Sunday, June 24, 2012

Survival of the fittest or the best connected - Market Forces or creating conditions for all to thrive. A new look at Darwin.


Charles Darwin was possibly one of the most important scientists of all time. His theory of evolution changed forever the view of humans .The phrase 'survival of the fittest' , attributed to Darwin ( although he never said it), has been used to justify 'greed is good' capitalism and ,more recently, neo-liberal Market Forces competitive free market economic thinking.

 Steven Johnson, in his book 'Where Good Ideas Come From', writes that Darwin realised that the true story of nature was not just one of ruthless competition. Darwin understood well the paradox of the  importance of interdependence as well as competition. Johnson writes that the most creative ideas come from open environments where people share and build on each others ideas - in Darwin's day the coffee shop. Creating such fertile ideas environments is the theme of Johnson's book. Darwin developed his ideas after observing coral reefs.

Darwin's paradox - competition or collaboration.

 On April 4th 1856 Darwin stood at the edge of a coral reef in the Indian Ocean. He is at the edge of an idea - exploring a hunch, still hazy and unformed, that will eventually lead to the intellectual summit of the nineteenth century -  the theory of evolution.



The diversity of life  observed a coral reef delighted Darwin. Darwin's observations were to disprove the current theory that coral reefs were the summits of underwater volcanoes but rather were ecosystems built up over time by tiny organisms .

Johnson's book is about why it is that some environments squelch new ideas while others, like a coral reefs, breed them effortlessly.  Coral reefs create environments where biological innovation  flourishes.  The diversity of life fascinated Darwin but it would take him a long time before he could comprehend what he was observing. Why, he wondered, were coral reefs such engines of biological invention?

Competition it is still believed leads to innovation but when you look at innovation from a long term perspective competition turns out to be less central that we have been led to believe.  Survival of the fittest has been oversold - from a long term perspective openness and connectivity may be more important.

A coral reef  provides a platform for a diversity of interdependent life.  The reef, Darwin observed, is characterised by intricate and interdependent food-webs.  The true story of nature is not one of exclusively ruthless competition between selfish agents.   Darwin came to realise this. There is, he wrote, both symbiotic connections and survival of the fittest ; that collaboration is vitally important in the natural world. What makes the coral reef is so inventive is not the struggle for life but the way organisms have learnt to collaborate. This is the ultimate explanation of Darwin's paradox. 

Human innovation , Johnson writes, also requires such conditions to allow creativity to emerge - conditions where ideas  collide, emerge, recombine and  where new enterprises arise.

We need to build such environments in our schools. Johnson describes the intellectual habitat of a highly successful science laboratory as a ' superb environment for young kids ....it was an environment that encouraged people to think broadly and generally about task problems, and ones in which inquisitive kids feel free to to follow up their curiosity.'

Sounds like a  great school .

Shame is that  our current market forces competitive orientated government seems prepared to destroy such an environment by introducing competitive league tables which will destroy the valuable aspects of collaboration and connectivity and, in the process, narrow the curriculum as teachers will naturally begin to teach to the test - a version of the outdated ideas of ' survival of the fittest.

Governments could learn a lot by studying coral reefs.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

The government seems determined to discredit the expertise of teachers as part of their agenda to push privatisation. To give parents 'choice' they are introducing 'league tables' even though they have resulted in unfortunate consequences where they have been introduced. Such countries are in the process of reducing the variety of their 'coral reefs'!

Bruce said...

You are right anon. Neo -liberal governments do not know what to with those who miss out in the financial lolly scramble. All that will be left will be the big predators. It will be a bit like the middle ages with the rich living in their gated communities.

As for 'league tables' they will destroy the need to value the diversity of students as teachers focus on what is to be tested. 'League tables' will also devalue the teachers who create the conditions ( the coral reef) for learning.