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.

A Glitch in “Voting With Our Feet”

In the United States, we hold on to terrific myths about the power of the individual. We celebrate (mostly) entrepreneurs like Elon Musk who bring us new technologies and cool cars and we have magazines focused entirely on major business leaders whose insight and innovation power our most successful companies. We believe that individuals hold the power to change the world, and we believe that giving people freedom will lead to rational decisions on the part of individuals to find the best outcome for our country.

 

An idea that pops out of this myth is the idea of voting with our feet. The term refers to people making a decision to go someplace else, to chose something else and to literally move ourselves with our feet to a different option. We might vote with our feet when we move from one city to another, or when we leave one store to shop at another, or quite literally in some state caucuses when we walk from one side of a room to another to support a different political candidate. We believe that our individual choices and where we chose to shop and how we chose to vote will really make a difference in the world.

 

This is only partially true, and only sometimes has the positive outcomes we hope for. In many instances however, our individual choices are just not enough to overcome structural factors which entrench the status quo. Sometimes we vote with our feet, but really move from one option provided by a company to another, without really making a difference in the bottom line of the company we are voting against with our feet (think of moving from Facebook to Instagram, which is still owned by Facebook). Voting with our feet can also have very negative consequences, such as entrenching segregation without having anyone to blame.

 

In The Complacent Class Tyler Cowen writes about the ways in which our society is becoming more segregated through the use of voting with our feet. Across the country we see people move into “nicer” neighborhoods which creates a level of economic, racial, and political segregation that should raise moral concerns. About the issue Cowen writes, “The self-selection process is running its course, and how people are voting with their feet often differs from which is coming out of their mouths.”

 

Many people who believe that schools and communities should be more diverse are moving to areas with less diversity. They are not consciously choosing to live in more segregated areas, but they are voting with their feet to leave areas of worse economic condition but greater diversity in favor of more economically sound and culturally homogeneous regions. Sometimes the goal is to move into a more wealthy neighborhood, sometimes the goal is to move to reduce a work commute, and sometimes the goal is to move to be closer to a better school. Often the results are neighborhoods with more similar people in terms of race, income/wealth, and cultural values and backgrounds, ultimately, more segregation.

 

This process is playing out because we empower the individual in our society and don’t want to do anything to limit the power of the individual’s choice. Segregation is a result of the power to vote with our feet, but it is also the dismantlement of the myth of the individual. The rational individual is not making individual choices that make the world a better place. Instead, the individual is working on feelings that lead to a desire for greater similarity between themselves and their neighbors, ultimately creating a worsening system of segregation. We should learn from this example that our individual choices are both not sufficient to bring about the best outcomes for our society and planet, and that simultaneously our individual choices can have a serious negative outcomes when left unchecked. We must think first about the systems that structure our decisions, and then think about how we can make the most of our choices for positive, rather than negative outcomes.

New Ideas and Diversity

One reason why innovative problem solving and action on our nation’s most pressing problems has moved from the Federal government to local governments is because of the incredible diversity of our nation. Each state has its own unique flavor of any given national problem, making a one-size-fits-all approach to national politics incredibly challenging. Within every state we have a variety of cities and regions. Some areas are densely packed and populated, some areas are incredibly rural, some areas have access to natural resources that help with trade and politics, and some areas have incredible universities that attract global talent for education and possible careers.

 

Managing the diversity of our nation, our states, and the cities and regions that power our country is crucial in a new age of globalization. In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write, “New Localism is the locus of problem solving that must by necessity be open to new ideas and a diversity of constituencies.”

 

We have diverse populations across our diverse landscape. Not just the issues that matter most to people, but the acceptable approaches to those problems will also vary across individuals and regions. When we start building our solutions at the local level to match our diverse population, we have to be open to new possibilities that align with that diversity. We must find ways to be inclusive if we are going to manage diversity well, and that will necessitate taking a fresh look at problems we have seen in the past.

 

By incorporating our diverse perspectives, and understanding that seeing the problem and the solution as they have always existed will lead to a shortcoming, we can find the new solutions required by New Localism. Standard approaches will break down because they won’t be able to account for diverse views and beliefs, and they will ultimately leave people out. That will cause friction which will ultimately lead to breakdowns in policies and programs. Incorporating local people who understand local conditions is key to developing new programs, new policies, and new approaches to governance to help our cities, metropolitan regions, states, and ultimately our nation thrive in the future.

Remembering Black History in the Face of White History

Throughout his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats is critical of Western History and America’s backstory, particularly because of the way that black people are remembered. The history we know and understand as white people looking back at Western democracy is focused on ourselves, which is to say, white people. The story of black people is viewed through our white cultural lens, and other cultures, Asian, Asian Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, Indian, Native American, and others are only included as short side notes to our own experiences. The result of this is a sense that there is only one culture that matters and has driven the progress of humanity throughout time, the white culture. Writing specifically on how this shapes our current thinking, and providing a black perspective, Coats writes the following in a passage addressed to his son,
“Everyone of any import, from Jesus to George Washington, was white. This was why your grandparents banned Tarzan and the Lone Ranger and toys with white faces from the house. They were rebelling against the history books that spoke of black people only as sentimental “firsts”—first black five-star general, first black congressman, first black mayor—always presented in the bemused manner of a category of Trivial Pursuit. Serious history was the West, and the West was white.”
What our history teaches young white boys and girls is that they descend from those who matter and that they have an important legacy to carry on. What our history teaches those who are not white is that their histories are unimportant and only a side note in the history of human progress. We certainly could not cover everything from every culture in our history classes, but we have decided only to focus on what has made America white, and not on what has made America great. The story of our country has always been about incredible diversity and the societal challenges that have accompanied our demographic realities. It is more comfortable to live in a homogenous society of people with similar backstories, but living and working in a culture that is built on differences pushes for new advancements, perspectives, and growth in a way that homogeneity can not imagine. We should do more to understand how the histories of black people and people of other minorities are the histories of the United States. The history of race in America is more complicated than a story of continually greater acceptance and inclusion, and we should be honest about the wretched realities of slavery in the past, and how we have been slow to truly accept other people throughout our history.

More Options Than We Recognize

Some Thoughts About Relationships is Colin Wright’s examination and exploration of the way we live our lives with other people. He dives into romantic relationships and looks at other relationships such as social and business relationships to help us have a full picture of how we interact with other people. Throughout the book he puts forth the idea that relationships can be anything we want, and that we can be more aware, intentional, and rational in our relationships than we often realize. In regards to romantic relationships, but applicable beyond, he describes what he calls The All Options Policy by writing, “The key to understanding this policy is accepting that there’s no single moral, upstanding, golden model when it comes to relationships.” His quote focuses on the diversity of human life and experience, and opens up our relationships to be more flexible than we sometimes allow.

 

What is powerful for me in Wright’s quote is the idea that our relationships can be as broad and diverse as humanity. Within romantic relationships, it is very tempting to use the model laid out by ones parents to create a template for ones own relationship. This is a good strategy on an individual level, particularly if your parent’s have a healthy and successful relationship, but it also is in some sense limiting. The key is taking the model laid out by parents, grandparents, and those close to you, and expanding on that model to fit your preferences, the preferences of the partner you find, and the demands and drives of society and your place within it. The alternative as Wright describes is taking the models you see around you, and limiting yourself by constraining the extent of possibilities in your own life and relationships.

 

Creating limitations in our model is especially dangerous when we take what has worked and is understandable for us and begin forcing it on other people. Highlighting humanities diversity can be trite, but for some reason we seem to think that our diversity should not translate into our relationships. It seems to be common for people to take their template for romantic relationships, developed through personal experience and familial models, and begin to use it as a filter for not just understanding but in some sense judging the relationships of others. When we begin forcing other people to fit in with our comprehension of romantic relationships we limit the possibilities for others and ignore the fact that other people think, feel, and respond to the world differently than we do. Thinking only of our model and forcing it onto others only acts to make us feel more superior than others while ignoring the experiences and backstories of other people.

 

What we can take away from Wright’s quote is the idea that humanity is more expansive than we often realize and there are no true rules for how we should develop our relationships within the diverse scope of humanity. There are certainly guidelines and commonalities, social structures and norms, and shared feelings and expectations that we understand and that exist because they tend to form stable and successful partnerships, but forcing ourselves or others to fit into pre-filled relationship models can be limiting and ignores the diverse reality of humanity. Allowing ourselves to be rational actors and developing systems where less pressure is exerted to maintain prior assumptions of how relationships best operate will let us find a healthy place with our partner and establish a relationship that truly fits our needs and experiences.