Did you know that ‘survival of the fittest’ is a misnomer?
A better way to understand our evolutionary place in nature is ‘survival of what fits best’. The former implies first that ‘fitness’ is a starting point or natural state that gets passed down, and second that fitness is a state of superiority, top of the food chain.
On the contrary, survival is absolutely dependent on what fits best in any given ecosystem. It isn’t that a lionness is the fittest animal and therefore superior. What matters is that that lionness is perfectly fitted to her environment. Take any animal out of its ecological niche and it won’t survive, regardless of how fit it may be.
And what fits best? Animals that adapt to change.
Adaptability is a key survival trait, not just for all species, but for individuals as well. The way we respond to a changing environment reveals a lot about whether we can weather the storm.
I remember having a conversation with a loved one about how we behave in changing times—do we get swept up in the tide and then get stuck in the backlash, do we resist change and get left behind, or do we sit with change and try to understand our place in it and move forward together?
And this person, who was in his mid-twenties at the time, declared that he was who he was and he would never change.
I remember thinking, “then why are you here?”
No, really? I truly believe that when we stop changing, we are done. If we think we have nothing left to learn and nothing new to offer, what’s the point? How do you follow your purpose if you don’t believe anything you do or anything you are can change?
And what happens when you remain unchanged but the environment has become unrecognizable? I think of the lasting image of the starving polar bear, its fur dirty from exposed soil, something that should not happen in its environment. That polar bear evolved over millennia to fill a very particular and very narrow ecological niche.
Change the niche without changing the beast and you’ve got a crisis.
Evolution is a slow-moving endeavour, only obvious on grand scales. Animals that adapt quickly can take advantage of change, and over time that branch of the evolutionary tree growing more fitted to the environment in which it finds itself. A giraffe with a longer neck reaches the leaves no other giraffe can reach, nourishing itself and surviving. It takes many generations, but the benefits of evolutionary change are observable.
However, adaptation to changing environments can also happen rapidly. Within just a two-and-a-half year period, whales learned to warn each other about the dangers of harpoons, dramatically decreasing the rate at which whales were killed this way.
The stories we tell ourselves, and our children, about change matter. It matters that we encourage the children of our communities to grow, to be adaptable, to learn and choose. It matters that we model how to grow and change, which includes identifying biases and blind spots, learning to apologize when we are wrong, and how to pivot when something isn’t working.
Suffering is wanting things to be different when they can’t be. Adaptability is recognizing what is changing and changing with it. (And leadership is seeing what needs to be changed and changing it. But that’s another article.)
I regret to inform you—and I regret to accept—that we will not be entering any kind of new normal. There is no such thing as normal. There are just the quiet spaces between one surprise and the next.
This is the opinion of Kurt Vonnegut (and heavily misattributed to many others): “History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.”
How do we prepare ourselves for surprises? By learning how to be adaptable. I say adaptable and not the current favourite word, resilient, because resiliency implies we will remain unmoved, unchanged by challenges. That we will retain our inner moral true self (which may not even be a real thing anyway) in the face of any hardship. I have been resilient. I have stood firm in the face of change and declared This Will Not Change Me.
And I have also been deeply changed by things that have happened to me in my life, both positive and negative. I learned the most from the circumstances that forced me to about-face, that made standing still and strong impossible. The times I had to deeply examine my experience and find my new place within it. The times when my environment changed fast.
If I stand still and strong, resilient, then I will not be moved when the floods come or when the ground quakes.
But if I am adaptable, I head to higher ground. I relocate to safety. I survive.
And if I am a leader, I do not stand knee-deep in the floodwaters and declare I will not change. I change, and I show others how. I do not force change but neither do I deny it.
If I can’t change my environment to fit me, I can change the way I interact with the environment. We are not in control of the surprises of history—quite the opposite. We only control how we respond.
And it doesn’t really matter if change is labelled good or bad. Change is the only constant, the only thing we can count on. Nothing doesn’t change. A rock you pick up on your walk is in a big-picture state of change, though to us in our almost comically short lifespan it appears solid and stable.
The environment is changing, in big, fast, and frightening ways. Unfathomable ways.
Not changing is impossible.
But not adapting? That’s a choice.
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her column, She Speaks, has appeared in the Huntsville Doppler since 2018. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, volunteering with Muskoka Parry Sound Sexual Assault Services, and her role as a front-line counsellor at the women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development. She was longlisted for the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize, short-listed for the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize, and received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. When she isn’t writing, she’s designing a tiny house which she intends to be the impetus for a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.