Survival tip: specialism gets you killed (in the end we all die, I know)

This is a story of how we survive. It’s another chapter in my personal theory of everything. The basic elements are two hawks (one half-blinded), termites, Belgian lawmakers and flock intelligence. If you find proof for this (or for the contrary) please let me know. As long as we keep moving and changing our ideas, we’re fine.

At times specializing is the best you can do, but in the long term it will kill you.

That’s what I thought when talking about termites with my friend, green marketing strategist and biomimicry enthousiast Stefaan Vandist (link to linkedin-profile).

Stefaan and I wondered about some of the truly amazing accomplishments of nature, termites piles being just one of them. One thing we noticed was that there are flowers that are morphed as such that they appeal to one particular fly only. That fly thinks he’s mating with another one of its kind but instead he’s playing a crucial role in fertilizing other flowers and keeping that particular flower ‘alive’. In its precision, this flower is highly successful.

But what happens when the fly suddenly becomes extinct? Then most likely the flower will disappear as well.

A story of two hawks (which one are you?)

Made me think of another story by Edward De Bono (official website). He tells the story of two hawks. One has a perfect view, the other one sees a blur. Now these species of hawks usually prey on one particular kind of rabbit. The ‘perfect’ hawk is by far the most successful rabithunter. The handicapped hawk is much worse at catching rabbits but he’s forced to a) change his hunting technique and b) take other preys which are much slower.

Suddenly a rabit disease decimates the entire population. Suddenly our ‘perfect’ hawk becomes heavily disadvantaged and is engaged in a huge competition for the few surviving rabbits. The other hawk isn’t as much in trouble as his mate because he has adopted not only different hunting skills but also a taste for different preys.

Machines are already dead (don’t try to be one)

I’m very well aware that I’m using stereotypes which violate certain nuances in nature.

Yet what nature tells you is that specializing can make you highly successful only for as long as it takes. That’s what designing machines used to be all about. Doing one task automatically with an accuracy which humans couldn’t accomplish themselves. But change the environment and you’d have to rebuild the machine. It can’t rebuild itself.

I’m afraid that’s what’s happening to our societies as well. We’ve became so fond of our ideas of democracy, education, jurisdiction, science and reason that we’ve put almost all effort in to perfectioning the systems in order for our ideas to survive. I believe that there’s a tendency to micromanage society in every way possible. If we can predict the outcome, if we just come up with a complete set of rules, then we’ll have everything under control, don’t we.

For a second, we will. In reality we don’t.


We continuously struggle with reality and how it escapes our systems. Our response? Come up with more rules, instead of cutting down rules and come up with better principles that allow us to come up with intelligent solutions for the time being.

In Belgium lawmakers make more and more laws every single day. They fool themselves if they think that this is a good way of ‘governing’ reality and society.

It’s actually making things worse.

It’s keeping society from intelligently responding to change and to evolution. It’s turning society into a victim of it’s own future which we won’t be able to handle if things change drastically.

We’re slowly becoming blinded and unfit for reality because we’ve became self-obsessed by our own success.

In fact, we think we see things so clearly that we can’t even imagine to see the things which are escaping our view.

And in the end, it will get us killed. (Well, it already has. Think of the collective psychosis during WWII, our obsession with oil and the financial crisis, and so on, and so on)

We’re simply the best

Ok, maybe I’m a little exaggerating here.

If one thing will fail in the end, it’s the system through which we believe we can best organize society.

I still believe that humanity can survive systemic crises. I have to, otherwise I could just as well stop living right. (isn’t it Mr Dyson?)

In the end I believe that our flock intelligence is what will make us survive in the end. There are hopeful signs everywhere. There was the EU and there were NATO and the UN after WW II, there is the global movement for a better preservation of our natural resources, there is the collective respons to the financial crisis, there is something like The Red Cross, there is Google, …

In times of need, we flock (more on flocks here). Why? Not because we’re shy, but because we’re smart. Because deep down, we’ve already experienced the tragedies of overrated specialism as well as the overrated power of the masses. We’re a great species because we’ve managed – through all tragedies that both have given us – to keep moving between these two poles.

We’ve managed to adapt.

The question is …

The question is, how long will we still be able to? And at what cost?

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4 thoughts on “Survival tip: specialism gets you killed (in the end we all die, I know)

  1. […] flock intelligence, flow, herd, herds, playing, Stuart Brown, survival, tribes In my previous post on flock behaviour I wondered how long we’ll be able to adapt, switching between individual specialism and flock […]

  2. Ben Young says:

    Have you done any work in Anthropology? The parallels your draw here sum up tribal behaviour.

    Downsides I think are relative, for the leader often there is no downside, as they are pursuing what they want to, their passion. It’s the adage that leaders don’t aspire to be leaders, they just end up that way.

    For the flock they get to stay safely inside a warm fuzzy place till the leaders dictate a new one for them. However is that as rewarding? or is the focus on different aspects of satisfaction.

    I also need to retract my question around ‘periods of change’, for the leaders it is always a period of change (by definition). Flocks are just encouraged to test the leaders at times of mass change.

  3. Hi Ben,

    In my first flock post I wrote that a leader does first what everybody else does before anyone else does it.

    Someone standing out independently to me is someone who’s exploring our skills of adaptability much earlier and to a much extremer level than anybody else does.

    The upside of this behaviour is that it enriches our repertoire of survival strategies, the more people or members of our species show the ability to act differently and survive, sometimes even extremely improve their living conditions, the better for humanity in general.

    One of the downsides lies in the perception of these loners as not being one of our species, as abnormalities which should be kept out of society to keep society healthy. They are often seen as a threat because they challenge the status quo, which is actually not a state, but a particular configuration of movements which cause less friction and conflict than any other known alternative.

    Another downside is the inability to reconnect with the flock. That’s the story of explorers that lose themselves in their quests, the bohemians who get estranged from their own humanity and fail to connect with any other member of their species. Their ideas are flowing against a current which is too strong to gain momentum.

    Sometimes it’s because these people are simply too far ahead of their time, sometimes it’s because they feel so superior that they don’t see other people of the flock as full fleged human beings.

    I see these downsides rather as challenges every leader or pioneer faces. Basically you have to wonder who understands the importance of your ideas and try to connect with them. It’s enough to get a few birds flying your direction to change the movement of the flock substantially.

    Some people feel that it’s not up to them to find these few early adoptors. Some people feel that it’s a distraction. Maybe they’re right. Yet the fact that talent is discovered and celebrated, that inventions change the world is because at one point or the other there was a connection with a substantially influential audience. You have to touch someone (or something) in order to move her.

    I believe every pioneer enjoys the moment when there’s a connection, when her ideas open people’s eyes and move them. That reward can be a powerful stimulus to continue your quest, to push your boundaries and to keep taking the risks you’re taking.

    You also talk about “periods of change”. These I see as the transition of a flock towards a former pioneering movement gaining momentum.

    Are there upsides or downsides to this?

    Perhaps. It depends on how much you feel you need flock connection. It may be good to tap into the flock once and a while, but who am I to say people should flock occasionally?

    If you’re fine with being an outsider all along it’s probably because you understand why the flock is moving that way and because you know you’re already a few steps ahead of the next flock movement.

    What do you think?

  4. Ben Young says:

    As usual I thoroughly enjoyed your writings đŸ™‚

    My thoughts are then around, what are the upsides and downsides of standing independently from a flock in periods of change?

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