Batesian Mimicry: Why Copycats are Successful

One of our first interview guests for The Knowledge Project was the former NFL executive Michael Lombardi. In our interview, we discussed topics ranging from the nature of leadership to decision making in a football context. Mike is one of the wisest thinkers associated with the game.

We heard Mike on an NFL podcast recently, and in a brief clip you can listen to here, Mike makes a fascinating comment on differentiating between a Mimic and the Real Thing:

“There's two kinds of snakes you comes across. There's the Texas Coral Snake, and the Mexican Milk Snake, and they both look exactly alike. The Texas Coral Snake is dangerous, it's venomous, it can kill you in a minute. The Mexican Milk Snake can't do anything to you; it's an impostor.”

Mike got the idea from my friend and CEO of Glenair, Peter Kaufman. Following Mike's lead, we chose to dig in a little further.

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Turns out there are a host of Coral Snake Mimics, all designed to look exactly as fierce as the true bad guys. Besides the Mexican Milk Snake, there is the Scarlet King Snake, the Florida Scarlet Snake, and the California Mountain Kingsnake. (At least.)

For an example, here are the Texas Coral Snake on the left and the Mexican Milk Snake on the right. Pretty damn close!

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According to Wikipedia, the Texas Coral Snake's venom is a “powerful neurotoxin, causing neuromuscular dysfunction“, and terrifyingly describes its bite as coming from “a pair of hollow, small, fixed fangs in the front of its upper jaw, through which the venom is injected and encouraged via a chewing motion. Due to this method of venom delivery, a coral snake must bite and hold on for a brief time to deliver a significant amount of venom…

The Milk Snake, on the other hand, is described as a pretty ideal pet, “The Mexican Milk Snake adapts well to captive care, and its smaller size and striking colorations can make it an attractive choice for a pet snake. They are normally docile, and not typically apt to bite or expel musk.

So, how is it that these two look alike? It's due to a phenomenon called Batesian Mimicry.

In the 1850's, the naturalist Henry Walter Bates found a certain set of butterflies who were clearly not of the same species but whose wings looked almost the same to the naked eye. After thinking it over, Bates eventually figured out what was going on: While the butterflies which were toxic to potential predators (the “models”) were able to operate freely and relatively unmolested, there had also developed a “mimic” population of butterflies which wasn't toxic at all, yet still went untouched!

In fact, biologists eventually figured out that the more toxic and dangerous the “model” was and the more frequently they appeared in the local population, the easier it was for its “mimics” to get by! Predators simply wouldn't take the risk of mixing up the two. If there aren't as many “models” around or they aren't that dangerous, the mimics have a harder time.

This is a wonderful model, and in the practical world we live in, a similar phenomenon abounds: Copycats or “pretenders to the throne” are often very effective, very convincing “mimics” of the true champions. They dress the part, they talk the talk, and they know what buttons to push. But in the end, they are merely chauffeurs.

We see a very Batesian effect at work: The more impressive the “model,” the more effective its mimics can be in convincing people they too are impressive, and in all the same ways. But for every Warren Buffett (just one by our count), there has been many “future” Warren Buffett's. For every Steve Jobs, there have been many “next” Steve Jobs'.

In fact, sometimes even just appearances can be quite convincing: now-disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes was very fond of wearing a very Steve Jobsian black turtleneck outfit.

It seems almost a law of nature that success will be copied, sometimes in a very disgraceful way. (Charlie Munger thinks that the fundamental algorithm of life is “Repeat what works.”)

Because they can be very convincing,  we must be wise enough to watch out for Batesian mimicry — even in ourselves.

This brings up an interesting, at times paradoxical, question: Who can best tell the difference between a Coral Snake and its Mimics? The Coral Snake itself.

The real thing knows a fake. Charlie Munger once commented on this in relation to the field of money management:

“It’s very hard to tell the difference between a good money manager and someone who just has the patter down. If you aren’t a good money manager yourself, rather than trying to pick one, you’re probably better off with a low cost index fund. ‘It takes one to know one’.”

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An insight this good is only possible through continued study across the largest and most relevant fields of study. Peter got this idea by studying biology, a field full of incredible insight but, strangely underappreciated by most “non-biologists”. It's not just ideas about predators and prey, but niches, competition, co-evolutionary arms races and a whole host of others which give us massive insight into the human world.

Peter realized that studying across fields like biology and physics is something like buying an index fund: It works because you captures all the important companies traded on the public exchange, not just a select few. That means you capture the massive winners, which tend to greatly outweigh the failures.

Studying across all of the important fields gives you the same advantage, except it's even better: If an index fund buys a new position, it must sell something to do so; consequently, the “big winners” can only impact your portfolio in a limited way. But if you come to understand a new Great Idea, you don't have to give up the ones you already know! This is a great advantage.

And so it's worth taking the time to work on learning all the big ideas you can find, not just the ones you want to learn. In that search, you'll find a host of big winners you didn't even know existed.

If you liked this post, you'll probably also love:

The Need for Biological Thinking to Solve Complex Problems — How should we think about complexity? Should we use a biological or physics system? The answer, of course, is that it depends. It’s important to have both tools available at your disposal.

The Founder Principle: A Wonderful Idea from Biology — In his brilliant The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen gives us not only the stories of many brilliant biological naturalists including Mayr, but we also get a deep dive into the core concepts of evolution and extinction, including the Founder Effect.

Biology Enables. Culture Forbids. — From a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.