In the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace simultaneously had what’s been called “the greatest idea anyone ever had.” They both independently realized that species evolve through random mutation and differential survival rates.
Those best suited for survival in their environment tend to be preserved. This process, where Mother Nature decides the success or failure of particular mutations, is called…
To understand how this works, imagine a population of red beetles living in a garden.1 Birds can spot and eat them pretty easily. But one day, a random mutation—a small change in genetic instructions—occurs, and a green baby beetle is born.
Purely by chance, the green beetle is nearly impossible for the birds to see. Thanks to its accidental camouflage, it can survive, reproduce, and pass on its genes more easily than the red beetles.
As a result, the green color becomes increasingly common in the population. And if this process continues, eventually, all the beetles in the garden will be green.
After reading Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, English philosopher Herbert Spencer used the term “survival of the fittest” to describe natural selection. This expression is still widely used today and often misunderstood.
Many people think “fittest” means the best physical specimen of the species and that only those in the best shape will survive in nature. But that’s not always the case. “Fittest,” in this context, simply means the one best suited for the immediate environment.
And that idea applies in many other areas outside biology. Businesses, for example, are subject to their own kind of evolutionary arms races. To survive, a company constantly needs to adapt to an ever-evolving world and continually changing marketplace. Consider, for instance…
When Netflix launched in 1997, Blockbuster was the undisputed champion of the video rental industry. Between 1985 and 1992, the brick-and-mortar rental chain had expanded from its first location in Dallas, Texas, to over 2,800 locations around the world.
By the time Netflix came along with their rental-by-mail service, it looked like a classic David versus Goliath scenario. Still, they upended the video rental industry from day one. They had no late fees or shipping charges. If you lost a DVD, you got a new one in the mail with no questions asked.
Blockbuster tried to follow suit, matching service for service, but it was too late. In 2010 they filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Netflix is still evolving, having gone from sending DVDs by mail, to streaming of other’s content, to now streaming of their own content.
Their ability to adapt quickly to the ever-changing needs and preferences of their customers makes Netflix the “fittest” in their industry. Much like the green beetle in the garden, they are the ones best suited for their environment.
Evolution by natural selection is useful to understand because it explains what it takes to survive and thrive. To be successful, you need to embrace change. You have to pay attention to the ever-changing environment and rapidly adapt to it. If you do that, you can gain a critical advantage that puts you way ahead of the competition.