Adapt or perish.

This is not just a simple catch-phrase. It has been proven often enough to reach the same level of trust as Sir Isaac Newton’s law of gravity. Here on Earth, that which cannot (or will not) change and adapt will not long survive. A plant that cannot adapt to changing weather will die off in periods of extra rain or sunlight, while those plants better suited to handle changing weather will survive. Several months ago, I hung two potted plants from the front porch overhang without realizing that they were shade-loving plants. While I kept them well watered, the hot afternoon sun scorched them over the passing weeks. They couldn’t adapt to direct sunlight.

People demanded that logging stop in the Pacific Northwest because the northern spotted owl supposedly couldn’t adapt to living anywhere other than in old-growth forests. We discovered that spotted owls were more adaptable than we had thought when they were “spotted” nesting in abandoned Kmart signs. While this says nothing about their taste in stores, it does show that spotted owls can adapt. The dodo and the Carolina parakeet (actually a type of parrot) are two bird species that failed to adapt to humans and the animals they brought with them. The last known dodo died in 1681, while the Carolina parakeet became extinct in 1918. As the glaciers melted and pulled back, the mastodons and many other Ice Age animals failed to adapt to the warming weather and died out. If you look at the entire history of Earth, over 90% of all animal and plant species have failed to adapt. You could say that the default state for any species is to be an honorable mention in some National Geographic article on extinction.

The concept does not just apply in ecological terms. Nations and civilizations must also learn to adapt or perish. History is filled with once-great nations that no longer exist. While not every fallen nation has vanished away, there is a long list of once-powerful nations: Minoa, Sumeria, the Anasazi, the Vikings, Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, the Hittites, Greece, Troy, China, Persia, India, Rome, the Mayans, the Inca, the Olmecs, the Toltecs, the Aztecs, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Spain, France, Holland, England. A people or nation that cannot adapt to changing times tends to fade away. The nations that used bronze weapons were no match for those armed with iron. Nations armed with iron were no match for those using steel. The mounted French knights at Agincourt were no match for the British longbows. It is said that military generals are always ready to fight the last war all over again, but those generals who fall into this trap have not adapted, and they and their troops are likely to perish for this mistake. Terry Pratchett wrote a tongue-in-cheek story of a battle between the Greeks and Trojans where both sides created large wooden horses and waited for the other side to bring them into the city. Humor aside, it is easy to illustrate the horrors of fighting a war unprepared, as when Polish mounted cavalry charged German armored tanks at the beginning of World War II. While I think this act arose more of desperation than from a backward-looking mindset, the results were just as gruesome.

As in war, so in business; a company that cannot adapt will also fail. With the advent of the automobile, buggy-whip makers faced a loss of business. It’s easy to find examples of adaptable and non-adaptable businesses. When The Inkwell, a book and stationery store in Corvallis, Oregon, found that the stationery business was insufficient to stay afloat, the owners expanded into selling home furnishings. Now The Inkwell, despite its odd name, thrives. In the 1980s and 1990s, WordPerfect was the gold standard in word processing software; now it claims only a tiny fraction of market share; Novell’s NetWare was likewise the leading networking OS, but it has lost its lead to Microsoft. Novell, who at one time owned both these software programs, has tried to adapt by branching into Linux software and suing Microsoft. Microsoft will pay over half a billion dollars to Novell to avoid going to court over NetWare’s failure to compete, but Novell is continuing to press a suit about Microsoft having unfairly caused WordPerfect to shrink its market share. Having worked at WordPerfect Corporation during the time it was bought by Novell, I know exactly why WordPerfect failed — not because Word was a superior product, nor because Microsoft shut Novell out with unfair business practices, but because Novell utterly failed to develop and market its own product. If Novell fails to adapt, it too will perish. (I am composing this comment, as I do all my comments, on my trusty copy of WordPerfect. It’s still the best.)

Political parties that do not adapt will fail. The Federalist Party was replaced by the Whig Party, which was replaced by the Republican Party. Nothing says that either the Democrats or the Republicans will remain viable political parties forever. If one or the other fails to adapt, it will vanish away. Some commentators are pointing to the recent election as an indication that the Democrats have failed to adapt to the facts of modern life and are still stuck in the 1960s. While this argument rages on, my wife pointed out an interesting set of reactions from the Marxist left:

The Left’s response to 9/11/01:
“Tragedy. Why would they do such a thing to us? Clearly we do not understand them; we are ignorant of their beliefs and traditions and do not yet recognize why they feel they were justified in what they did. Could it be that they *were* justified? As a nation, we must humble ourselves, make an effort to learn about their customs, culture and religious beliefs; only then will we begin to understand why this happened.”

The Left’s response to 11/2/04:
“Terrible, ignorant, backward people did this! They are all bigoted, primitive religious fanatics devoted to a worthless, outdated worldview, and progress frightens them! We realize now that they are all around us, everywhere, and if our way of life is to continue, they MUST be stopped!”

Am I the only one who noticed their logic is just a tad widdershins?

Adapt or perish.

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