The Finch and the Raccoon

by Dan McCreary

Have you ever wondered if the laws of evolution apply to computer languages? When you walk down the isle at your favorite bookstore, does it seam like there are actually more computer languages than last year? What forces are driving each of these new languages to evolve?

In 1835 Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands. There he collected what he thought were about a dozen distinct species of birds. Upon returning to England he discovered that each of these species had evolved from a single species of finches. On the various Galapagos Islands the requirements for food gathering was different, but consistent over hundreds of thousands of years. Enough time for a single species to adapt to meet consistent requirements.

Consider the Raccoon: omnivores that have proved to be one of the most adaptable mammals on Earth. The Raccoon’s range has rapidly expanded into urban areas due to their ability to quickly adapt to new requirements before other animals have had time for the wheels of evolution to turn.

So goes it with computer languages. Some procedural languages can be quickly adapted to fill in the needs for a new niche. When the web was young, procedural languages like Java and JavaScript quickly filled in the need for a variety of tasks. As the requirements for building web applications stabilized, declarative systems like CSS, XForms and XQuery started to push procedural languages back into niche-areas. As these declarative languages stabilize and become worldwide standards, graphical tools are being created to allow non-programmers to create, manipulate and extend these systems.

This is why many of us believe their will always be some need for procedural programming, but certainly not for building standard web applications that are controlled by style sheets and user interaction forms. Like the finch, declarative languages need a little longer to evolve. It sometimes takes years for a small vocabulary of functional specification patterns to emerge and be given labels. Additionally, it can takes years for the standards bodies to agree on the best way to deliver these new languages in a set of semantically precise data elements that have unambiguous interpretations. Finally, it may take another few years for IT managers to realized that they really do lower costs if they avoid vendor-specific implementations and adopt worldwide standards.

When CSS first came out you may have been a little reluctant to let web designers play with a rules engine. As XForms becomes ubiquitous you may be resisting change because you have invested so much time and energy learning how to debug JavaScript (without a debugger). You can not hold back the forces of evolution…and now we all need to adapt to the declarative world or risk our own extinction.

If you are interested in more on this topic see my Presentation from the 2007 Semantic Technology Conference The Semantics of Declarative Systems