This post argues that the key to  succeeding in a complex social ecosystem is the ability to successfully and quickly adapt to changing conditions. Especially problematic are the lags that occur between the time changes occur and the time when society successfully adapt to those changes. This is a huge challenge, especially given the exponential increases in the rate at which technology, the environment, and society as a whole are changing. We desperately need to find effective ways of  reducing these adaptation lags and speeding the adaptation process. The alternative is leaving future generations to one or more dystopian futures. 

Full Transcript 

This is Guy Burgess. In this post, I want to explore a concept we call the "adaptation challenge." The idea emerges from the discussion of ecodynamics that was the focus of the last post.

What I am trying to get at here is, how does one survive and prosper in a contentious, complex, social ecosystem?  Here the key is to work within the system. Ecosystems don't care. You can't change the system, so you have to figure out how to work within it. 

To do this, you have to be clear about your goals. For me, the goal is simply a future that we can be proud to leave to our children and their children. 

Adaptation is the driver of evolution. The basic dynamic is adapt or face a life of stress and, quite possibly, de-selection.

Adaptation, in the biological context, is different from adaptation in the social context. In the biological context, adaptation is based on the slow trial-and-error process of genetic mutation – hoping for a change that will help one's offspring better deal with changing conditions. It is a very slow trial-and-error process that proceeds along almost geologic time frames. This is the reason why the rapid changes that human society is making to the planet are likely to be so devastating to the biosphere.

Social adaptation, on the other hand, is a purposeful and learning-based process. In the realm of technological adaptation, with the development of tools and other artifacts and behaviors, it can be extraordinarily fast. It's more of a complicated approach to problem-solving that is based on individual learning. Cultural adaptation, on the other hand, is much slower. It is based on cultural traditions that have a way of going back centuries. Changes come very slowly since they are based on collective group learning.

Cultural lag is a really important concept. When I was an undergraduate, I remember one of my favorite professors, Howard Higman, telling me that almost all of the commencement speeches being given around the country were cultural lag speeches. Students were being told that society was changing rapidly and cultural traditions needed to catch up. That was in the late 60s. Now, I think change is happening a whole lot faster.

There are four key concepts here. The first is maladaption. As conditions change, the behaviors that contribute to the success (and, even, survival) of individuals, communities, and species start to break down. Adaptation is the process of reducing stresses by changing behaviors so that people are better suited to the changed environment. Adaptation lag is the stressful and dangerous time between environmental change and the corresponding response (which, sometimes, never comes). Maladaptation is a level of mismatch between behaviors and conditions.  That is what we mean when we say that someone is maladapted to the environment.

Another important concept is accumulating maladaptation. Lengthy lags produce maladaptation by preventing successful adaptation. By definition, such failures to adapt can accumulate through a sequence of environmental changes. While an individual or community is failing to adapt to a preceding change, there can be another change that requires even more adaptation. The result can be accumulating stress. This notion of accumulating maladaptation is another way of saying things can get worse and worse. 

There is also the effect of accelerating change. Along a great many dimensions, rates of change that humans are encountering are exponentially increasing – dramatically increasing the number of required adaptations and the risk of accumulating maladaptation.  If the lags are correspondingly reduced, there is, of course, the real danger of widespread Tragedies of the Commons as we talked about in an earlier post.

So how did we get into this fix? 

It all goes back to the many evolutionary advantages that humans have. One is the ability to think beyond the here and now and to imagine and then pursue alternative futures. Then there is the physical dexterity to make and use tools and the mental ability to design those tools. Language skills (speaking, writing, printing, and, now, electronic communication) to extend ideas over time and space. Finally, there is the ability of social communities to coordinate their efforts in mutually beneficial ways. 

Guy Burgess is a Founder and Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and has been working in the conflict resolution field, as a scholar and a practitioner, since 1979. His primary interests involve the study and management of intractable conflicts, public policy dispute resolution, and the dissemination of conflict resolution knowledge over the Internet. He is one of the primary authors and creators of the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, and is the Co-Director of CRInfo -- the Conflict Resolution Information Source. Dr. Burgess has edited and authored a number of books and articles, the most recent being The Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (with Heidi Burgess, ABC-Clio 1999).