Diversity and Corporate Resilience: A Business Lesson Taught By Abandoned Farmland

From gurus to case studies, the promise of transformative business advice is everywhere, but perhaps nowhere as unexpected as plots of abandoned farmland in rural Minnesota.  Here, insight to boost your company’s resilience and dynamic competitiveness has been 3.8 billion years in the making, and its success has been empirically documented in the dog-eat-dog environment of one of the world’s the most competitive fields–literally. It’s hard to find more vetted advice, so bear with me as we talk a bit of biology before dispensing the time-tested strategy to boost your businesses’ bottomline.

The Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve is a 9 square-mile parcel of land 30 miles north of the bustle of the twin cities. What makes this place so remarkable is that it is uniquely positioned at the intersection of three major North American biomes. Owing to its prime location you can find oak savannah, hardwood forest, dense stands of pine, expansive tall-grass prairie, and soggy lowlands all within its tiny perimeter.

In addition to this natural diversity, Cedar Creek consists of parcels of land largely untouched by human activity that stand side-by-side with nearly 100 agricultural fields whose chain of custody, use, and subsequent abandonment in the early- to mid-20th century is well documented.

Taken together, Cedar Creek is an ecological kaleidoscope that offers its scientist-stewards at the University of Minnesota an unparalleled opportunity to study how different circumstances affect each plot’s functioning, resilience, and overall health. In addition to revealing critical principles of ecosystem operation, Cedar Creek also sheds light on practices and principles of governance that will boost your company’s bottom-line.

Specifically, one major research line at Cedar Creek explores the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem stability and resilience. While there is a natural ebb and flow to ecological processes (e.g. populations inevitably grow and shrink over time), ecosystem stability is often measured by the size of those fluctuations. Ecosystems are considered stable when the population fluxes are predictable and controlled–so-called ‘dynamic equilibrium.’ Conversely, populations that swing wildly from overpopulation to near-extinction to overpopulation are quintessentially unstable.

Superimpose an ill-timed crisis, like a disease or drought, on top of a wild population oscillation, and it is easy to see how unstable populations are also susceptible to hitting that irrecoverable floor called ‘extinction.’ Not surprisingly, unstable populations have little resilience to recover from environmental shocks.

So what role does diversity play in all of this, and how does Cedar Creek help scientists understand it?

It turns out that fields cleared for agricultural use and later abandoned have predictably poor biodiversity when compared to adjacent plots of land left in their natural state. By comparing how the populations of plants on these adjacent parcels of land change over time, scientists discovered that the plots with the greatest diversity were also the most stable.[1] [2] [3] [4]

Additionally, periodic wildfires or other human manipulations across these plots provided researchers further insight into how biodiversity affects an ecosystem’s response to a disturbance. Once again, the value of diversity was reinforced when it was revealed that the plots with greater diversity suffered less initial disruption and recovered more quickly from ecological shocks than their less diverse counterparts. Additionally, those disruptions that hit biodiversity the hardest also triggered the greatest ecosystem instability.[5] Given these bidirectional effects, biodiversity clearly yields protection against instability and vulnerability, prompting scientists to refer to this linkage as the “insurance hypothesis.”[6]

But what does the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem stability and resilience have to do with business success? Simply substitute “business operations” for “ecological functioning” in the above findings, and it is plausible to imagine that businesses which embrace diversity are more likely to be stable, resilient, and high-functioning than their less-diverse peers.

Given the importance of the hypothesized relationship between diversity and stability, it’s important to determine the appropriate corporate correlate for biological diversity.

While businesses can be operationally diverse by producing multiple products, servicing multiple industries, sourcing raw materials from multiple suppliers, and having distributed production centers, that approach to diversity often necessitates larger research and development investment, increases overhead, and can overstretch businesses.  On the other hand, businesses can be organizationally diverse by developing a heterogeneous workforce, soliciting and genuinely considering myriad perspectives, widening the net of key decision-makers, and, in general, spreading power and control across a larger cast of characters. This approach to diversity is less cost intensive, and can often be brought to fruition with modest management adjustments.

Actively promoting diversity to improve corporate stability and to guard against inevitable market perturbations isn’t just theoretical. A 2016 study published in the journal Group and Organization Management examined the volatility of a company’s stock price in times of crisis in comparison to the amount of decision-making power concentrated in the CEO[7]. Akin to the ecological research at Cedar Creek, the researchers in this study were asking whether business environments which lacked diverse decision-making mechanisms performed better or worse than their more diverse peers when faced with an industry downturn.

To answer this question, the researchers examined the stock price performance of 2,097 firms in Standard and Poor’s Execucomp database from 1992 to 2009. After extensive statistical analysis, the researchers concluded that innovative firms with more powerful CEO’s suffered greater devaluation during periods of industry shocks when compared to less powerful CEOs. Or, in the words of the authors, “our results highlight the benefits that accrue to firms from having a more dispersed decision-making structure (e.g., receiving independent advice from the board or an independent chairman), especially during industry-wide downturns.”

The parallels between ecosystems and businesses are uncanny. Each is a multi-faceted and complex system with a goal of survival and growth. Both face stochastic internal and external factors which makes static, perfectly predictable performances impossible. Both are at the greatest risk when they erratically and energetically swing from boom to bust and back again, and they are both especially susceptible to failure when an unexpected shock strikes during a natural downturn.

Given these similarities, the finding across independent ecological and organizational research that diversity provides critical ‘insurance’ against perturbations and promotes security and stability is especially important.

While abandoned farmland seems an unlikely place to look for guiding principles of corporate governance, the findings from the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Reserve go a long way toward identifying a universal principle that simultaneously holds true in natural and corporate environments. Ultimately, take a lesson from nature’s time-tested playbook and promote diversity to ensure your company’s longevity and continued competitiveness.

Kurt MacDonald, a former teacher and administrator, is currently the Director of NatureSays, a consulting firm specializing in biomimetic strategies to help organizations and institutions thrive in the 21st century (NatureSays.org), and his most recent nature-inspired TEDx Talk can be viewed here.

[1] Tilman, D. & Downing, J. A. Biodiversity and stability in grasslands. Nature 367, 363– 365 (1994). | Article |

[2] Tilman, D., Wedin, D. & Knops, J. Productivity and sustainability influenced by biodiversity in grassland ecosystems. Nature 379, 718 –720 (1996). | Article |

[3] Tilman, D. Biodiversity: population versus ecosystem stability. Ecology 77, 350–363 (1996). | Article |

[4] Schapfer, F. & Schmid, B. Ecosystem effects of biodiversity: a classification of hypotheses and exploration of empirical results. Ecol. Applic. 9, 893–912 (1999).

[5] Hautier, Y et.al. Anthropogenic environmental changes affect ecosystem stability via biodiversity. Science 348, 336-340 (2015)  | Article |

[6] McCain, K. S. The diversity-stability debate. Nature 405, 228-233 (2000). | Article |

[7] Gupta, V.K., et al. When crisis knocks, call a powerful CEO (or not): Investigating the contingent link between CEO power and firm performance during industry turmoil. Group and Organization Management 1-28 (October 2016) | Article |


The ‘Outsider’ — A Cautionary Tale About Politics As Told By An African Lake

Rising concerns about the viability of local industry and increasing economic stagnation led a group of impassioned individuals to seek salvation in the promise of an ‘outsider.’ Fueled not by specific plan details and charted downstream consequences, these supporters were buoyed by hope in the generic promise of something, anything different. The outsider’s success in a different environment provided further reason for optimism.

These blanket motivations muffled the voices of critics who demanded more information about the potential consequences of introducing a stranger into their midst and silenced the experts who had reviewed what scant evidence existed on the idea. The outsider prevailed, but instead of yielding the promised benefits, it sparked one of the greatest die-offs in the modern era.

The human-mediated introduction of the Nile perch to Africa’s Lake Victoria is certainly complicated, but studying it teaches us about the potential ramifications of hitching your hopes to the promise of an outsider. It’s a nature-inspired story whose wisdom may help us guard against the potential pitfalls of President Trump, a self-branded political outsider.

It was the mid-1950s and the economic conditions of a post-colonial East Africa were highly uncertain. Along the shores of Lake Victoria (a massive 26,000-square mile lake spread across whole swaths of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania), the subsistence fishing that had supported local populations for decades was under pressure to produce greater yields—largely for export—that would capitalize on the natural commodity of Africa’s largest lake.

Lake Victoria’s native fish didn’t have a physical stature in keeping with the immense dimensions of their aquatic home. Instead, nature had stocked the lake with millions of small-bodied fish that were more appropriately measured in inches and ounces than feet and pounds. The 400+ native species of small haplochromine cichlids met the needs of local populations (and were an ecological oasis of diversity), but didn’t hold the promise of the grand commercial fishery that some envisioned.

With an eye toward enriched opportunity, a few fishery managers began an impassioned campaign for an outsider—the Nile perch. Unlike native cichlids, many of which fed on the lake’s dead organic matter, the Nile perch was a voracious predator. In their natural habitat, the Nile perches’ gluttonous feeding propelled them to grow in excess of 6 feet long and over 200 pounds. They became a beacon of hope for a better future and the focal point of unbounded promises.

The campaign to introduce the Nile perch to Lake Victoria wasn’t without controversy. The East African Fisheries Research Organization (EAFRO) voiced strong concern about a dearth of specifics and corroborating research. To the scientists, introducing the Nile perch was a high-risk wildcard with the potential for exceptional disaster. Unfortunately, the EAFRO didn’t have an effective voice in the political process, and the grandiose promises of supporters proved too much to overcome. Under highly controversial circumstances, the Nile perch was clandestinely introduced to Africa’s biggest lake in the 1950s.[1]

As promised, the Nile perch did produce positive gains for commercial fishing, but because the fish were primarily caught by foreign fishing operations and the catch was immediately exported, local populations saw no appreciable gains. What did increase, however, was the number of perch-processing plants on the shoreline that exported everything except a steady stream of waste that they dutifully returned to the lake.  At the same time, below the surface, Lake Victoria was under assault.

With each passing year, the growing Nile perch population ate an increasingly large percentage of the native cichlids. Without an evolved defense to the new predator, cichlids had little hope of survival. Today the number of cichlid species in Lake Victoria has been cut in half, and the remaining species have seen their numbers decline precipitously.

The mass die-off of the algae-consuming cichlids, in turn, caused the accumulation of organic matter in the lake whose decomposition consumed a greater share of the lake’s oxygen. With less oxygen, fewer aerobic organisms—like fish—survive. All told, the introduction of the Nile perch contributed to an ongoing ecological catastrophe described as the “greatest vertebrae mass extinction in recorded history.”[2]

Today, the entire lake, and its associated people and industries—including Nile perch fisheries—, are in dire straights. What began as the dream of an outsider triggered an ongoing nightmare. In addition to being a lesson about the implications of ecological disruption, the Nile perch as ‘outsider’ also yields valuable advice to help mitigate the potential negative consequences of a political non-native wildcard like Donald Trump.

First, ecosystems, like political environments, are complex entities filled with a robust cast of characters. It’s true that some species appear undesirable from afar, but their predictable behaviors and integrated relationships keep one another in check. Disrupting that balance through the introduction of an outsider with unexpected influences and nontraditional actions can throw the whole system into disarray. Of course this is precisely the reason many voters were drawn to a Trump candidacy, but just like in Lake Victoria, a positive outcome is hardly assured.

Second, just how much influence an outsider can yield is an open question.  In most cases, introduced species fail to take hold and often dwindle into relative obscurity and even extinction in their non-native environments. Most find their attributes unsuitable for survival in their new home. Those rare invasive species that do take root, survive by obliterating established rules and precedent, and they refashion the ecosystem around their unique habits and behaviors. This seems like a recipe for revolutionary change, but as the dominant species grows unchecked, its ecosystem becomes erratic and unstable.[3] Eventually, environments governed by a single species, like a Nile perch-controlled Lake Victoria, collapse under their own weight.

With this lesson in mind, Donald Trump has the best opportunity to produce sustainable change by checking his ego at the White House door and working to preserve ideological and pragmatic diversity in his administration. Of course failing to drive his opposition extinct will impede his ability to craft wholesale change, but it is precisely the checks-and-balances inherent to diversity that are indispensable to a sustainable ecosystem.

Finally, and most importantly, Lake Victoria is another instance of good intention turned disaster, and it could have been averted with a greater appreciation for science, expert analysis, and a prudent adherence to the precautionary principle. While it’s probably therapeutic to have blind faith, baseless optimism is not a viable strategy to select political leaders or enact policy. Belief in personal opinion is equally destructive. Instead, Donald Trump and our entire cohort of elected officials must be willing to listen to experts and respect their rationally derived conclusions. And when uncertainty exists (after all big problems are exceedingly complex), deferring to caution and the knowable dimensions of the status quo is preferable to hastily plunging into the unbounded perils of the unknown.

In the end, the introduction of Nile perch to Africa’s Lake Victoria provides another definitive answer to the ill-fated refrain, “what do we have to lose?” And the answer, coming in the way of collapsed local fisheries, spoiled shorelines, exported resources, and unfulfilled promises to vulnerable local populations, is “a lot!” Had the fishery managers adopted a more cautious approach that valued diversity and built upon the positive attributes of Lake Victoria that already existed, this story would likely have a happy ending. Fortunately, the unrivaled cognitive capabilities of Homo sapiens allow us to recognize similarities across seemingly disparate circumstances—like an African lake ecosystem and our post- election political environment. Now it’s up to us to heed the empirical advice to avoid a similarly dire outcome. I wish us well.

[1] For a much more detailed history of the conditions and politics leading up to the Nile perch’s introduction, see Robert M. Pringle’s “The Origins of the Nile Perch in Lake Victoria,” BioScience, Vol. 55, No. 9, September 2005 (http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/55/9/780.full.pdf)

[2] Les Kaufman, chief scientist for the New England Aquarium’s Edgerton Research Laboratory, as quoted in “Losing a Lake,” Discover, March, 1994 (http://discovermagazine.com/1994/mar/losingalake348)

[3] Kevin Shear McCann, “The Diversity-Stability Debate,” Nature, Vol. 405, May 11, 2000 (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v405/n6783/full/405228a0.html)

What Yellowstone National Park’s ‘Summer of Fire’ Teaches Us About the 2016 Presidential Election

In moments of uncertainty, when the rug has been unexpectedly pulled out from under us, we seek solace in what we know. From the vantage point of familiar territory we find strategies to overcome, motivation to persevere, and reasons for optimism.

After teaching science for 16 years, my area of comfort and familiarity is biology, and I frequently find myself looking to it for answers. Emulating nature’s strategies isn’t new—the field is called biomimicry, and it’s an exceptional model of proven problem solving. Nature’s wisdom has helped engineers, designers, and scientists solve many diverse problems, and here it provides advice to help us in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.

Nature is the best role model to guide us through an election result that incinerated many expectations because it too has faced devastation and responded in spectacular fashion.  In the 3.8 billion years life has resided on this planet, it has encountered and overcome meteor impacts and volcanic activity, shifting continents and changing atmospheric chemistry, the freeze and thaw of ice ages, and an ongoing and escalating arms race between hunters and the hunted.  Despite surprise catastrophe and long odds, it has always found a way to flourish.

With that in mind, here is a nature-inspired lesson for this presidential election.

Catastrophe leads to opportunity

This lesson played out on a stage observable from space, but I had a front-row seat. It was the summer of 1988, I was a kid growing up in Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park was about to be engulfed by one of the largest wildfires in modern American history, and it was our fault. Yet, the story has a happy ending.

Beginning in June smoke started filling the skies and fire after fire ignited, spread, and conjoined to produce an unstoppable conflagration that eventually affected over 790,000 acres of the park. For comparison, that’s larger than the size of Rhode Island. The firestorm was visible from outer space, and by all accounts, these fires were the epitome of hot, full-throated chaos. Furthermore, it was clear that we had created this destructive inferno.

Blame can be traced to earlier in the 20th century when, in response to a series of notable wildfires, a frightened United States adopted a zero tolerance policy for fire. It was during this campaign that the iconic Smokey the Bear was born, and the irony of his “Only you can prevent the madness” message had yet to be revealed.  And in classic American fashion we dedicated ourselves to eradicating our fiery foe with the same collective energy we poured into putting a man on the moon (we are, if anything, a determined bunch).

As year after year passed without appreciable fire, the forces of nature silently built up behind our dam of obstruction. Fallen trees, dead branches, dried pine needles, and leaf litter accumulated and turned Yellowstone National Park into an enormous fire pit filled with kindling.  All it took was a spark, or, more accurately some lightening, and the rest was history.

Flash forward to the last decade when an analogous fuel has silently (and not so silently) been building up in segments of the American populace. But instead of dead trees and pine needles, it was the equally flammable fuel of animosity and despair. It was the ill will that grows inside of an assembly-line worker when he reads an article about “white privilege” after his job packed up and moved overseas. It was the anger that builds inside a person when she sees a story on CEO compensation as she prepares for her day working two jobs to stay just above the poverty line.  It’s the feeling of isolation that grows when a person uses his vote to plead for assistance only to see an unflinchingly self-serving government grind to a stalemate in the name of some artificial ideological purity. Ultimately, it’s the fear that consumes people when they see countless examples of the American dream falling out of reach.

Legitimate or not, accurate or mistaken, these feelings grew inside a consequential part of the American population. They accumulated like kindling, and all it took was the spark of a presidential election to ignite the political firestorm we just witnessed.

At this point I can see you saying, “So we inadvertently burnt everything to the ground, just like in Yellowstone. Gee, thanks. Where is the happy ending you promised?”

It’s coming, but first we have to return to a decimated Yellowstone.

Back in the park, when the early winter sleet and snow eventually extinguished the flames, it looked hopeless.  Black toothpicks dotted the seemingly sterile landscape, the park’s celebrated animals were nowhere to be found, the scorched soil gave rise only to the smell of smoke, and the crown jewel of national parks appeared irreparably scarred. Basically, it looked how I felt the morning after the election.

But then the forest did what it has always done in the face of chaos, it embraced it and took full advantage of the new normal. It turns out that the ashen soil was filled with nutrients released from the fire. Pine cones, long ago programmed by an intimate relationship with flame, opened and sowed seeds into the environment. Whole swaths of previously dense forest were thinned, allowing young aspen trees enough light to grow. With the return of aspens, so too came the elk who preferred the aspen’s tender pulp. The increase in aspen trees took some pressure off the willows, which the elk had been eating, and a more hearty willow population slowed riverbank erosion. The changes cascaded through the environment, and despite our worst fears for the outcome of the chaos and uncertainty of the fire, everything worked out.

Today, it’s easy to be consumed by the aftermath of our political wildfire and stand paralyzed among the scorched skeletons of our hopes and dreams. But instead of focusing on the damage, we must be like nature, face forward, and begin to rebuild.

 If Yellowstone can bounce back from the decided devastation of a fire long over due, we should have hope we can overcome our own political wildfire and pursue opportunity in the renewal that always follows catastrophe.

For more nature-inspired stories, in both print and video, consider visiting NatureSays.org.

Survival Lessons from an Anglerfish

If you’ve read any of my articles or watched any of my videos (www.NatureSays.org), you know that I relish the opportunity to apply the time-tested strategies of living organisms to the challenges we face in our personal and professional lives.

In a nutshell, the central premise and main driver of biological success is survival in a competitive ecosystem. Coincidentally, devising a way to survive and thrive in a contested market is equally foundational to business success.

Given this reality, my latest article outlines the importance of differentiation, and how setting yourself apart through your products and services is essential to survival and prosperity.

The article, which appears in the latest issue of Independent School Magazine, addresses the situation within my old ecosystem–education, but the lesson applies equally to your industry and endeavors as well. I hope you enjoy it.

SURVIVAL LESSONS OF AN ANGLERFISH by Kurt D. MacDonald (Independent School Magazine, Fall 2016)

How to Survive in Volatile Markets–Lessons from a Vampire Bat


As night descends, a tree hollow in Uruguay awakens with the budding energy of its inhabitants, hundreds of Desmodus rotundus have begun to stir. Soon the night sky will be filled with flying sheets of these vampire bats as they scour the countryside to find their nutrient-rich food. Unfortunately, each search for sustenance is filled with unpredictable pitfalls, and many bats are destined to come up empty.

Failure to find a meal leaves the bats with more than just hunger pangs. The lack of a regular return on hunting investment is particularly problematic because of the bats’ nonexistent body fat and exceptionally high metabolism. Even a single night without food can cost them their lives.  Instead of succumbing to the whims of chance, however, vampire bats have devised clever insurance policies to improve their survival in unpredictable environments. It is here that vampire bats have much to teach us, and their approach offers salient advice to individual investors in volatile markets.

So what can a nocturnal, winged mammal intent on draining blood from unsuspecting ungulates teach investors?  Surprisingly, there are fundamental similarities between vampire bats and individuals working to secure their financial future.  To begin, both vampire bats and investors are after net gains—for the bats that requires finding calories from blood, for investors survival is dependent on securing a positive return. Because both groups are dependent on capturing a sought-after resource, and because failure to do so is disastrous, the similarities begin to emerge.

Also comparable between the blood-seeking animals and investors is the nature of their environments. Both bats and investors exist in equally unpredictable circumstances where they are not exclusively in control of their own destiny. On any given night, innumerable factors outside of the bats’ control can dictate their success at finding food. Everything from the weather, choosing a particular search area, locating an appropriate host, having sufficient time to feed before being detected, and escaping before turning into someone else’s meal are all variables at play. Investors have analogous uncertainties, but their tribulations come from unexpected press releases, CEO statements, earnings reports, foreign currency devaluations, and even destabilizing statements from the day’s polarizing political candidate can interfere with the goal of seizing a profit. No matter how fit and intelligent the bat, nor well-researched and strategic the investor, there remain factors outside of their control that impinge on their respective success.

Given the necessity of blood and the unpredictable conditions in which it is found, just how have vampire bats overcome this adversity? Animal behavior specialists refer to it as “reciprocal food-sharing.” Don’t be fooled by the sophisticated name, it’s simply a regurgitated gift from a bat who enjoyed success to one whose search came up empty (somehow the image is not as uplifting as a momma bird feeding her beloved hatchling, but the concept is the same). At first glance, this seeming self-sacrifice seems counterintuitive–why relinquish part of your valuable meal to someone who failed—until you consider that the fickle nature of finding food means that anyone can fail at any time. Faced with this unsettling prospect, individuals band together to provide mutual support when necessary.   Follow the vomit-united pair of bats over time and you will discover that the initial donor is bound to be the recipient on a different day. Therein lies the insurance…and the lesson for investors.

So what does blood-sharing among bats have to do with investing, you ask? Well, the most direct advice is for you to find a willing network of friends to throw you a few Benjamins when your high-risk flyers fail to pan out (but be sure to return the favor because even bats are quick to ostracize individuals who fail to reciprocate). If you don’t have any particularly altruistic associates willing to take the leap into socialism however, don’t worry, you can more realistically provide your own insurance against random adversity by fashioning a roost of diverse investments.

Begin by imagining each of your investments as an individual vampire bat. Each day you send out your bats in search of profits. Ideally they are all successful, but the reality is that on any given day some will inevitably be prosperous where others will come up empty. Fortunately, they all return their collected spoils to the same location—your portfolio, and once reunited the day’s winners can provide life support to those who happened to fall on hard times. Through this group effort your financial colony, like the bats, can be sustained.

The common and fateful mistake occurs if you decide to evict the day’s underperformers from the roost. At first blush it seems to make sense—eliminate the stragglers, clone the big winners, and develop a super colony that consistently returns gorged with profits.  But remember that the environment in which you are operating is governed by erratic variables, and today’s big winners may just as easily return tomorrow emaciated by an unsuccessful hunt.

In fickle environments, the optimal strategy devised by nature for the long-term survival of a vampire bat colony is to send out a host of diverse hunters each night and then share the spoils among the entire colony. Cull diversity from your roost in an attempt to reap greater rewards and you will likely go extinct when a sector, region, or capitalization-category experiences an unexpected downturn (after all, Blockbuster stock looked pretty good in 2004).

Thinking of your investment portfolio as a vampire bat colony and employing the same survival strategy of reciprocal profit-sharing among your individual investments will help you maintain a balanced-portfolio and avoid financial starvation when the next big market swing occurs. As for donating blood, well that’s pretty important, too.

Want to read more stories of science-inspired products and strategies? Follow @SaysNature on Twitter an account established and maintained by Kurt MacDonald. Also check back here for original content. Thank you.

What do ISIS and Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria have in common? A lot.

How the battle against antibiotic resistant organisms should inform our approach to ISIS.

salmonella yellow red


“While all these efforts are encouraging and important, it is clear that much more effort to fuel the…battle is needed. Progress has been made, but it is still piecemeal. Efforts are too often uncoordinated, targeting only specific [threats] or only specific countries. Funding is too often narrow, project-specific and time-limited. Perhaps most importantly, strong…leadership is lacking. Real leadership, at all levels—national, regional and global—is critical and necessary now.”

This quote could certainly describe current sentiment about efforts to combat ISIS and other radical jihadists, but its authors had no such intention. Instead, it was written about another threat; an ongoing menace that kills 23,000 Americans annually and has led experts to predict global, near-future death tolls of 10 million people per year.[1] The quote is from ReAct[2], and the assailants they are describing are antibiotic resistant bacteria. Beyond the phraseology of the quote, however, there are marked similarities between multidrug resistant organisms (MDROs) and the self-described Islamic State. Recognizing the uncanny parallels between these two is critical to defeating them both.


1.  Both MDROs and ISIS are living entities dependent on population growth.

Bacteria reproduce by binary fission (dividing). In optimized conditions, a lone bacteria becomes 2, 2 doubles to 4, 4 to 8, 8 to 16, and so on until the bacterial population crests 1 million after 21 generations and 16 million 4 generations later. It’s this propensity for reproduction that can lead a patient’s small skin infection to become lethally systemic in a few days. Of course ISIS doesn’t yet rely on biological reproduction to propagate (although I suspect future jihadists are now being born), but its aggressive recruitment and radicalization efforts have led to a similarly exponential rate of growth. Knowing that both bacterial pathogens and ISIS only pose a threat when they reach a critical mass, curtailing growth is essential to combating both. With respect to ISIS, this means that it is imperative that we stop aiding and abetting their growth strategies. We must refrain from using incendiary language, the us-against-them rhetoric that indiscriminately bleeds over to include all followers of Islam or residents of the Middle East. Our military maneuvers and economic policies cannot ignite resentment in otherwise neutral parties, and we must continue to shine as a beacon of opportunity for, and champion of, innocent people trapped in oppressive regimes.


2.  MDROs and ISIS take hold and proliferate in areas previously weakened.

Staphylococcus aureus is a bacterium commonly found on the skin and in the nasal passages of healthy people. In small numbers and held in check by intact barriers like the skin and immune system, these bacteria don’t pose a major threat to health. However, when tissues are injured or the immune system is compromised, these previously controlled populations proliferate and generate a life-threatening staph infection. Similarly, terrorism thrives in failed states where recruitment, training, and planning operations occur outside the reach of effective law enforcement and other stabilizing conditions. Returning the whole ‘body’ to health is necessary to tackle the challenge of ISIS and MDROs, and this is why military engagement cannot be the sole strategy to attack ISIS. The use of diplomacy and economic instruments to provide opportunity, equality, health, resilience, and hope in the region in-and-around ISIS is imperative to stemming the spread of their infection. It’s probably the only long term solution, as well.


3.  When threatened, MDROs and ISIS both seek new defenses from unlikely partners.

Bacteria aren’t willing to go down without a fight. When faced with environmental threats, including antibiotics, bacteria actively seek out new adaptations to overcome the assault. Bacteria cleverly gain these new defenses by uniting with other bacteria and exchanging packets of genetic instructions called plasmids (this process of horizontal gene flow between two distinct bacteria is called conjugation). In bacteria, desperate times lead to desperate plasmid exchange, and it’s a way for embattled bacteria to share strategies in an effort to survive and thrive. Similar utilitarian partnerships have emerged between ideologically distinct terrorist groups. First an uneasy alliance for purely practical purposes arose between ISIS and Al Qaeda, and more recently ISIS has sought cooperation with Al-Nusra Front to resist military pressure from the Syrian government and its Russian allies. Then there are the rumors of ISIS’ attempts to secure bomb-making material from disenfranchised groups in eastern Europe. Understanding these seemingly unlikely sources of assistance and blocking the exchange of strategies and resources is as necessary in defeating ISIS as it is combating disease-causing bacteria.


4.  The problems posed by MDROs and ISIS can be made worse by the weapons we have to combat them.

Ever since Sir Alexander Fleming serendipitously discovered penicillin in the 1920s, antibiotics have been our chief weapon in the fight against bacterial infection. However, widespread misuse of antibiotics—namely their inappropriate prescription, widespread prophylactic use in livestock, patients’ premature cessation of treatment, and an uninformed arrogance that antibiotics would forever be a panacea to infectious disease—contributed to the emergence of drug resistant bacteria. The logic is simple: expose a population of bacteria to antibiotics and the first to die are those that are the most susceptible to the drug’s mechanism of action. With each subsequent exposure, only the most disguised, defended, and resistant organisms survive. Stop short of complete annihilation and you have inadvertently helped create a population of super bacteria, and, to make matters worse, you have eliminated their main microbial competition. After incomplete-treatment, the remaining bacteria are free to reproduce and give rise to super resistant colonies, far harder to defeat than their predecessors.

Attacking the Islamic State has proven eerily similar. Western experts gleefully advertised the fall of radical jihadists as American boots marched out of Iraq in 2011, but their victory speeches proved premature when surviving factions emerged, expanded into newly uncontested territory, and adopted strategies even more resistant to defeat. Moving forward, the military hegemon that is the United States and its allies has a diverse arsenal of weapons to combat ISIS. Everything from drone-enabled targeted killing and Special Ops-led assaults to resource embargoes and economic isolation exists as tools to combat ISIS. Relying on a single, unchanging approach, or giving in to hubris or politics to prematurely declare victory, and all that will remain will be the most fortified and strategically evasive terrorists. From these select ashes, they will again rebound and rise stronger than ever. We are at the unfortunate place in the progression of the disease where the only success is complete success; it’s time for us to take our medicine until the ISIS infection is gone for good.


5.  While no one is immune from MDROs or terrorism, prevention is better than any treatment.

While this advice falls into the too-little too-late category given that both ISIS and MDROs exist, the idea that ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ still bears mention. After all, history has a funny way of repeating itself, and it’s true that the lessons learned in one arena (say, the fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria) can often provide insight into seemingly distant affairs (like the international fight against terrorism). In such a curiously analogous world, let’s learn from our mistakes and adopt a forward-looking, predictive mindset guided by science and an understanding of our past mistakes. Such prevention-minded approaches will always trump reactionary steps to problems in full bloom. Ultimately this reminds me of another thing I learned in Biology 101, “The Precautionary Principle,” but that’s a lesson for another time.

 Want to read more stories of science-inspired products and strategies? Follow@SaysNature on Twitter, an account established and maintained by Kurt MacDonald. Also check back here for original content. Thank you


[1] http://amr-review.org/home

[2] http://www.cgdev.org/article/it%E2%80%99s-time-revise-book-infectious-diseases

How a European Sex-Changing Tree Taught Me The Value of Corporate Agility

Yew tree)oldest BW copy

A recent headline caught my attention. “UK’s oldest tree is undergoing sex-change,” proclaimed The Guardian banner, and the title proved decidedly accurate. The subject was a 4000+ year-old yew tree growing quietly in a churchyard in central Scotland. As the article explained, 2015 was the first year that it was observed producing fleshy-covered seeds—a decidedly female commodity. To this point in the tree’s venerable history, it had produced only pollen—the equivalent of mammalian sperm (a reality that turns ‘pollen allergies’ into something all the more personal).

Yew trees are typically dioecious, meaning that a single tree is either male or female, making this a story of true transformation. In technical terms it is called ‘sequential hermaphroditism,’ and after a cursory internet search it turns out that a surprisingly long list of species take part in male-to-female and female-to-male conversions (called protandry and protogyny, respectively).

The clownfish of Finding Nemo fame is one illustrative example. Journey to a reef, find an anemone, and you are likely to encounter a female clownfish fish, her male partner, and a collection of smaller non-breeding males. Pluck out the female and watch as the large male begins the physical and hormonal transition to womanhood. This anatomical and physiological journey can take a handful of weeks so don’t plan to observe it while holding your breath, but it will happen none-the-less. Faced with this latest landscape of opportunity, the next largest male will mature and become the new female’s breeding partner. Keep removing females and the cascading series of sex changes and maturations will continue until the ocean is void of clownfish.

Whether in tree or marine organism, this is a rather curious anatomical maneuver. But as is always the case, it exists for a compelling reason, and exploring its utility yields advice for us all.

Like everything in biology, this extreme makeover boils down to improved reproductive success. If an attribute increases its owner’s opportunity to get lucky and pass on its genes, it will spread through the population faster than a cute cat meme (well, maybe not quite that fast). On the other hand, if a trait increases an organism’s odds of dying alone, increasingly few, and haplessly unlucky organisms will possess it in the future. In that light, having gender-bending flexibility has increased these species’ odds of survival and reproduction. But why these species?

Turns out a yew tree and a clownfish have more in common than meets the eye. Both are relatively imprisoned in a small geographic area. The tree, of course, can’t uproot and relocate, and clownfish are functionally constrained to the safety of their anemone (venture too far from its protector and it shifts from a question of whether it will be eaten to who will eat it). Faced with such limited mobility, finding a compatible mate can be decidedly difficult. Even if a yew tree is initially lucky in the matchmaking lottery and grows within pollen-tossing distance of an opposite-sex partner, death of either tree leaves the other with untapped biological potential (if you know what I mean). The same goes for clownfish—it would be a lonely anemone if the only female passed away and there wasn’t a replacement plan.

Faced with these biological costs, nature stumbled upon a creative solution, sequential hermaphroditism. In that regard, the ability to change sex is a response to alterable environmental circumstances; a pivot to take full advantage of changing market opportunities. It’s also a story with an important lesson.

Specifically, the environments in which we live and work are also fluid. Our companies conduct business in ever-changing atmospheres. Everything from client preferences, competitor tactics, and corporate culture, to scientific understanding, technological innovation, and economic conditions confront businesses with shifting circumstances. Our businesses, like yew trees and clownfish, can also find themselves occupying rigid niches. Call it corporate typecasting, it occurs when a business’ legacy and historical strategies pigeonholes it into specific market segments. Established practices and products all work great until the market shifts, and then inflexible operators go the way of the dodo bird (just ask your local video store, travel agency, or taxicab drivers’ union).

Given the environmental similarities between modern businesses and the sex-shifting species above, it’s clear that successful companies need a transformation plan to address changes in their operating landscapes. They need an ability to radically reposition themselves, a willingness to pivot, and a readiness to restructure at a moment’s notice. If one thing remains constant, it’s that rigid attachment to a single approach isn’t viable in fluid circumstances.  Transformations are essential.  Just ask a clownfish.

On the flip side, drastic change can be difficult, but if a 4000-year-old tree can do it, so can we.


Copyright 2015 Kurt MacDonald

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