We like to say that adaptable organisms don’t plan, don’t predict, and don’t try to perfect themselves. To demonstrate this point, imagine you were asked to plan a fish. It’s almost certain that your blueprint wouldn’t look anything like the ungainly Mola mola pictured here. Yet the Mola has been wildly successful in nature, surviving for millions of years as the largest bony fish—not because it was perfectly planned to begin with, but because it adapted to solve challenges in its environment and exploit available opportunities, or niches, that other organisms had not.
Organisms in nature do make some predictions, but they tend to be over fairly regular events, like the turning of the tides or the shift from day to night. Wasting energy in trying to predict high risk events that are highly uncertain would leave little resources for the more important task of solving day to day challenges. Did the animals that acted so strangely before the enormous Boxing Day tsunami in Asia predict it, or were they just really good at observing the early warning signs? The answer lies in the rarity of a huge tsunami. Evolution has ruthlessly weeded out from organisms any desire to expend resources predicting the future state of an inherently unpredictable system, especially for such rare and unpredictable events as a tsunami. In its place, adaptable organisms have astonishing observational skills. The signals of vibration, noise, smell and magnetism those animals experienced on the morning of the tsunami were so unlike their usual observations that they became very nervous, and domestic animals even tried to tell their human compatriots about their fears. Too often in society, we try to substitute predictive models for intensive observation of the world.
Finally, although evolution is sometimes mistakenly referred to as, “survival of the fittest”, it is actually “survival of the just good enough.” You don’t need to be the fittest or the biggest or the fastest or the prettiest to do well in nature. You just have to relentlessly solve challenges in the environment long enough and well enough to get the chance to reproduce yourself. Even the notion of identifying perfection in nature is absurd. We are told in documentaries that the great white shark is nature’s “perfect predator,” but wouldn’t it be more perfect if it had laser beam eyes? As Andreas Wagner points out in his book, Paradoxical Life, a perfect parasite species at any given time would infect every single available host, but then there would be no more hosts for the parasite’s offspring to infect. Unfortunately, we tend to waste untold resources in “optimization” exercises that have us endlessly chasing an elusive goal of perfection while losing sight of merely solving the problems at hand.