Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Survival of the hippest

I don't want to sound like I'm bashing anyone's faith, but I really feel bad for people who won't accept the theory of evolution. Not only is it the best tool we have for understanding human nature; you can also apply Darwin, Wallace & Co.'s thinking to almost any human endeavour.

My four-year-old son already understands the basic idea of evolving. That's because we're both huge fans of BBC's "Walking with..." series of shows on prehistoric life: Walking With Dinosaurs, Walking With Prehistoric Beasts, Walking With Monsters, and Walking With Cavemen. Cool shows, and even the 10-year-old CG animation holds up pretty well on high def TVs.

My son's love of these shows is part of his love affair with all things natural. But I'm also happy about what it's instilling in him for his adult life in any kind of business venture. It is helping him understand what "survival of the fittest" really means.

To many people, "the fittest" conjures up visions of the schoolyard bully, an unthinking brute who pushes aside all the girly men to impress the female folk. But that's not what it means at all. Evolution is all about flexibility, adaptation, and exploiting the opportunities of chance disaster.

There are two examples from the BBC series that give a more accurate object lesson in dealing with change:

Rise of the Mammals
— Mammals have been dominating the world for more than 50,000,000 years, but it has not always been so. Prior to the great extinction event of 65,000,000 years ago, they were tiny creatures living at the fringes of the dinosaurs' world. The dinos in general were bigger, meaner, and way more successful at exploiting the relatively stable climates of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. But when the world was hurled into a nuclear winter by a cosmic collision, they didn't survive. Nothing big did. Only the smallest, most adaptable species survived. Among them were our furry ancestors, opportunistic living fossils like crocodiles, and the tiny, warm-blooded, feathered dinosaurs we now call birds.

Might did not make right, and the mammals outpaced even the remaining dinosaurs by adapting to, and dominating, almost every ecosystem in the planet. The mammals' penchant for adapting to change in novel ways is what lead to us. But there's another stop along the way.

Hominidmania — Over two million years ago, our ancestors were not the only hominids (humanoid apes) on the planet. Several different species rose and fell as the climate continued to change. Among them was Australopithecus boisei, a gorillalike brute that ate roots and lived in harems. They had a pretty easy life, browsing the available vegetation, but they were overspecialized. When the vegetation changed, they were outcompeted by other apemen with more curious natures and omnivorous appetites, such as our forebears.

In the current economy, large and traditional businesses can seem like dinosaurs, while the agile upstarts and shrewd early adopters may yet get through the fallout to grow into a new generation of leaders. Overspecialized and inflexible companies may find their food source dries up, while those with imagination and courage might just find new ways to survive.

The "fittest" are those most suited to adapt through, and take advantage of, change. Evolution may happen through random chance, but "intelligently designed" organizations can still learn from nature's lessons in hindsight.

My advice of the day? Executives should spend more time watching dinosaur movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment