In a recently published study at Michigan State by Richard Lenski, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics on generations of cloned E. coli bacteria:
“Surprisingly, two clones with beneficial mutations that would eventually take over the population had significantly lower competitive fitness than two clones with mutations that later went extinct. By replaying evolution many times from these clones, we showed that the eventual winners likely prevailed because they had greater potential for further adaptation.”
It seems adaptation (i.e. learning) trumps immediate-state advantage, even in the differential rates of bacterial reproduction.
It begs the question whether the phrase “survival of the fittest” has any meaning at all in this world. While we can argue the semantic point on what “fittest” actually means, the term is often used to validate some outcome as inevitable, justified, and of value. The implication is that there is some objective baseline to gauge “fitness” against, a holdover from the view of the world as a bounded system of knowables. I don’t believe this to be true in reality or useful in practicality.
In a world with the twin characteristics of time-passing and deep fundamental uncertainty – that is, where optimal fitness is not only hard to achieve, not only unknown, but virtually unknowable – agility wins the day. Eventually.
There’s a fractal-like aspect to the power of adaptation that is founded on these prevalent twin characteristics of time and uncertainty – it holds everywhere these characteristics are true, in genetics, business, ideas, and even job-matching.
In truth, both environment and organism co-evolve, in a certain symmetry, though environments because of their typically greater complexity and scope often adapt less to the presence of the organism. In cases where multiple environmental options exist, the organism can facilitate adaptation through a matching process of choosing the “best” environment. When perfect knowledge about what is “best” does not preexist (as it never does), then the matching process is iterative. In jobs, relationships, and life. A good “fit” – or actually, iterative series of “fit” experiments – trumps optimizing for some myth of “fitness.”
What does this all mean for how we view advantage (and disadvantage) today? Do adaptation and learning trump all initial states? Wealth? Connections? Gender or racial hegemony? Maybe over long time horizons….
Or maybe the length of time horizon doesn’t matter at all. Perhaps it’s only the effectable rate of adaptation vis-à-vis the time horizon.