Peacock

With all of the scrutiny on the economy and the various market failures of late, it isn’t long in the public debate before one of the time tested defences for free market principles gets raised…‘Survival of the Fittest’. The concept of ‘Natural Selection’ surely ranks as one of the most fundamental ‘natural laws’ to come out of scientific scrutiny of our world around us. As such, it is regularly commandeered into often contrived service in order to justify a range of assertions especially anything to do with competition.

What often gets neglected in this scientific metaphor is that ‘survival of the fittest’ is only one of two major planks in the natural selection dynamic. The heart of natural selection is ‘survival to mating’. Yes, the first part is all about ‘survival’. But, the second part is just as crucial…’mating’. Just ‘surviving’ is not enough to ensure the continuation of the species and one’s genes. One has to mate. As a result, ‘sexual selection’ is a comparably powerful force in the progress of evolution as ‘fitness’. It leads to all sorts of ‘unfit’ developments and investments by the species. Peacock feathers. Elk antlers. Stalk-eyed Fly eyes.

However specious the comparison, if one insists on applying Darwinian principles to free market arguments, one then does have to look at the whole of the process and not just cherry pick the sound bites that suit your side. A big part of the meltdown was that there was no real competition. That the ‘too big to fail’ institutions achieved a sort of commercial immortality which meant that the principles of ‘survival’ no longer applied to them.  As become painful obvious in the aftermath, ‘fitness’ was removed as a consideration in ‘survival’.

Without having to worry about ‘fitness’, the only thing an organisation had to worry about was ‘sexual selection’. That is, making enough colourful claims to attract one’s unfair share of suitors – customers, investors, politicians. Hedge Funds and derivatives became the peacock feathers of the financial institution species. They evolved so complex and cumbersome that before long you had a near flightless bird with little practical utility.

The whole Darwinian metaphor thing possibly has parallels to the Leader/Manager debate I dissect here regularly and so I would propose – Leaders ensure sexual selection; Managers ensure fitness for survival (upside = sexual selection. downside = not surviving).

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