Unsurpassed Adaptability

Unsurpassed Adaptability

Something I think about a lot, especially when thinking of the great diversity of human experiences, is how incredible human adaptability is. Humans have found ways to survive across the globe. Humans appear to have first evolved in Africa, with several different waves of human species spreading from Africa across Europe and Asia, and eventually across the oceans to the Americas and to Australia. From savannas and plains, to tropical jungle islands, to frozen tundras, humans have found ways to adapt and live. At this point, we have found ways to survive for long stretches submerged in metal tubes or floating outside the atmosphere in tubes. We have settled in the driest deserts, the wettest rain forests, and even have ways of surviving in the coldest, frozen polar ice-scapes.
This adaptability of humans is truly astonishing, especially when you look back at human history and put us in context with other animals and species. Yuval Noah Harari does this in his book Sapiens and he marvels at how quickly the human species was able to conquer the globe. He writes, “The human blitzkrieg across America testifies to the incomparable ingenuity and the unsurpassed adaptability of Homo sapiens. No other animal had ever moved into such a huge variety of radically different habitats so quickly, everywhere using virtually the same genes.” Adaptability has been a human super power since the early days of the cognitive revolution, when humans began to find ways to live in places that our genes had not evolved to fit.
I’m in awe of our adaptability and think about it whenever I am in a situation I didn’t expect and when I meet people who live dramatically different lives than my own. I am inspired by what some people can push their minds, bodies, and existence to become. I am also dismayed at how terrible life can be for others, and how they nonetheless manage to survive. From the Holocaust, to modern civil wars, to the squalor of tribes in the poorest parts of the globe, it is simultaneously inspiring that humans have survived such awful conditions and depressing. Our adaptability means we can survive and put up with terrible things, languishing in a state of mere existence for years or even generations. Just as our adaptability can allow us to be astronauts, athletes, and chess grand masters, our adaptability can allow us to be prisoners of war, sex trafficking victims, and impoverished peoples. Our unsurpassed adaptability is what allowed our species to conquer the planet, but it is also what has allowed us to pump green house gasses into the atmosphere and allowed us to devastate wildlife and ecosystems.
Our adaptability is amazing and has been since the early days of Homo sapiens, but it does have a cost. While it can allow us to be our best, it can perpetuate our survival at our worst. It has allowed us to flourish as a species across the globe, but has also allowed us to do great harm to the planet. Moving forward we need to continue to adapt, but should strive to do so in a way that makes life better for all, that finds a new Pareto efficiency between all of us and our planet.
Conforming to What We Think People Expect

Conforming to What We Think People Expect

This last election season was not a great one for political polls. The presidential election polls were off for the second straight presidential election, leaving many with doubts about the effectiveness of polling. Many state senatorial polls were also off, leading to expectations that were not met by the actual election outcomes. I spent a lot of time listing to the 538 Politics Podcast heading into the election and spent a good amount of time thinking about and reading about likely election outcomes. In the end, the election was within the expected range of the polling average, but toward a tail end, and it left many people asking why we spent so much time thinking about polling, setting our expectations in certain directions, and whether polls are a useful exercise at all.

 

The reality is that polls are important, and they reflect a part of our psychology that is always in action, even if we are not actively sampling American’s for their views.

 

Politicians are often criticized for changing their positions, but in reality, we all have fluid positions on everything regardless as to whether we are thinking about what clothes we like to wear, marginal tax rates, and whether current public health measures are effective or just for show. Politicians, like all of us, are eager to conform to majority, but they don’t always have perfect polling on what is the most preferred course of action or opinion. Our recent polling experiences show us how difficult it can be to figure out what the majority want. As Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write in Nudge, “in part because people think that everyone has their eyes fixed on them, they conform to what they think people expect.”

 

The difference between most people and politicians is that politicians really do have more eyes on them than any average person. Their efforts to figure out what people expect is more visible, as are their changes in opinion or stated beliefs. But like politicians, most of us are trying to figure out what people expect of us, and most people are trying to match those expectations (at least in most areas). We are not actually in everyone else’s heads, but we can talk to them, observe the stickers they put on their cars, read their social media posts, and get an idea of what other people believe and what they think is cool. We can do our best to emulate that example, and the spotlight effect puts pressure on us to conform to that inferred identity, belief, or behavior.

 

We don’t actually know what everyone thinks and believes. We can all follow trends and fads (like the Paleo Diet) that we don’t really like, but that we think everyone else likes and expects us to follow. We are all trying to figure out what everyone else thinks, and find a way to go with the flow for most aspects of our lives. For most of us, we are not really being watched all the time while this process plays out. But for political figures, this process can be very public and highly scrutinized. So even though our polls have had some frustrating misses the last few presidential cycles, accurate and timely polling is important. And while we might not like the idea of a flip-flopping political figure, we probably all prefer a political figure who understands what their constituents want and expect, and polling can be a helpful way for them to better understand their constituents and better adjust to their views while representing them.

Participating in Life

Colin Wright’s recent book Come Back Frayed, is the story of his experiences living in Mayoyao and Boracay in the Philippines. Mayoyao is an agrarian region of the country with a small population and many rice fields, and Boracay is a small island and a popular tourism spot. Throughout his book Wright takes a critical look at culture, comparing the lifestyles of many in the United States to those in the Philippines who live with considerably less. Beyond a simple comparison of American and Philippine citizens and lifestyles, Wright dives into his own perceptions of himself and what traveling and experiencing new cultures has meant to him.

An idea expressed by Wright is that travel forces us into situations where we are no longer in the kind of control we become comfortable with in our daily lives. He discusses the importance of flexibility and adaption in travel, and I think his metaphor can be easily adapted to life in general.

He writes, “The best you can hope for is a little deck-stacking here and there, and a carefully sharpened ability to play whatever cards you’re dealt. Sometimes that means playing another game for a while. Sometimes it means you’re handed some dice instead, or a random handful of obscure game paraphernalia with purposes you haven’t yet discovered. In such cases all you can do is plaster a confident expression across your face, watch those around you for clues, and hope to hell you figure out the rules before it’s your turn to play.”

This idea of travel and life more generally being a game in which you don’t have all the pieces is a useful idea for me. I don’t think it is helpful to look at life as a game that you either win or lose, but as an activity you participate in with those around you to build relationships and community. Being engaged in the game means that we will have new experiences and find ourselves in unfamiliar places. Flexibility will always be a central part of advancing as far as possible. The more we can adjust and the more we can look to those around us to learn, the better we will be at participating and contributing.

The game idea breaks down around thoughts of winning and losing, since that may push us to act in ways that are not helpful for building the type of experiences we actually desire in our lives. When we focus on winning the game (life) we risk placing value on goals that can be hallow or self serving. We isolate ourselves and possibly push away those who are closest to us. Instead, we should look at success in the game as full participation, achieved by constantly learning and better understanding the  connections the game builds.

Returning to Wright’s quote, learning how to take disparate pieces and tie them together to play the game is a major skill worth developing. Adjusting to the needs and demands of our environment helps us not just in traveling and in moving from physical space to physical space, but it helps us throughout life as our daily experiences, possibilities, and demands shift. I believe a major skill that is not discussed enough is learning from those around us to find new growth. Rather than criticizing people for the cards they are dealt and the hands we play, we are always much better off learning from the actions of others, so that we can better use the pieces we have available to us.