I can’t help it—everything I read only makes sense in the light of evolution. Here, for instance, is a story about the popularity of the AK-47 assault rifle:
The AK-47’s popularity is generally attributed to its functional characteristics; ease of operation, robustness to mistreatment and negligible failure rate. The weapon’s weaknesses — it is considerably less accurate, less safe for users, and has a smaller range than equivalently calibrated weapons — are usually overlooked, or considered to be less important than the benefits of its simplicity. But other assault rifles are approximately as simple to manage, yet they have not experienced the soaring popularity of the Kalashnikov.
The AK-47’s ubiquity could alternatively be explained as a result of a path dependent process. Economic historians recognize that an inferior product may persist when a small but early advantage becomes large over time and builds up a legacy that makes switching costly. In the case of the AK-47 that early advantage may be that as a Soviet invention it was not subject to patent and so could be freely copied.
“Path dependency”…hey, that’s another phrase for something I hammer on all the time, that you can only understand the full extent of evolution if you understand the developmental processes underlying it. Many sub-optimal solutions persist because they are part of a developmental framework that isn’t easily changed.
And speaking of suboptimal…there’s Microsoft Word, an ungainly monstrosity if ever there was one. Both Science and Nature have rejected the use of the latest version of MS Word, because it is non-standard and effectively broken.
Because of changes Microsoft has made in its recent Word release that are incompatible with our internal workflow, which was built around previous versions of the software, Science cannot at present accept any files in the new .docx format produced through Microsoft Word 2007, either for initial submission or for revision. Users of this release of Word should convert these files to a format compatible with Word 2003 or Word for Macintosh 2004 (or, for initial submission, to a PDF file) before submitting to Science.
There’s a “path dependency” for you, the ubiquity of Word. Even highly evolved, complex and otherwise necessary pathways can be replaced, though, if more effective alternative pathways acquire greater importance. If the target of selection is the production of a functional end product (a standard readable file in this case) and there are multiple paths for delivering that end product (doc or pdf), the acquisition and spread of a deleterious mutation in the dominant pathway can lead to greater importance of the alternate.
Hmm, I have to go home and start a pot of minestrone soup for dinner…somebody explain that process in evolutionary terms for me.