The generalized "Peter Principle"
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The generalized "Peter Principle"

in evolution systems tend to develop up to the limit of their adaptive competence

The Peter Principle was first introduced by L. Peter in a humoristic book (of the same title) describing the pitfalls of bureaucratic organization. The original principle states that in a hierarchically structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their "level of incompetence". The principle is based on the observation that in such an organization new employees typically start in the lower ranks, but when they prove to be competent in the task to which they are assigned, they get promoted to a higher rank. This process of climbing up the hierarchical ladder can go on indefinitely, until the employee reaches a position where he or she is no longer competent. At that moment the process typically stops, since the established rules of bureacracies make that it is very difficult to "demote" someone to a lower rank, even if that person would be much better fitted and more happy in that lower position. The net result is that most of the higher levels of a bureaucracy will be filled by incompetent people, who got there because they were quite good at doing a different (and usually, but not always, easier) task than the one they are expected to do.

The evolutionary generalization of the principle is less pessimistic in its implications, since evolution lacks the bureaucratic inertia that pushes and maintains people in an unfit position. But what will certainly remain is that systems confronted by evolutionary problems will quickly tackle the easy ones, but tend to get stuck in the difficult ones. The better (more fit, smarter, more competent, more adaptive) a system is, the more quickly it will solve all the easy problems, but the more difficult the problem will be it finally gets stuck in. Getting stuck here does not mean "being unfit", it just means having reached the limit of one's competence, and thus having great difficulty advancing further. This explains why even the most complex and adaptive species (such as ourselves, humans) are always still "struggling for survival" in their niches as energetically as are the most primitive organisms such as bacteria. If ever a species would get control over all its evolutionary problems, then the "Red Queen Principle" would make sure that new, more complex problems would arise, so that the species would continue to balance on the border of its domain of incompetence. In conclusion, the generalized Peter principle states that in evolution systems tend to develop up to the limit of their adaptive competence.

Copyright© 1993 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Nov 30, 1993


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