Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Irish business could learn a thing or two from Darwin - Opinion

What should have been a very run-of-the-mill press launch last week for the Tanaiste has been somewhat overshadowed by a decidedly dodgy grasp of scientific history. Maybe it was a slip of the tongue on Mary Coughlan’s fault, and perhaps I’m cruel to bring it up again, but the second in command of Ireland Inc. really should know better.

The Tanaiste was addressing a bunch of entrepreneurs to promote the IDA’s campaign to market Ireland oversees when she made the monumental blooper of suggesting that it was Albert Einstein and not Charles Darwin who had come up with the theory of evolution. This is despite the fact that the last year has been a celebration of all things Darwin- with his 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most well known of works ‘On the Origin of Species’ being celebrated throughout the country and the world.

Undoubtedly, the Tanaiste should have known better, especially as she was speaking to a group of entrepreneurs who would, I imagine (and hope), place good science and scientific research pretty high up on their agenda when it comes to developing new ideas to get us out of our current economic doom and gloom. Ms. Coughlan was, in fact, alluding to that great catch-all term ‘survival of the fittest’ when she put her foot in it. However, on this point too she has made the very common error of giving Darwin the credit for this term. The term itself was actually coined by Herbert Spencer, a 19th century philosopher who, after reading Darwin’s most famous work, was able to see much overlap between the biologist’s theories on evolution and his own theories on economics. Where Spencer would use the term ‘survival of the fittest’, Darwin preferred the term ‘natural selection’. It is by natural selection, that traits which improve an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce become more common in a given population over many generations. For example, if a random change in the genetic information of a plant leads to larger flowers, which in turn lead to greater pollination by insects, this trait will tend to become more common in a population since more plants inheriting this trait will be produced.

Darwin did eventually use the term ‘survival of the fittest’ but not until the later editions of his work where he qualified it, using the word “fittest” to mean “better adapted for immediate, local environment” rather than “in the best physical shape”.

Perhaps the same could be said for Irish entrepreneurs. Those who will survive this current period of recession will be the best adapted to meet the economic and social challenges that we are presented with right here, right now and not necessarily the larger companies who for the last decade have been seen as being in ‘the best physical shape’. Irish business could learn a thing or two from Darwin.


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