Meeting the Adaptation Challenge

Guy M. Burgess

Heidi Burgess

Spring 2017

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This post argues that the key to  succeeding in a complex social ecosystem is the ability to successfully and quickly adapt to changing conditions. Especially problematic are the lags that occur between the time changes occur and the time when society successfully adapt to those changes. This is a huge challenge, especially given the exponential increases in the rate at which technology, the environment, and society as a whole are changing. We desperately need to find effective ways of  reducing these adaptation lags and speeding the adaptation process. The alternative is leaving future generations to one or more dystopian futures. 

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Full Transcript 

This is Guy Burgess. In this post, I want to explore a concept we call the "adaptation challenge." The idea emerges from the discussion of ecodynamics that was the focus of the last post.

What I am trying to get at here is, how does one survive and prosper in a contentious, complex, social ecosystem?  Here the key is to work within the system. Ecosystems don't care. You can't change the system, so you have to figure out how to work within it. 

To do this, you have to be clear about your goals. For me, the goal is simply a future that we can be proud to leave to our children and their children. 

Adaptation is the driver of evolution. The basic dynamic is adapt or face a life of stress and, quite possibly, de-selection.

Adaptation, in the biological context, is different from adaptation in the social context. In the biological context, adaptation is based on the slow trial-and-error process of genetic mutation – hoping for a change that will help one's offspring better deal with changing conditions. It is a very slow trial-and-error process that proceeds along almost geologic time frames. This is the reason why the rapid changes that human society is making to the planet are likely to be so devastating to the biosphere.

Social adaptation, on the other hand, is a purposeful and learning-based process. In the realm of technological adaptation, with the development of tools and other artifacts and behaviors, it can be extraordinarily fast. It's more of a complicated approach to problem-solving that is based on individual learning. Cultural adaptation, on the other hand, is much slower. It is based on cultural traditions that have a way of going back centuries. Changes come very slowly since they are based on collective group learning.

Cultural lag is a really important concept. When I was an undergraduate, I remember one of my favorite professors, Howard Higman, telling me that almost all of the commencement speeches being given around the country were cultural lag speeches. Students were being told that society was changing rapidly and cultural traditions needed to catch up. That was in the late 60s. Now, I think change is happening a whole lot faster.

There are four key concepts here. The first is maladaption. As conditions change, the behaviors that contribute to the success (and, even, survival) of individuals, communities, and species start to break down. Adaptation is the process of reducing stresses by changing behaviors so that people are better suited to the changed environment. Adaptation lag is the stressful and dangerous time between environmental change and the corresponding response (which, sometimes, never comes). Maladaptation is a level of mismatch between behaviors and conditions.  That is what we mean when we say that someone is maladapted to the environment.

Another important concept is accumulating maladaptation. Lengthy lags produce maladaptation by preventing successful adaptation. By definition, such failures to adapt can accumulate through a sequence of environmental changes. While an individual or community is failing to adapt to a preceding change, there can be another change that requires even more adaptation. The result can be accumulating stress. This notion of accumulating maladaptation is another way of saying things can get worse and worse. 

There is also the effect of accelerating change. Along a great many dimensions, rates of change that humans are encountering are exponentially increasing – dramatically increasing the number of required adaptations and the risk of accumulating maladaptation.  If the lags are correspondingly reduced, there is, of course, the real danger of widespread Tragedies of the Commons as we talked about in an earlier post.

So how did we get into this fix? 

It all goes back to the many evolutionary advantages that humans have. One is the ability to think beyond the here and now and to imagine and then pursue alternative futures. Then there is the physical dexterity to make and use tools and the mental ability to design those tools. Language skills (speaking, writing, printing, and, now, electronic communication) to extend ideas over time and space. Finally, there is the ability of social communities to coordinate their efforts in mutually beneficial ways. 

All of this has produced stunning changes in the history of the planet. When I was in graduate school, I plotted a chart showing world population hitting 3 billion people. Since then, and I'm not that old, world population has risen to 7 billion people! This, as much as anything, gives you a sense of how rapidly the world is changing. 

Another way of starting to visualize the impact of this change is a stunning statistic from Scientific American. Global CO2 production from the burning of fossil fuels is now equivalent to that of a gigantic forest fire the size of Africa (and this includes forests covering all of the Sahara desert) +40%, every year! Think about the impact that this is having on the environment and the planet that we all depend on! 

Then there's the explosion of knowledge. The key distinguishing feature of human society is the rise of noogenetics. This is learning-based information as opposed to genetically-based information. The Ascent of Man is the story of that accumulating knowledge up until the late 1970s. The accompanying chart shows the massive explosion of information from 1986 to 2007. And, it's obviously exploded well beyond that by now. 

One of the big drivers here is Moore's Law which successfully predicted that computing power will double roughly every other year. This graph, which is drawn on an exponential scale, shows computing power (transistor count) increasing from 2,300 to over 2,600,000,000 over the last four decades, making computers a million times smarter. And, this past trend promises to continue.

Another thing that's driving all of this is global integration. It used to be that there were lots of relatively separate social ecosystems scattered around different parts of the planet. Even though some societies would falter, others would be able to flourish in ways that would, over time, allow the evolution process to strengthen society. Increasingly, however, we have a world that is so interconnected that breakdowns in one part of the planet affect the entire planet. I recommend looking at both of these animations which you can get from the website. The first is a movie of all of the ships moving around the planet and the second is an animated graphic of trade. You can easily see how tightly integrated we are, and how dependent we are on things happening on the other side of the planet. Increasingly, we are all in this together.

Another thing is driving all of this is what you might call the disruption culture. We now have lots of organizations where the big goal seems to be come up with something that is so new and transformative that it disrupts the existing way of doing things. Such changes can render obsolete key aspects of existing norms of behavior and the social contract. 

Another thing worth doing sometime is going to Wikipedia and looking up the history of the companies that have made up the Dow Jones 30 Industrial Average. You'll get a sense of how quickly giant corporations can disappear from the scene and new ones can come out of nowhere to take their place. This is what we sometimes call "creative destruction." Still, with the problems of social and cultural lag there is a real question of whether it's may be just "destruction.",

You also have distributional impacts of all of these changes. This is a stunning chart showing changes in real income around the globe by percentile. You can see that roughly the poorest 70% of the population did really well over the last couple of decades (1988 to 2008), with average income increases about 65%. This is a stunning achievement in terms of the reduction in global poverty. More problematic, however is the wealthier 70-95% percent of the global population. This corresponds to the working classes of the developed nations. They have seen their incomes stagnate over the same period. This is a big driver behind a lot of today's political tensions.  One thing that this chart doesn't show is the stunning growth in the income of the 1% and even the 1% of the 1%. 

You can also see distributional impacts in this chart which plots productivity growth and working class wages. You can see that, up until 1975, they went up together. After that, wages stagnated while productivity continue to rise. The increasing wealth associated with this increasing productivity went largely to the very rich, producing and intensifying class tensions.

Much like environmental changes, these distributional changes are demanding adaptations on the part of the society. The alternative is increasing tension that could easily erupt into terrible destructive conflict between the "haves" and the "have-nots." This is also a tension that could be exploited by tyrant wannabes. 

What we are seeing is, in many ways, a breakdown in the social contract. We used to think that "a rising tide lifts all boats." Now as the preceding charts showed, that's not the case anymore. And, this raises all sorts of questions. 

There are a lot of dystopian consequences that could result from this failure to adapt to changing and very difficult conditions.  On the one hand, you might have an overshoot-and-collapse scenario similar to what we talked about earlier in the Limits To Growth post. This is the specter of some sort of collapse of civilization.  We saw this with the Chaco culture (which made it a whole lot longer than we've made it).The truth of the matter is that, there is absolutely nothing preventing modern culture from collapsing. Absolutely nothing that says it couldn't happen to us. 

There's also another dystopian future that could come out of failure to adapt to changing conditions. This is a new kind of tyranny --- George Orwell's 1984 updated the 2024 technology.

Another scary prospect is a anocracy, or failed states. It could be that we start fighting over all of these issues and our inability to adapt has us so out of sync with conditions that things just quit functioning.  You have fragile states that turn into failed states. Already there are a lot of these, and they could easily become much more widespread. 

If we avoid all of these things, there is still the dystopia of a society that just fails to meet basic human needs – dramatically undermining the quality of life that we are passing on to our grandchildren.

Solutions exist to these problems, but only if we can adapt fast enough. This requires something that you might call an adaptation accelerator. We need to start thinking about how can we do a better job of anticipating changes and then responding to those changes. We need to be able to think a lot more moves ahead.

One of the challenges is that we have to do this as a collective--in something akin to a giant town meeting. We don't have the luxury of a command-and-control system where some benevolent all-powerful leader tells us what to do and we do it and then everything works out.   Rather, this requires some semblance of a very large scale consensus building process.

Trying to figure out how close we can get to realistically doing this is the focus of the rest of the MOOS Conflict Frontier seminar.

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