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Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
If ‘survival of the fittest’ is the prime evolutionary tenet, then why do some behaviors that lead to winning or success, seemingly justified by this concept, ultimately leave us cold?
Taken from Darwin’s theory of evolution, survival of the fittest is often conceptualized as the advantage that accrues with certain traits, allowing an individual to both thrive and survive in their environment by out-competing for limited resources. Qualities such as strength and speed were beneficial to our ancestors, allowing them to survive in demanding environments, and thus our general admiration for these qualities is now understood through this evolutionary lens.
However, in humans this evolutionary concept is often co-opted to defend a wide range of behaviors, not all of them good. Winning by cheating, or stepping on others to achieve goals.
Why is this?
One answer is that humans are not only concerned with our individual survival, but the survival of our group. (Which, of course, leads to improved individual survival, on average.) This relationship between individual and group survival is subject to intense debate among biologists.
Humans display a wide range of behavior that seems counter-intuitive to the survival of the fittest mentality until you consider that we are an inherently social species, and that keeping our group fit is a wise investment of our time and energy.
One of the behaviors that humans display a lot of is “indirect reciprocity”. Distinguished from “direct reciprocity”, in which I help you and you help me, indirect reciprocity confers no immediate benefit to the one doing the helping. Either I help you, then you help someone else at a later time, or I help you and then someone else, some time in the future, helps me.
Martin A. Nowak and Karl Sigmund have studied this phenomenon in humans for many years. Essentially, they ask the question “How can natural selection promote unselfish behavior?”
Many of their studies have shown that “propensity for indirect reciprocity is widespread. A lot of people choose to do it.”
Humans are the champions of reciprocity. Experiments and everyday experience alike show that what Adam Smith called ‘our instinct to trade, barter and truck' relies to a considerable extent on the widespread tendency to return helpful and harmful acts in kind. We do so even if these acts have been directed not to us but to others.
We care about what happens to others, even if the entire event is one that we have no part in. If you consider evolution in terms of survival of the fittest group, rather than individual, this makes sense.
Supporting those who harm others can breed mistrust and instability. And if we don’t trust each other, day to day transactions in our world will be completely undermined. Sending your kids to school, banking, online shopping: We place a huge amount of trust in our fellow humans every day.
If we consider this idea of group survival, we can also see value in a wider range of human attributes and behaviors. It is now not about “I have to be the fittest in every possible way in order to survive“, but recognizing that I want fit people in my group.
In her excellent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain explores, among other things, the relevance of introverts to social function. How their contributions benefit the group as a whole. Introverts are people who “like to focus on one task at a time, … listen more than they talk, think before they speak, … [and] tend to dislike conflict.”
Though out of step with the culture of “the extrovert ideal” we are currently living in, introverts contribute significantly to our group fitness. Without them we would be deprived of much of our art and scientific progress.
Among evolutionary biologists, who tend to subscribe to the vision of lone individuals hell-bent on reproducing their own DNA, the idea that species include individuals whose traits promote group survival is hotly debated and, not long ago, could practically get you kicked out of the academy.
But the idea makes sense. If personality types such as introverts aren’t the fittest for survival, then why did they persist? Possibly because of their value to the group.
Cain looks at the work of Dr. Elaine Aron, who has spent years studying introverts, and is one herself. In explaining the idea of different personality traits as part of group selection in evolution, Aron offers this story in an article posted on her website:
I used to joke that when a group of prehistoric humans were sitting around the campfire and a lion was creeping up on them all, the sensitive ones [introverts] would alert the others to the lion's prowling and insist that something be done. But the non-sensitive ones [extroverts] would be the ones more likely to go out and face the lion. Hence there are more of them than there are of us, since they are willing and even happy to do impulsive, dangerous things that will kill many of us. But also, they are willing to protect us and hunt for us, if we are not as good at killing large animals, because the group needs us. We have been the healers, trackers, shamans, strategists, and of course the first to sense danger. So together the two types survive better than a group of just one type or the other.
The lesson is this: Groups survive better if they have individuals with different strengths to draw on. The more tools you have, the more likely you can complete a job. The more people you have that are different the more likely you can survive the unexpected.
How then, does one define the group? Who am I willing to help? Arguably, I’m most willing to sacrifice for my children, or family. My immediate little group. But history is full of examples of those who sacrificed significantly for their tribes or sports teams or countries.
We can’t argue that it is just about the survival of our own DNA. That may explain why I will throw myself in front of a speeding car to protect my child, but the beaches of Normandy were stormed by thousands of young, childless men. Soldiers from World War I, when interviewed about why they would jump out of a trench, trying to take a slice of no man’s land, most often said they did it “for the guy next to them”. They initially joined the military out of a sense of “national pride”, or other very non-DNA reasons.
Clearly, human culture is capable of defining “groups” very broadly though a complex system of mythology, creating deep loyalty to “imaginary” groups like sports teams, corporations, nations, or religions.
As technology shrinks our world, our group expands. Technological advancement pushes us into higher degrees of specialization, so that individual survival becomes clearly linked with group survival.
I know that I have a vested interest in doing my part to maintain the health of my group. I am very attached to indoor plumbing and grocery stores, yet don’t participate at all in the giant webs that allow those things to exist in my life. I don’t know anything about the configuration of the municipal sewer system or how to grow raspberries. (Of course, Adam Smith called this process of the individual benefitting the group through specialization the Invisible Hand.)
When we see ourselves as part of a group, we want the group to survive and even thrive. Yet how big can our group be? Is there always an us vs. them? Does our group surviving always have to be at the expense of others? We leave you with the speculation.
The biologist Lewis Thomas, who we've written about before, has a wonderful thought on creating great organizations.
For Thomas, creating great science was not about command-and-control. It was about Getting the Air Right.
It cannot be prearranged in any precise way; the minds cannot be lined up in tidy rows and given directions from printed sheets. You cannot get it done by instructing each mind to make this or that piece, for central committees to fit with the pieces made by the other instructed minds. It does not work this way.
What it needs is for the air to be made right. If you want a bee to make honey, you do not issue protocols on solar navigation or carbohydrate chemistry, you put him together with other bees (and you’d better do this quickly, for solitary bees do not stay alive) and you do what you can to arrange the general environment around the hive. If the air is right, the science will come in its own season, like pure honey.
One organization which clearly “gets the air right” is the much lauded Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
The organization has 4,500 physicians and over $10 billion in revenue from three main campuses, and it is regularly rated among the top hospital systems in the United States in a wide variety of specialities, and yet was founded back in the late 20th century by William Worrall Mayo. Its main campus is in Rochester, Minnesota; not exactly a hub of bustling activity, yet its patients are willing to fly or drive hundreds of miles to receive care. (So-called “destination medicine.”)
How does an organization sustain that kind of momentum for more than 150 years, in an industry that's changed as much as medicine? What can the rest of us learn from that?
It's a prime example of where culture eats strategy. Even Warren Buffett admires the system:
A medical partnership led by your area’s premier brain surgeon may enjoy outsized and growing earnings, but that tells little about its future. The partnership’s moat will go when the surgeon goes. You can count, though, on the moat of the Mayo Clinic to endure, even though you can’t name its CEO.
The Mayo Clinic is an integrated, multi-specialty organization — they're known for doing almost every type of medicine at a world class level. And the point of having lots of specialities integrated under one roof is teamwork: Everyone is pulling the same oar. Integrating all specialities under one umbrella and giving them a common set of incentives focuses Mayo's work on the needs of the patient, not the hospital or the doctor.
This extreme focus on patient needs and teamwork creates a unique environment that is not present in most healthcare systems, where one's various care-takers often don't know each other, fail to communicate, and even have trouble accessing past medical records. (Mayo is able to have one united electronic patient record system because of its deep integration.)
Importantly, they don't just say they focus on integrated care, they do it. Everything is aligned in that direction. For example, as with Apple Retail stores (also known for extreme customer focus), there are no bonuses or incentive payments for physicians — only salaries.
The clinic ardently searches for team players in its hiring and then facilitates their collaboration through substantial investment in communications technology and facilities design. Further encouraging collaboration is an all-salary compensation system with no incentive payments based on the number of patients seen or procedures performed. A Mayo physician has no economic reason to hold onto patients rather than referring them to colleagues better suited to meet their needs. Nor does taking the time to assist a colleague result in lost personal income.
The most amazing thing of all about the Mayo clinic is the fact that hundreds of members of the most highly individualistic profession in the world could be induced to live and work together in a small town on the edge of nowhere and like it.
The Clinic was carefully constructed by self-selection over time: It's a culture that attracts teamwork focused physicians and then executes on that promise.
One of the internists in the book is quoting as saying working at Mayo is like “working in an organism; you are not a single cell when you are out there practicing. As a generalists, I have access to the best minds on any topic, any disease or problem I come up with and they're one phone call away.”
In that sense, part of the Mayo's moat is simply a feedback loop of momentum: Give a group of high performers an amazing atmosphere in which to do their work, and eventually they will simply be attracted by each other. This can go on a long time.
The other part of Mayo's success — besides correct incentives, a correct system, and a feedback loop — is simply scale and critical mass. Mayo is like a Ford in its early days: They can do everything under one roof, with all of the specialities and sub-specialities covered. That allows them to deliver a very different experience, accelerating the patient care cycle due to extreme efficiency relative to a “fractured” system.
Craig Smoldt, chair of the department of facilities and support services in Rochester, makes the point that Mayo clinic can offer efficient care–the cornerstone of destination medicine–because it functions as one integrated organization. He notes the fact that everyone works under one roof, so to speak, and is on the payroll of the same organization, makes a huge difference. The critical mass of what we have here is another factor. Few healthcare organizations in the country have as many specialities and sub-specialities working together in one organization.” So Mayo Clinic patients come to one of three locations, and virtually all of their diagnoses and treatment can be delivered by that single organization in a short time.
Contrast that to the way care is delivered elsewhere, the fractured system that represents Mayo's competitors. This is another factor in Mayo's success — they're up against a pretty uncompetitive lot:
Most U.S. healthcare is not delivered in organizations with a comparable degree of integrated operations. Rather than receiving care under one roof, a single patient's doctors commonly work in offices scattered around a city. Clinical laboratories and imaging facilities may be either in the local hospital or at different locations. As a report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering notes, “The increase in specialization in medicine has reinforced the cottage-industry structure of U.S. healthcare, helping to create a delivery system characterized by disconnected silos of function and specialization.
How does this normally work out in practice, at places that don't work like Mayo? We're probably all familiar with the process. The Institute of Medicine report referenced above continues:
“Suppose the patient has four medical problems. That means she would likely have at least five different doctors.” For instance, this patient could have (1) a primary care doctor providing regular examinations and treatments for general health, (2) an orthopedist who treats a severely arthritic knee, (3) a cardiologist who is monitoring the aortic valve in her heart that may need replacement soon, (4) a psychiatrist who is helping her manage depression, and (5) and endocrinologist who is helping her adjust her diabetes medications. Dr. Cortese then notes,”With the possible exception of the primary care physician, most of these doctors probably do not know that the patient is seeing the others. And even if they do know, it is highly unlikely they know the impressions and recommendations the other doctors have recorded in the medical record, or exactly what medications and dosages are prescribed.” If the patient is hospitalized, it is probably that only the admitting physician and the primary care physician will have that knowledge.
Coordinating all of these doctors takes time and energy on the part of the patient. Repeat, follow-up visits are done days later; often test results, MRI results, or x-ray results are not determined quickly or communicated effectively to the other parts of the chain.
Mayo solves that by doing everything efficiently and under one roof. The patient or his/her family doesn't have to push to get efficient service. Take the case of a woman with fibrocystic breast disease who had recently found a lump. Her experience at Mayo took a few hours; the same experience in the past had taken multiple days elsewhere, and initiative on her end to speed things up.
As a patient in the breast clinic, she began with an internist/breast specialists who took the medical history and performed an exam. The mammogram followed in the nearby breast imaging center. The breast ultrasound, ordered to evaluate a specific area on the breast, was done immediately after the mammogram.
The breast radiologist who performed the ultrasound had all the medical history and impressions of the other doctors available in the electronic medical record (EMR). The ultrasound confirmed that the lump was a simple cyst, not a cancer. The radiologist shared this information with the patient and offered her an aspiration of the cyst that would draw off fluid if the cyst was painful. But comforted with the diagnosis of the simple cyst and with the fact that it was not painful, the veteran patient declined the aspiration. Within an hour of completing the breast imaging, the radiologist communicated to the breast specialist a “verbal report” of the imaging findings. The patient returned to the internist/breast specialist who then had a wrap-up visit with the patient and recommended follow-up care. This patient's care at Mayo was completed in three and one-half hours–before lunch.
So what are some lessons we can pull together from studying Mayo?
The book offers a bunch, but one in particular seemed broadly useful, from a chapter describing Mayo's “systems” approach to consistently improving the speed and level of care. (Industrial engineers are put to work fixing broken systems inside Mayo.)
Mayo wins by solving the totality of the customer's problem, not part of it. This is the essence of an integrated system. While this wouldn't work for all types of businesses; it's probably a useful way for most “service” companies to think.
Why is this lesson particularly important? Because it leads to all the others. Innovation in patient care, efficiency in service delivery, continuous adoption of new technology, “Getting the Air Right” to attract and retain the best possible physicians, and creating a feedback loop are products of the “high level” thought process below: Solve the whole problem.
Lesson 1: Solve the customer's total problem. Mayo Clinic is a “systems seller” competing with a connected, coordinated service. systems sellers market coordinated solutions to the totality of their customers' problems; they offer whole solutions instead of partial solutions. In system selling, the marketer puts together all the services needed by customers to do it themselves. The Clinic uses systems thinking to execute systems selling that pleasantly surprises patients (and families) and exceeds their expectations.
The scheduling and service production systems at Mayo Clinic have created a differentiated product–destination medicine–that few competitors can approach. So even if patients feel that the doctors and hospitals at home are fine, they still place a high value on a service system that can deliver a product in days rather than weeks or months.
Patients not only require competent care but also coordinated and efficient care. Mayo excels in both areas. In a small Midwestern town, it created a medical city offering “systems solutions” that encourage favorable word of mouth and sustained brand strength, and then it exported the model to new campuses in Arizona and Florida.
If you liked this post, you might like these as well:
Creating Effective Incentive Systems: Ken Iverson on the Principles that Unleash Human Potential — Done poorly, compensation systems foster a culture of individualism and gaming. Done properly, however, they unleash the potential of all employees.
Can Health Care Learn From Restaurant Chains? — Atul Gawande pens a fascinating piece in the New Yorker about what health care can learn from the Cheesecake Factory.
MIT Media Lab is a creative nerve center where great ideas like One Laptop per Child, LEGO Mindstorms, and Scratch programming language have emerged.
Its director, Joi Ito, has done a lot of thinking about how prevailing systems of thought will not be the ones to see us through the coming decades. In his book Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future, he notes that sometime late in the last century, technology began to outpace our ability to understand it.
We are blessed (or cursed) to live in interesting times, where high school students regularly use gene editing techniques to invent new life forms, and where advancements in artificial intelligence force policymakers to contemplate widespread, permanent unemployment. Small wonder our old habits of mind—forged in an era of coal, steel, and easy prosperity—fall short. The strong no longer necessarily survive; not all risk needs to be mitigated; and the firm is no longer the optimum organizational unit for our scarce resources.
Ito's ideas are not specific to our moment in history, but adaptive responses to a world with certain characteristics:
In our era, effects are no longer proportional to the size of their source. The biggest change-makers of the future are the small players: “start-ups and rogues, breakaways and indie labs.”
The level of complexity is shaped by four inputs, all of which are extraordinarily high in today’s world: heterogeneity, interconnection, interdependency and adaptation.
“Not knowing is okay. In fact, we’ve entered an age where the admission of ignorance offers strategic advantages over expending resources–subcommittees and think tanks and sales forecasts—toward the increasingly futile goal of forecasting future events.”
When these three conditions are in place, certain guiding principles serve us best. In his book, Ito shares some of the maxims that organize his “anti-disciplinary” Media Lab in a complex and uncertain world.
Emergence over Authority
Complex systems show properties that their individual parts don’t possess, and we call this process “emergence”. For example, life is an emergent property of chemistry. Groups of people also produce a wondrous variety of emergent behaviors—languages, economies, scientific revolutions—when each intellect contributes to a whole that is beyond the abilities of any one person.
Some organizational structures encourage this kind of creativity more than others. Authoritarian systems only allow for incremental changes, whereas nonlinear innovation emerges from decentralized networks with a low barrier to entry. As Stephen Johnson describes in Emergence, when you plug more minds into the system, “isolated hunches and private obsessions coalesce into a new way of looking at the world, shared by thousands of individuals.”
Synthetic biology best exemplifies the type of new field that can arise from emergence. Not to be confused with genetic engineering, which modifies existing organisms, synthetic biology aims to create entirely new forms of life.
Having emerged in the era of open-source software, synthetic biology is becoming an exercise in radical collaboration between students, professors, and a legion of citizen scientists who call themselves biohackers. Emergence has made its way into the lab.
As a result, the cost of sequencing DNA is plummeting at six times the rate of Moore’s Law, and a large Registry of Standard Biological Parts, or BioBricks, now offers genetic components that perform well-understood functions in whatever organism is being created, like a block of Lego.
There is still a place for leaders in an organization that fosters emergence, but the role may feel unfamiliar to a manager from a traditional hierarchy. The new leader spends less time leading and more time “gardening”—pruning the hedges, watering the flowers, and otherwise getting out of the way. (As biologist Lewis Thomas puts it, a great leader must get the air right.)
Pull over Push
“Push” strategies involve directing resources from a central source to sites where, in the leader’s estimation, they are likely to be needed or useful. In contrast, projects that use “pull” strategies attract intellectual, financial and physical resources to themselves just as they are needed, rather than stockpiling them.
Ito is a proponent of the sharing economy, through which a startup might tap into the global community of freelancers and volunteers for a custom-made task force instead of hiring permanent teams of designers, programmers or engineers.
Here's a great example:
When the Fukushima nuclear meltdown happened, Ito was living just outside of Tokyo. The Japanese government took a command-and-control (“push”) approach to the disaster, in which information would slowly climb up the hierarchy, and decisions would then be passed down stepwise to the ground-level workers.
It soon became clear that the government was not equipped to assess or communicate the radioactivity levels of each neighborhood, so Ito and his friends took the problem into their own hands. Pulling in expertise and money from far-flung scientists and entrepreneurs, they formed a citizen science group called Safecast, which built its own GPS-equipped Geiger counters and strapped them to cars for faster monitoring. They launched a website that continues to share data – more than 50 million data points so far – about local environments.
To benefit from these kinds of “pull” strategies, it pays to foster an environment that is rich with weak ties – a wide network of acquaintances from which to draw just-in-time knowledge and resources, as Ito did with Safecast.
Compasses over Maps
Detailed maps can be more misleading than useful in a fast-changing world, where a compass is the tool of choice. In the same way, organizations that plan exhaustively will be outpaced in an accelerating world by ones that are guided by a more encompassing mission.
A map implies a straightforward knowledge of the terrain, and the existence of an optimum route; the compass is a far more flexible tool and requires the user to employ creativity and autonomy in discovering his or her own path.
One advantage to the compass approach is that when a roadblock inevitably crops up, there is no need to go back to the beginning to form another plan or draw up multiple plans for each contingency. You simply navigate around the obstacle and continue in your chosen direction.
It is impossible, in any case, to make detailed plans for a complex and creative organization. The way to set a compass direction for a company is by creating a culture—or set of mythologies—that animates the parts in a common worldview.
In the case of the MIT Media Lab, that compass heading is described in three values: “Uniqueness, Impact, and Magic”. Uniqueness means that if someone is working on a similar project elsewhere, the lab moves on.
Rather than working to discover knowledge for its own sake, the lab works in the service of Impact, through start-ups and physical creations. It was expressed in the lab’s motto “Deploy or die”, but Barack Obama suggested they work on their messaging, and Ito shortened it to “Deploy.”
The Magic element, though hard to define, speaks to the delight that playful originality so often awakens.
Both students and faculty at the lab are there to learn, but not necessarily to be “educated”. Learning is something you pursue for yourself, after all, whereas education is something that’s done to you. The result is “agile, scrappy, permissionless innovation”.
The new job landscape requires more creativity from everybody. The people who will be most successful in this environment will be the ones who ask questions, trust their instincts, and refuse to follow the rules when the rules get in their way.
Other principles discussed in Whiplash include Risk over Safety, Disobedience over Compliance, Practice over Theory, Diversity over Ability, Resilience over Strength, and Systems over Objects.
Most of us want to be smarter but have no idea how to go about improving our mental apparatus. We intuitively think that if we raised our IQ a few points that we'd be better off intellectually. This isn't necessarily the case. I know a lot of people with high IQs that make terribly stupid mistakes. The way around this is by improving not our IQ, but our overall cognition.
Cognition, argues Richard Restak, “refers to the ability of our brain to attend, identify, and act.” You can think of this as a melange of our moods, thoughts, decisions, inclinations and actions.
Included among the components of cognition are alertness, concentration, perceptual speed, learning, memory, problem solving, creativity, and mental endurance.
All of these components have two things in common. First, our efficacy at them depends on how well the brain is functioning relative to its capabilities. Second, this efficacy function can be improved with the right discipline and the right habits.
Restak convincingly argues that we can make our brains work better by “enhancing the components of cognition.” How we go about improving our brain performance, and thus cognition, is the subject of his book Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot.
Improving Our Cognitive Power
To improve the brain we need to exercise our cognitive powers. Most of us believe that physical exercise helps us feel better and live healthier; yet how many of us exercise our brain? As with our muscles and our bones, “the brain improves the more we challenge it.”
This is possible because the brain retains a high degree of plasticity; it changes in response to experience. If the experiences are rich and varied, the brain will develop a greater number of nerve cell connections. If the experiences are dull and infrequent, the connections will either never form or die off.
If we’re in stimulating and challenging environments, we increase the number of nerve cell connections. Our brain literally gets heavier, as the number of synapses (connections between neurons) increases. The key that many people miss here is “rich and varied.”
Memory is the most important cognitive function. Imagine if you lost your memory permanently: Would you still be you?
“We are,” Restak writes, “what we remember.” And poor memories are not limited to those who suffer from Alzheimer's disease. While some of us are genetically endowed with superlative memories, the rest of us need not fear.
Aristotle suggested that our mind was a wax tablet in a short book on memory, arguing that the passage of time fades the image unless we take steps to preserve it. He was right in ways he never knew; memory researchers know now that, like a wax tablet, our memory changes every time we access it, due to the plasticity Restak refers to. It can also be molded and improved, at least to a degree.
Long ago, the Greeks hit upon the same idea — mostly starting with Plato — that we don’t have to accept our natural memory. We can take steps to improve it.
Learning and Knowledge Acquisition
When we learn something new, we expand the complexity of our brain. We literally increase our brainpower.
[I]ncrease your memory and you increase your basic intelligence. … An increased memory leads to easier, quicker accessing of information, as well as greater opportunities for linkages and associations. And, basically, you are what you can remember.
Too many of us can’t remember these days, because we’ve outsourced our brain. One of the most common complaints at the neurologist's office for people over forty is poor memory. Luckily most of these people do not suffer from something neurological, but rather the cumulative effect of disuse — a graceful degradation of their memory.
Those who are not depressed (the commonest cause of subjective complaints of memory impairment) are simply experiencing the cumulative effect of decades of memory disuse. Part of this disuse is cultural. Most businesses and occupations seldom demand that their employees recite facts and figures purely from memory. In addition, in some quarters memory is even held in contempt. ‘He’s just parroting a lot of information he doesn’t really understand’ is a common put-down when people are enviously criticizing someone with a powerful memory. Of course, on some occasions, such criticisms are justified, particularly when brute recall occurs in the absence of understanding or context. But I’m not advocating brute recall. I’m suggesting that, starting now, you aim for a superpowered memory, a memory aimed at quicker, more accurate retrieval of information.
Prior to the printing press, we had to use our memories. Epics such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, were recited word-for-word. Today, however, we live in a different world, and we forget that these things were even possible. Information is everywhere. We need not remember anything thanks to technology. This helps and hinders the development of our memory.
[Y]ou should think of the technology of pens, paper, tape recorders, computers, and electronic diaries as an extension of the brain. Thanks to these aids, we can carry incredible amounts of information around with us. While this increase in readily available information is generally beneficial, there is also a downside. The storage and rapid retrieval of information from a computer also exerts a stunting effect on our brain’s memory capacities. But we can overcome this by working to improve our memory by aiming at the development and maintenance of a superpowered memory. In the process of improving our powers of recall, we will strengthen our brain circuits, starting at the hippocampus and extending to every other part of our brain.
Information is only as valuable as what it connects to. Echoing the latticework of mental models, Restek states:
Everything that we learn is stored in the brain within that vast, interlinking network. And everything within that network is potentially connected to everything else.
From this we can draw a reasonable conclusion: if you stop learning mental capacity declines.
That’s because of the weakening and eventual loss of brain networks. Such brain alterations don’t take place overnight, of course. But over a varying period of time, depending on your previous training and natural abilities, you’ll notice a gradual but steady decrease in your powers if you don’t nourish and enhance these networks.
The Better Network: Your Brain or the Internet
Networking is a fundamental operating principle of the human brain. All knowledge within the brain is based on networking. Thus, any one piece of information can be potentially linked with any other. Indeed, creativity can be thought of as the formation of novel and original linkages.
In his book, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and the Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the Internet, distills the importance of the brain forming connections.
A piece of information is really defined only by what it’s related to, and how it’s related. There really is little else to meaning. The structure is everything. There are billions of neurons in our brains, but what are neurons? Just cells. The brain has no knowledge until connections are made between neurons. All that we know, all that we are, comes from the way our neurons are connected.
Cognitive researchers now accept that it may not be the size of the human brain which gives it such unique abilities — other animals have large brains as well. Rather its our structure; the way our neurons are structured, arranged, and linked.
The more you learn, the more you can link. The more you can link, the more you increase the brain's capacity. And the more you increase the capacity of your brain the better able you’ll be to solve problems and make decisions quickly and correctly. This is real brainpower.
Restak argues that a basic insight about knowledge and intelligence is: “The existence of certain patterns, which underlie the diversity of the world around us and include our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.”
Intelligence enhancement therefore involves creating as many neuronal linkages as possible. But in order to do this we have to extricate ourselves from the confining and limiting idea that knowledge can be broken down into separate “disciplines” that bear little relation to one another.
This brings the entire range of ideas into play, rather than just silos of knowledge from human-created specialities. Charlie Munger and Richard Feynman would probably agree that such over-specialization can be quite limiting. As the old proverb goes, the frog in the well knows nothing of the ocean.
Charles Cameron, a game theorist, adds to this conversation:
The entire range of ideas can legitimately be brought into play: and this means not only that ideas from different disciplines can be juxtaposed, but also that ideas expressed in ‘languages’ as diverse as music, painting, sculpture, dance, mathematics and philosophy can be juxtaposed, without first being ‘translated’ into a common language.
Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot goes on to provide 28 suggestions and exercises for enhancing your brain's performance, a few of which we’ll cover in future posts.
Equilibrium is an important concept that permeates many disciplines. In chemistry we think about the point where the rate of forward reaction is equal to the rate of backward reaction. In economics we think of the point where supply equals demand. In physics we can see how gravity is balanced by forward velocity to create things like planetary orbits.
No matter which discipline we are examining, the core idea remains the same: Equilibrium is a state where opposing forces are balanced.
In biology, equilibrium is so important that it can mean the difference between life or death; for a species, it can decide whether they will thrive or become extinct.
In The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen dives into how equilibrium affects a species' ability to survive, and how it impacts our ability to save animals on the brink of extinction.
Historically, the concept of island equilibrium was studied with a focus on the interplay between evolution (as the additive) and extinction (as the subtractive). It was believed that speciation, the process where one species becomes two or more species, caused any increase in the number of inhabitants on an island. In this view, the insularity of islands created a remoteness that could only be overcome by the long processes of evolution.
However, Robert MacArthur and E.O. Wilson, the co-authors of the influential Theory of Island Biogeography, realized that habitats would show a tendency towards equilibrium much sooner than could be accounted for by speciation. They argued the ongoing processes that most influenced this balance were immigration and extinction.
The type of extinctions we’re referring to in this case are local extinctions, specific to the island in question. A species can go extinct on a particular island and yet be thriving elsewhere; it depends on local conditions.
As for immigration, it's just what you'd expect: The movement of species from one place to another. Island immigration describes the many ingenious ways in which plants, animals, and insects travel to islands. For instance, not only will insects hitch rides on birds and debris (man made or natural, think garbage and sticks/uprooted seaweed), animals will do the same if the debris is massive enough.
Seeds, meanwhile, make the trip in the feces of birds, which helps to introduce new plant species to the island, while highly motivated swimmers (escapees of natural disasters/predators/famine) and hitchhikers on human ships (think rats) make it over in their own unusual ways.
We can plot this process of immigration and extinction graphically, in a way you're probably familiar with. Quammen explains:
The decrease in immigration rate and the increase in extinction rate are graphed not against elapsed time but against the number of species present on a given island. As an island fills up with species, immigration declines and extinction increases, until they offset each other at an equilibrium level. At that level, the rate of continuing immigration is just canceled by the rate of continuing extinction, and there is no net gain or loss of species. The phenomenon of offsetting increase and decrease – the change of identities on the roster of species – is known as turnover. One species of butterfly arrives, another species of butterfly dies out, and in the aftermath the island has the same number of butterfly species as before. Equilibrium with turnover.
So while the specific species inhabiting the island will change over time, the numbers will tend to roll towards a balanced point where the two curves intersect.
Of course, not all equilibrium graphs will look the like one above. Indeed, MacArthur and Wilson hoped this theory would be used not just to explain equilibriums, but to also help predict potential issues.
When either curve is especially steep – reflecting the fact that immigration decreases especially sharply or extinction increases especially sharply – their crossing point shifts leftward, toward zero. The shift means that, at equilibrium, in this particular set of circumstances, there will be relatively few resident species.
In other words, high extinction and low immigration yield an impoverished ecosystem. To you and me it’s a dot in Cartesian space, but to an island it represents destiny.
There are two key ideas that can help us understand the equilibrium point on a given island.
First, the concept of species-area relationship: We see a larger number of a given species on larger islands and a smaller number of a given species on smaller islands.
Second, the concept of species quantity on remote islands: Immigration is much more difficult the further away an island is from either a mainland or a cluster of other islands, meaning that fewer species will make it there.
In other words, size and remoteness are directly correlated to the fragility of any given species inhabiting an island.
Equilibrium, immigration, evolution, extinction – these are all ideas that bleed into so many more areas than biogeography. What happens to groups when they are isolated? Jared Diamond had some interesting thoughts on that. What happens to products or businesses which don’t keep up with co-evolution? They go extinct due to the Red Queen Effect. What happens to our mind and body when we feel off balance? Our life is impoverished.
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.
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!
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'.
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’.”
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.