Saturday, November 14, 2009

The orchid hypothesis

Andrew Sullivan over at The Atlantic noted today that there's a fascinating article about the "orchid hypothesis" in this month's issue. I completely agree. An excerpt:
Gene variants generally considered misfortunes (poor Jim, he got the “bad” gene) can instead now be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio approach to survival, with selection favoring parents who happen to invest in both dandelions and orchids.

In this view, having both dandelion and orchid kids greatly raises a family’s (and a species’) chance of succeeding, over time and in any given environment. The behavioral diversity provided by these two different types of temperament also supplies precisely what a smart, strong species needs if it is to spread across and dominate a changing world. The many dandelions in a population provide an underlying stability. The less-numerous orchids, meanwhile, may falter in some environments but can excel in those that suit them. And even when they lead troubled early lives, some of the resulting heightened responses to adversity that can be problematic in everyday life—increased novelty-seeking, restlessness of attention, elevated risk-taking, or aggression—can prove advantageous in certain challenging situations: wars, tribal or modern; social strife of many kinds; and migrations to new environments. Together, the steady dandelions and the mercurial orchids offer an adaptive flexibility that neither can provide alone. Together, they open a path to otherwise unreachable individual and collective achievements.
I've long thought that societies benefit when there's a wide range of individuals within them. Years ago I drove to Santa Cruz to see a friend in a play. The story involved a young man whose great-grandparents had been making the trek from the east coast to the west coast but had ended up putting down roots in Montana. It led me to think about the way that some people stay put and others keep pushing the frontiers; how some of us are satisfied with how things are and others have to keep trying something new. The orchid hypothesis explains this perfectly: we're a "weedy" species that has thrived because we're adept at adapting, even if that means under certain conditions some of us are more vulnerable than the norm. Under more ideal circumstances, those more vulnerable may actually be the most successful.

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