Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Evolution: The Art of Incremental Development

I first became truly aware of and fascinated by the concept of evolution during my freshman year in college. One of the required subjects for students in my batch was NatSci 3, which I suppose was basic biology (I never paid attention to these petty administrative details). Our professor was a scrappy little woman who (although she was probably only in her middle 30s at that time) seemed resigned to the inevitability that she would end up a spinster. Once, after a very spirited lecture on human sexual reproduction, which included a detailed elaboration of the male and female sexual organs, she ended the class with these words of encouragement for the ladies in the lecture hall, “So girls, don’t ever be afraid of the male penis. It’s just a muscle that tends to go out of control. Besides, your vaginas are designed to accommodate them.”

Anyway, this professor of ours one day lost her voice, right around the time we were taking up evolution. So instead of giving the usual lecture, she had the good sense to show us instead the entire “Life On Earth” video series of the renowned naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough.

It took us three days to get through the 13-hour series, which presented evidences on how life evolved from simple, single-celled organisms to the rich diversity that we have today. At the end of it, my mind seemed to have been cracked open. It was an open dome, the restrictive ceiling lifted, and new ideas came gushing in like light flooding into its dark, empty recesses.

Evolution! What a beautiful word; what a marvelous concept! Until now I still get goose bumps at the thought that our very existence is driven by such a simple concept. It simply is amazing how the engine of life is powered simply by the need to improve and adapt. A few years later, my fascination was sort of dampened when I took up genetics, and saw firsthand that the simple engine of life wasn’t simple at all.

Nevertheless, I remained enthralled by the concept. I felt like I was holding the intangible key to something important, something big, something that truly mattered even in this day and age of shameless cynicism and uninhibited materialism. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

The moment of epiphany came years later. I was reading one of these business publications (I forget which one), and there was an article on kaizen, that process of incremental improvement that was to catapult Japan to the forefront of business and manufacturing. At that moment, the years seemed to condense like a crumpling accordion until I was back in NatSci 3, gaping in wonder at Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries. Of course!

Evolution, the engine that spawned the multitude of species that define life on this planet, is the very same mechanism that drives kaizen, the engine that insures constant and continuous improvement of products and processes. It’s also what forces markets to change, or cultures to adapt.

Same trick, different animal. Same engine, different application. It’s the very same reality functioning on different levels of the human experience. And it’s a fundamental strategy for successful living: to thrive within your environment, you have to adapt, to evolve, to cope.

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