Do not despair if you are not the fittest.

When most of us hear the phrase, “survival of the fittest,” we assume it originated with Charles Darwin. It did not. The phrase doesn’t exist anywhere in Darwin’s first edition of Origin of the Species. It was actually coined by Herbert Spenser, a British economist, who used it in his 1864 book Principles of Biology.

Here’s another fallacy: Being the fittest doesn’t guarantee survival. In fact, the “survival of the fittest” paradigm simply isn’t true in nature or business. For the last decade, I have tracked the research into ecology and complex systems theory and have teased out nature’s lessons on competition and survival. What I’ve found are some surprising and counterintuitive insights that companies, both large and small, can use to compete.

The first piece of research for your consideration took almost 20 years to gather. On an island in the Panama Canal, a team of Princeton researchers led by Stephen Hubbell explored a simple but very important question: When a tree falls in the forest and a gap forms in the canopy, allowing sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor, which plants capture that resource of energy?

The axiomatic answer has always been “the fittest.” But Hubbell’s research suggests that is not the case. Starting in 1982, Hubbell and his colleagues measured more than 300,000 trees of more than 300 species on a 125-acre plot on Barro Colorado Island. Then in 1985, 1990 and 1995, they measured them again. (It is worth contemplating for just a minute what a Herculean effort this research has been and what kind of determination it represents by Hubbell and his team.) During that time, they watched 1,284 gaps form in the forest canopy, then studied what happened on the ground when the sunlight hit.

Here is what they found: Instead of the “fittest” plants–i.e., the most competitive plants–getting the sunlight space, it turns out that another mechanism clearly controlled who the winner would be. Very simply put, the plant that won its place in the sun was the plant that was ready, at that moment, to access the opportunity.

Readiness to respond was by far the most powerful factor in determining the winner. Let me quote from Dr. David Tillman, a world-renown ecologist from the University of Minnesota: “Like a team that fails to appear at a sporting event, a species that is locally absent has forfeited any chance of competitive victory at the site. This can allow inferior competitors to win by default.”

When you think about it, if the fittest always won, all forests should be completely homogeneous. One species should supplant all others as the most superior competitor. But it doesn’t happen that way. Nor does it happen that way in the marketplace.

Hubbell’s research explains why the marketplace stays diverse across a broad spectrum of success, even though some of the players in the marketplace are mediocre compared to the number one player.Ecological research backs up the importance of response time, as long as you are a fully functioning entity. You don’t have to be the fittest, but you do have to be fit.

With this new ecological research, it’s clear that “the fittest” not only don’t win all the time; they are also only a piece of the more complex system. This information can lead to new strategies for small companies and new insights for the big companies that presently dominate their industries. As Hubbell’s and other ecologists’ experiments evolve, we may gain ever more insight into managing complex corporate and market systems.

Joel Arthur Barker is a futurist and president of Infinity Limited, a consulting firm. His book on paradigms, Future Edge , was published in 1992 and listed as one of the most influential business books of that year by the Library Journal. His most recent book, Five Regions of the Future: Preparing Your Business for Tomorrow’s Technology Revolution , was co-authored with Dr. Scott Erickson and was published last year by Portfolio, a division of Penguin Books. For more information, visit


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