Debunking myth of the survival of the fittest

Ovum with spermAs in nature, as in society, as in business: it is a tough world out there. Only the strongest, fittest, best survive. You need to have talents, in terms of raw strength or in extrovertness or blind ambition. If not you will not make it in the world, be it the biological or the business world.

This assumption, intimately linked with a kind of innate, imprinted mindset of neo-classical economics, prevails the attitude of most if not all business decision makers. A few days ago I was at a meeting around sustainable economy, and to my surprise this mindset prevailed even there, among thinkers and workers for a new economical paradigm.

We need to talk and publish more about a different mindset, a different way of thinking, but most of all: a different way of seeing. The unconscious level on which we are all imprinted with the survival of the fittest paradigm needs to be accessed, opened up, and made explicit. This is the only way in which we can possibly hope to create that new economy, introduce new ways of working inside and between enterprises, or transform enterprises themselves into responsible citizens of a better society.

Let’s first try to explain a little on the biological arguments. This is sometimes called Darwinian evolution theory. Be it far from me to question the theory of evolution in itself, I think it is very important to be aware of recent developments in biology and evolutionary theory. Every “real” scientist knows that science knows so very little. But to the public some scientists think it is wise to radiate an aura of authority, of great scientific breakthroughs, and an impression of deep understanding how things work. I think this is not wise at all. Sometimes it feels to me that science does this in a vain attempt to boast as much authority as religion tries to do. Everybody should be aware of the fact that, yes, we begin to understand more about, say, the immune system. But we are nowhere near “understanding” as is meant by the term, we know so little, and what we think we know is mostly conjecture and intermediate concepts.

Back to evolution: even in biology the neoclassical economy has permeated. It seems en vogue to deride romantic theories about the “balance of nature” and that life is constantly “repairing” imbalances, mostly initiated by evil human activities. Those biologists talk about nature and life as a constant struggle and perpetual unbalance. About processes that might be irreparably damaged, resulting in a run-down of the ecology to what is called mass extinction events. Five of these have been listed, and some biologists are arguing that we are heading for a new one, this time initiated by ourselves, the human species.

But the scientific “fact” is we know so very little about the processes that we call “life” on this planet. Only recently it has become known that life even exists many miles below the surface of the earth, and I am not talking about the deep sea, but the solid surface layer, in what is called the earth’s crust. We discovered recently that genetics is not just replication of DNA, but that a much more important factor is the activation/deactivation of DNA by RNA “switches” (called Transcriptional Activators and Repressors). We are only just starting to realise the importance of epigenetic modifications of DNA. We learned about the importance of “infections” by bacteria that eons ago established a symbiotic relationship with eukaryotic cells and are now part of the cellular apparatus, such as Golgi Complex, Reticular System and Mitochondria, also called organelles. These organelles still have their own DNA!

Human cell with organelles

Life as we know it is impossible without these cellular elements, especially multicellular organisms. All these genetic elements are, by the way, only propagated through the female ancestral line in sexually reproducing species. To put things in perspective, a human sperm cell has a radius of about 2 μm, while a ovum has a radius of about 200 μm. So the female contributes about 1,000,000 times more “information” in cellular mass than the male!

We learned that not only “regular” mutations (accidental rearrangement of DNA coding) can cause changes in genetic make-up, but that living organisms can change their genetic properties by viral infections (as retroviruses do), or even (as bacteria consistently seem to do) by transferring beneficial genetic properties to other cells. Bacteria are able to do so with astonishing speed: modified genetics in bacteria in the ocean near the American west coast are detected in Japan within days!

The fact that this vast infrastructure of viruses and bacteria constantly communicates with such astonishing speed should make us consider. Why is it that there is such a thing as a virus in the first place? They seem such a rudimentary thing, not really alive at all, just a strand of DNA that gets injected into host cells of living creatures on which the virus is totally dependent.

To me this vast communicating network does not feel like a battlefield in which only the fittest survive and get a chance in propagating their genes to the next generation. It feels much more like a vast neural network. Like any complex system it exhibits emergent behaviour. To any system thinker life on this planet will evoke this image of a networked, interdependent, aligned, moving in sync, entity.

Maybe in this article I helped evoke this image in such a way that you, as a reader, can see this too. We need to see things differently, not only do things differently. The thing we want to accomplish, a better world, new business models, new financial and economic systems, can only become real after we change our vision. Challenging established ways of seeing is part of that. Envisioning new ways as well.

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