Thursday, August 30, 2007

Adapt or die: what businesses can learn from science and nature

I just got this invitation to an entrepreneurial networking dinner featuring the talk, "Adapt or die: what businesses can learn from science and nature."

"Adapt or die" made me uneasy, especially when presented as a lesson to be learned "from science and nature," and so I mulled it over long enough to come up with three different reasons to edit the title to "Die and adapt."
  1. Nature: Generally speaking, adaptation occurs in a population of organisms, and death occurs in individual organisms. The science of evolution and natural selection is largely about the essential connection between these two phenomena: the death of organisms is a key driving force in the adaptation of populations. Hence, "Die and adapt."
  2. Science A: Those intellectual smarty-pants in white lab coats are more often wrong than not, and the most common way the wrong ideas get weeded out is when the scientists who believe in them finally die. Then the younger smarty-pants who have slightly better ideas can finally publish, get tenure, and squash the even newer, smarter, generation of upstarts. This scientific soap-opera makes for a tragically hilarious read in Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything." Hence, "Die and adapt."
  3. Science B: As John Ziman says, "The author [of scientific literature] presents an entirely false picture of his actual procedure of discovery. All the false starts, the mistakes, the unnecessary complications, are hidden; and a yarn, of preternatural prescience, precision and profit, is spun." Keith Sawyer explains the same truth in Group Genius: "Fail early, fail often, fail gloriously." Now just substitute "die" for "fail" to see why we must "Die and adapt."
  4. Bonus reason from the world of organizational theory: "When losing is learning"
"Adapt or die"--sounds so true, but perhaps it is counterproductive to posit "adapt" and "die" as two alternatives between which we must choose.

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