Keeping Up With The Red Queen

Life is replete with diversity, yet beneath the beauty of the iridescent wings of Papilio maackii or the intoxicatingly sweet smell of Syringa vulgaris lies an arduous reality—namely that every living organism is engaged in an unrelenting struggle to keep pace.  Because of the intimately interconnected nature of nature, any adaptation or genetic accident in one individual applies new pressure to every other living entity in its niche.  In this system, change is self-perpetuating.  Each new development causes a downstream cascade that spreads like an escalating chain reaction.  As a result, the biological landscape is ever changing.  Yet that’s what makes it so fascinating, so vibrant, and so alive.

Perhaps the best analogy I can offer for this phenomenon is rain colliding with a pond’s otherwise still surface.  With the introduction of each new drop, a ripple is created that spreads outward.  As interactions occur, secondary waves are generated that move with a life of their own, creating tertiary interactions, and so on and so forth. Ultimately the entire surface of the pond is a dizzying array of unfathomable interactions.  Such is the reality of complex biological organizations.

In such a dynamic system there is no such thing as the status quo, only what once existed, what presently is, and what the next instant will bring.

To give credit where credit’s due, the idea that organisms inevitably and endlessly apply these mutual pressures to each other was first articulated by Leigh Van Valen (not to be confused with Eddie Van Halen).  He appropriately coined it “The Red Queen Hypothesis,” a fitting title because it alludes to the queen in Alice in Wonderland who famously remarked, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.  If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast as that.”   What Van Valen meant by invoking this famous line was that individuals have to constantly adapt and species must continually evolve to stay abreast of their ever-changing biological counterparts.  Stop for an instant and you will quickly regress.  If there is a take-home message, it’s that complacency is a one-way ticket to extinction.

Nature has offered the case study, and now its time for us to heed her advice. It’s not just organisms at risk of being outcompeted, but also businesses, products, and even people who can give way to evolving competition. There is a real risk to complacency and becoming too comfortable in your niche now matter how successful you might be in this moment. We all need to recognize our precarious position in an interconnected world and purposefully move ourselves out of our comfort zone, to push ourselves into uncharted territory, and to purposefully move forward.  The essential lesson is to resist complacency and, instead, endeavor to create your own world-changing ripples.


Copyright 2015 Kurt MacDonald