I have christened such sub-optimal searches performed by other processes, 'Natural Search' and will be using this website to explore the implications of the concept for understanding biology, innovation and economics. One important such example of this thinking, implicit in current evolutionary biology research, is the theory that the robustness of phenotypes of organisms to changes in genotype, which may occur simply to cope with uncertainty in the environment, but may also have the by-product of assisting evolution in the search for novel organisms. This is the theory of A. Wagner which he writes about in his book 'Arrival of the Fittest'. By taking this approach to studying 'natural search' such theories make more sense, and can also be interpreted more generally. So in this way, it may soon be possible to better understand and contribute to some more recent ideas about how Nature innovates and creates the incredible variety and endless biological innovation that we see. I will be sharing more ideas about ubiquinomics and natural search on this website and looking to give talks on the idea over the next year or so, so please subscribe to the website if you would like more info.


bottom of page