👉 Adapt or die.
I’ve called this principle by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection. – Charles Darwin
Evolution is the fundamental process underlying biology. It describes how organisms adapt over time by a process of natural selection.
The environment is not static and it’s in constant flow. Resources that at some point were abundant become scarce and organisms compete to get enough of them. Some organisms will have traits that make it easier to get these resources or survive the lack thereof. Hence, they are more likely to survive and pass on their traits to their offspring. Others don’t get enough resources and go extinct.
There are three parts to this process of natural selection:
- Individuals that have variations in the traits between them
- A way of reproducing these variations downstream
- A changing environment with scarce resources
Wherever these factors are present the principle applies. This includes business, career progression, health, finding a partner, and other areas in which this mental model is useful.
Use it as a lens to better understand how environmental and competitive pressures promote certain changes that lead to growth and dominance. Use it as a tool to improve your own fitness and increase your adaptability and chances of success.
The peppered month population in Britain was mostly light in appearance. This gave it the perfect camouflage on the bark of birch trees and hid it from predators. Then the industrial revolution filled the sky above England with dark black smoke. The trees turned black and so did the moths. Why? Because the changing environment of the darker trees turned the camouflage of the moths on its head. Darker moths were now better hidden and survived the onslaught of predators. They reproduced and over time the surviving peppered months were darker and darker. In more recent years, industry changes reduced the pollution in the air and the trees. And the moth population turned light once more.
The business world is filled with companies going extinct due to evolutionary pressures. Companies like Blockbuster, KODAK or Nokia all failed to adapt to the changing market environment. They chose to stick to their guns, instead of adapting their technology or business models. Competitors with more flexibility like Netflix, or those that adopted new technologies like the digital camera, or the smartphone, to take over the market. A company needs to innovate continuously if it doesn’t want to succumb to the natural selection of the market.
According to Yuval Noah Harari, culture is essentially shared myths. These myths, or ideas, work the same way as traits in biology. Cultural ideas that bring a group or society an advantage in survival, will stick over the long-run. They are codified in tradition, rituals, and shared beliefs.
A perfect example is the war between the capitalist and communist ideologies. Two prime examples, the US and Russia, fought on economic, technological, and other (proxy) battlefields during the cold war. Each one of them was trying to establish dominance in this culture war. Capitalism proved more adapted to the challenges of the times and won. Communism as an ideology doesn’t exist anymore in its original form. Instead, new variations like China’s capitalist socialism developed that fight anew in today’s culture wars.
The Red Queen Effect
Staying the same means falling behind.
Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. – The Red Queen, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Because most environments are ever changing, you need to keep adapting to survive. It’s not enough to keep once skills and resources. As long as individuals are fighting for limited resources, everyone that wants to get ahead increases competition for the rest. Without continuous growth in areas where evolution applies, you’ll inevitably fall behind.
The most adapted wins in the short-term, the most adaptable in the long-term
A high level of adaptation means you’ll be very successful in the present. Yet, to stay successful in the future this is not enough. You need to be adaptable.
In volatile environments, advantages that have been useful so far might turn disadvantageous in an instant. What was once effective might not be in the future. The one that can adapt fast and often is more likely to find good adaptations that fit the new environment. The speed of adaptation is also decisive. Environments sometimes change in an instant and new rules can govern almost overnight. A higher adaptation rate means you’ll recovers faster from extreme environmental changes and you’ll be more successful in the long run.
If you must choose between being the most adapted now or more adaptable in general, take the lower position in the current hierarchy. When times change, as they always will, you’ll be in the perfect position to take the throne.
Don’t reinvent the wheel, repurpose it
Adaptation doesn’t always mean inventing something new. Sometimes, repurposing an existing trait might be enough.
Exaptations, coined by Jay Goould and Elisabetz Vrba (1982), describe traits that have originally developed for different reasons than what they’re used for later. For example, feathers originally provided an evolutionary advantage due to better insulation or for attracting mates. That’s how they got selected for as a trait. It was only later, that they would also become useful for flying.
Often, traits you already have are still useful in new environments if you use them in new ways. Before putting resources into new innovations or skills, check first how you might use your current traits to match the new environment.
In scenarios where there is an end to beneficial adaptation, as with an arms race or a price war, don’t try to keep up with the competition. Instead, better look for different games and environments to play in. If the pressure of adaptation could be an existential danger, you better get off the treadmill.
Cockroach: It survived for over 450 million years on this planet and is still going strong. It has developed great adaptations that allow it to survive in almost every circumstance and environment.
“A military force has no constant formation, water has no constant shape: the ability to gain victory by changing and adapting according to the opponent is called genius.” – Sun Tzu