Why being aggressive and macho isn�€™t the best way to deal with competition

In the business world of today, Charles Darwin�€™s earth-shattering theory of evolution is reduced to a platitude about the supposed benefits of unrestrained competition. The idea the toughest, most ambitious, meanest and most hard-driving people and organizations must invariably come out on top is total nonsense. Nothing could be further from Darwin�€™s theory. �€œFittest,�€� in evolutionary terms, means �€œfitting best into the circumstances.�€� It does not imply being physically fit, or mentally tough. It certainly has nothing whatsoever to do with being an assertive, macho jerk.

Everyone knows that Charles Darwin said success in the constant competition of life is based on �€œthe survival of the fittest.�€� Everyone knows it, but it isn�€™t true. That phrase was coined by someone else. The Theory of Evolution is based on the observation that those species best adapted to their environment over time (and that means millions of years) will tend to survive best. Changes that improve this adaptation remain to be passed on to offspring; those that worsen it are quickly lost.

As a birder, I can see how birds reveal plainly that neither size, nor strength, nor aggression guarantee success. Take the California Condor. It�€™s one of the largest birds in the world, bigger and more powerful than any eagle, but it only survives today because of human efforts. It cannot adapt to changes in its environment (caused by people as well) and would be extinct now without an artificial breeding program. Certain species of eagles—undoubtedly powerful, aggressive, and extremely strong—are amongst the most endangered species in the world.

Compare this with the House Sparrow, which is small, weak, nonaggressive—and exists in billions everywhere you go.

What really enhances survival rates?

Species success among birds depends mostly on being clever or adaptable—like starlings, crows, doves and sparrows. Those that need specialized diets and environments, even massive birds of prey, are always vulnerable to extinction. Among individual birds too, success in finding a mate and breeding doesn�€™t depend on size, strength, or physical fitness alone.

Take the House Finch (a common US bird). Brighter, redder males are preferred as mates. This is partly an indicator of health, but the red color comes from chemicals in their food. It�€™s not produced by the bird itself. So being bright red shows the male bird feed well, which likely means it�€™ll be good at finding food for its mate and offspring. It�€™s not more aggressive or fitter, just better at feeding itself. Fatter, rather than fitter!

But there�€™s a twist. While most male birds are likely to mate with any willing female (actual promiscuity varies by species), most females are equally keen to mate with males other than their partner. DNA studies have shown that many females slip away for a brief fling with some other male, often one younger and less �€œfit�€� to father their offspring than their regular mate. The chicks in the nest may well have multiple fathers. So much for the claim that only the genes of the �€œfittest�€� males are passed on to the next generation. Evolution also needs variety and is programmed to get it.

Human competition follows the same pattern

Competition may be natural, but the basis on which individuals compete is rarely clear-cut. Among humans, competition is even more complex. Will the winner be the biggest, the strongest, the most cunning, or the most ruthless? Or none of these?

History provides some interesting clues. The Roman emperor Augustus was neither a successful general nor an imposing figure, yet he created the pattern for his successors for four hundred years. His immediate successor, Tiberius, was both a tough general and a determined leader, but a disaster as emperor. The French emperor Napoleon was neither physically big nor the typical tough-guy, yet he ruled nearly all of Europe for a while. Hitler was a hypochondriac vegetarian and a failure at nearly everything—except becoming a mad dictator. Winston Churchill was elderly, fat, and a heavy drinker and smoker when he lead Britain through its �€œdarkest hour.�€� Franklin D. Roosevelt was crippled by polio.

In human affairs, as in animal and bird species, success is mostly about adaptability, curiosity, and brainpower. The ones who succeed in the long term, which is all that counts, aren�€™t necessarily macho or even specially ruthless. They�€™re good learners—quick to adapt and able to exploit changing circumstances to their advantage.

Hitler and Stalin may have been powerful dictators (for a while), but neither could get past the idea of imposing their will by force alone. The authoritarian systems that they created died with them—and good riddance. In evolutionary terms, both were dead-ends.

As I write this, PBS television in the US is screening Ken Burn�€™s series on World War II. It should encourage all of us to remember those who give their lives in war to preserve our freedom, and reflect on who they are and why they do it.

When it came to destroying the curse of Nazism, were all the Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen macho tough-guys? No, they were ordinary people willing to make extraordinary efforts when necessity demanded them. Did naked might and ruthless authoritarianism win the day? No, they were destroyed.

There are some important lessons there for corporate bosses who take refuge in a flawed understanding of evolution—and run their corporations on the basis of the short-term survival of the most aggressive, ambitious, and macho.

Bye, bye, birdie!

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