Dee Corrigan, Head of Corporate Engagement, A Blueprint for Better Business

This article was originally published on LinkedIn

In mid-March, as the lockdown was approaching, I was asked the question ‘in the context of great disruptions and scarcity how does ‘survival of the fittest’ come to play?’. This question has ruminated in my mind for the last few months. At times of increased uncertainty, simple stories, popularised vernacular and dominant phrases such as ‘survival of the fittest’ can often come to the fore.

Do we give enough pause to reflect on statements like this and ask ourselves where do phrases like this come from and are they true?

The term ‘survival of the fittest’ is often attributed to Charles Darwin but it was, in fact, Herbert Spencer who in adapting the theory of natural selection to include human culture and society coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”. His misinterpretation of how natural selection and theory of evolution works, known as Social Darwinism, was often used to justify colonialism and inaction on many social and racial inequalities of the time.

Since then various groups have conflated Darwin’s biological theory and social issues in political contexts to suit themselves, contributing to some of the worst atrocities ever perpetrated by humankind from Kaiser’s justifying militaristic expansion during the First World War (“might is right” idea) to the eugenics movement in the early 1900s which aimed to improve the quality of the human race by selective breeding. This gradually degenerated into notions of racial superiority and racial hygiene popular in the US and UK in the 1930s, then enthusiastically adopted by the Nazis and today by white supremacists.

So when this phrase is applied in business we must be very alert to the underlying assumptions at play and the implications.

Surviving, but not at any cost

For many businesses, survival is critical at this time. However, business can’t survive in societies that fail. After all, business is a part of society, not apart from it and – as our experiences during the Covid-19 crisis prove – we are all interconnected and interdependent. Successfully surviving this crisis will only be meaningful if the burden is owned and shared by everyone, not just the poorest or most underrepresented in our society. While survival for many business is a focus, it cannot be at the expense and exploitation of people and our planet

Moreover, a ‘winners take all’ mentality also limits our collective capacity to innovate and respond effectively to this crisis. In a recent CEO meeting we hosted those present acknowledged that they are cooperating, including with direct competitors, in ways that would have been unthinkable before this crisis.

What evolutionary science shows us and what the past few months prove is that human beings are a social species. As Richard Dawkins wrote in the prefaces to the 30th Anniversary edition of his often misquoted book, the Selfish Gene, – he could just as easily have called the book ‘the cooperative gene’. We rely on cooperation to survive. It is our secret superpower, according to Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman. Working together is human nature and that is not a scarce resource. Understanding and cultivating the conditions needed for cooperation and healthy competition to flourish is integral to solving the challenges we face today.

Resisting dominant narratives

In her book ‘Uncharted – How to map the future together’ one of our advisors Margaret Heffernan, challenges the reader to resist dominant narratives and instead seize the opportunity to unleash our creativity and humanity to create futures we want and that we can believe in. She says ‘It is in the interstices of uncertainty that we encounter the need and find the freedom to forge our identity and our future…Our choice is not between false certainty or ignorance; it is between surrender or participation. So we need to be bolder in our search, more penetrating in our enquiry, more energetic in our quest for discovery.’ And she notes

‘We can imagine what we’ve never seen before – if we practice.’

There is no denying that at the start of the Covid-19 crisis we saw many people, companies, and nations with asymmetry of power and influence acting very competitively, and grappling for scarce, or seemingly scarce, resources e.g. PPE, toilet paper. But what we are also seeing from this great disruption is an unleashing of a pent up yearning in people to connect, communicate and collaborate.

Around us, if we look for it, are colleagues, teams, organisations, sectors and countries that can provide us with a more textured narrative to the brutal simplicity of ‘survival of the fittest’. Moreover, as a result of this great disruption different ideas about success, and how we can win in markets fairly can emerge, if we choose and practice it.

Delivering value by serving society

One of the starting points for Blueprint’s work was the recognition that the market never exists in a pure state. It is always a social and cultural construct, and part of that in recent decades has been the dominant idea that market exchanges are always between self-interested agents seeking only their own benefit, so the fittest (often with asymmetry of power, knowledge and influence) was the best at doing that. What we need is to reimagine a different construct where, like cells in a healthy body, businesses perform a useful social function through cooperation, where competition is a positive‐sum rather than a zero-sum game.

So can the goal change? Can business deliver value by consistently choosing to serve society – delivering goods that are truly good and services that truly serve, showing respect and dignity for people? Can we and should we expect that the businesses which survive (many of which have received critical support from society through government and taxpayer support) are the “fittest” at doing that?

I am conscious as I finish this blog that I’ve tried to cover a lot of ground, as I wrote at the start I’ve been thinking about this question for a few months now! There are many themes I could, and will, dig into deeper such as competition & cooperation.

I’m also interested in hearing from you, what questions and thoughts does ‘Survival of the fittest’ raise for you? What is a ‘fit’ business in your view? How do we go beyond the point of unbridled competition to understand the positive good that seeking to be “competitive” can bring? Can it bring positive good? What dominant/unquestioned narratives (‘truths’) are you seeing surface in recent months?