Natural Selection

“I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful is preserved, by the term of natural selection”. Charles Darwin

Natural selection is one of the most beautiful, yet simplest concepts in science and is the cornerstone of our understanding of the human evolution. It was explained by Darwin as the gradual process by which your heritable behaviours are altered by inherited behaviours due to the influence of your environment that if you survive, shall cause you to evolve. For example domesticated animals like dogs were descended from wolves captured by early men hunters and domesticated as much as 135000 years ago.

Natural selection as explained by Darwin takes a long time to materialize. Yet it has been found by epigenetics that certain inherited behaviours can occur as quickly as within the next generation. Few years ago a research team in the University of Linköping created a henhouse where a group of chickens had to live in stressful conditions. Lighting was manipulated to make rhythms of day and night unpredictable. This caused the chickens to lose track of when to eat or roost. As a consequence it was noticed that there was significant decrease in the ability of these chickens to search for food in a maze.

The chickens were then later moved to a different henhouse with natural conditions (and less stressful conditions). It was noticed that their offspring also had a similar decreased learning ability to search for food. The inherited behaviours  during the time the parents were stressed out in the earlier environment stuck on to them at a genetic level, which was subsequently passed on to the children.

In the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg vividly explains the story of the amazing turnaround of Aluminium Company of America-or Alcoa. In 1987, Alcoa was deep in red with mounting losses from a spate of unprofitable new businesses. Alcoa was one of the word’s largest companies with a new CEO, Paul O’Neill, a former bureaucrat and a surprise choice for the position. At 51 years, Paul stood in a ballroom stage facing panicky investors who wanted to hear new promises of cost cutting, raising profits etc. Instead Paul talked about safety and how he intends to turnaround Alcoa’s pathetic safety record and thereby make it the safest company in America. The confused investors tried to bombard the new executive with complex financial questions. Paul ignored them and mentioned that if we bring our injury rates down, it will be because the employees of Alcoa have agreed to become part of something important.

Following this presentation there was a literal massacre of Alcoa’s shares as the investors started selling heavily. Little did they know that what they did would be one of the worst financial decisions they ever made in their entire careers. Some estimates put it like this- anyone who invested a million dollars in Alcoa on the day O’Neill was hired would have earned another million dollars in dividends while he headed the company for 13 years-and would have seen the value of their stock be five times bigger when he left.

Darwin explained the mechanism of natural selection as the “survival of the fittest” where evolution of the organism in its environment is directly proportional to its struggle there. In both the examples mentioned here one can see how an inherited behaviour can result in either a positive or negative impact to an organism or even an organization. In the case of chickens, the stress filled environment resulted in a fight for survival-where certain negative behaviours  were developed and it subsequently made its way to its offspring. Paul had a company that killed people due to its poor safety record and lost money heavily. He had to change the environment of Alcoa by introducing a culture that focused on safety. It forced the company to change itself and thereby fight for its own survival within its newly changed environment. This fight percolated to a genetic level of the company allowing it to accelerate itself to huge economic success.

The key message here is that one needs to be intentional about the behaviours or habits that he allows into his life. One of the main objectives of this blog is to introduce the reader to newer behaviours that could be inherited and would help in challenging the status quo of this ever-changing world (the environment). Articles like ‘Never Conform’, ‘Be Your Narrative‘ and many more help in this objective. E.O Wilson put it this way, “We have decommissioned natural selection and must now look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become“.

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Published by Tenny Thomas

I have tried to do the best in every circumstance that I have been thrown into. Blogging is one of them.

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