From the earliest organisms to today’s most vigorous organizations, and with you somewhere in between, life has always addressed a fundamental trade-off that biologists call “exploit vs. explore,” exploit the solutions you’ve found, or explore for better solutions. In other words, life has always dealt with the question, “Is what I’ve got good enough, or should I look for something better?”
Since we think of exploiting as bad (exploitation) the term “Exploit or Explore,” doesn’t telegraph instantly. We could call it Perch or Search. Should you sit on your perch contentedly or should you go out in search of better perches?
You know this question well: Should you stick with your job or look for a better one? When your glass is half full, should you just get a shorter glass and call it full, or should you try to fill it? Is your way of dealing with your children good enough, or should you search for a better way? Should you hold your current investments, or fold them so you can invest elsewhere? Should you invest more in making your marriage work or explore other options? Is it time to retire your dreams of improvement or time to stir and cultivate those dreams? Does this situation call for the serenity to accept or the courage to try to improve it?
Yes the serenity prayer, that deep well of insight, is all about exploit vs. explore and investment is the key. You have limited resources. You can’t afford to perch on your laurels, missing golden opportunities for improvement, nor can you afford to chase rainbows, searching for improvement that can’t be had. Serenity and courage both sound like always-good attitudes, but if they were, you wouldn’t need the wisdom to know the difference between situations that call for one and not the other. You can’t afford the serenity to accept what could, in fact be improved, nor the courage to try to improve what in fact can’t be improved. Resources spent maintaining the status quo are resources unavailable for exploring improvements on it. Resources invested in R&D are resources unavailable for promoting your cash cows (your products that work). Yes, a bird in the hand is often worth two in the bush, but not when catching even one of the bush’s two will increase your holdings handsomely.
Birds and other animals, of course don’t deal with exploit vs. explore consciously. Still, it is the question generating and tuning everything about them. Darwinists recognize that life evolves by variation with selective reproduction, in other words trial and error with the non-errors selected and reproduced. An organism’s varied traits are the trials, nature’s way of exploring for new solutions. It’s reproduced traits live on, exploiting found solutions.
From generation to generation, the apples don’t fall too far from the tree and yet far enough to give rise to the variety necessary to explore opportunities. Call it our RV, our re-creational vehicle by which life recreates itself from generation to generation and in us, from day to day, through a well-tuned blend of R: Reproducing the traits and habits that worked so far, and V: Variation on those traits and habits.
Evolution manages a delicate balance between reproduction and variation, exploit and explore. A species that varies too little or too much goes extinct. A species that reproduces the same traits too conformingly or not conformingly enough goes extinct. Life lives in the sweet spot between exploiting and exploring, perching and searching, and the sweet spot may change.
For example, facultatively sexual species clone when the living is easy, but get sexual when times they are a’changing, sex being a way to increase variation—searching when the status quo isn’t working well enough.
Why clone at all? Why not just have sex all the time? Because sex is a big investment relative to cloning. Sex is expensive, taking two to tango, each passing on only half its genes. Scientists believe sexuality evolved as a way to generate more variation through recombination, shuffling together a his and her deck of genes to reproduce more varied offspring, offspring that fall further from the tree. Sexuality is crucial to the survival of slow-reproducing organisms like us who otherwise wouldn’t be able to outcompete the variation generated by fast-reproducing organisms, in particular our parasites.
The Red Queen Hypothesis, it’s called, named after Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen from Through the Looking Glass who had to run all the time just to stay in place. Picture it like running away from a spray of bullets. You’re too easy a target if you run in a straight line, but maybe you’ll survive if you weave about, varying more. When the going gets tough, the tough get jiggy. Sex evolved to outrun parasite change.
Our times they are a’changing, and many a business guru and personal coach will tell you that the only answer is change. If there’s one thing we know won’t work into the future, it’s what worked in the past, they say and then cite examples of courageous people and firms making radical grabs for the bird in the bush that paid off handsomely. Just do the bold new thing, they say. Think outside the box.
They don’t have much to say about why we don’t just do the bolder thing though. They dismiss it as stupidity, dullness or fear. Just stop being afraid, they say.
I say be afraid both of change and stasis and yet embrace them both. Appreciate that the problem with thinking outside the box is that there’s so damned much out there, most of it garbage. Searching is expensive and may not pay off. But then so is perching. The Red Queen doesn’t just explain sex but all of life. It takes ongoing effort to maintain and regenerate ourselves from day to day. Life runs to stay in place. If you’ve ever lived hand to mouth you know all about this, the scramble just to keep on keeping on without a spare moment to invest in searching for better solutions.
You hear our natural ambivalence about perch and search in our split allegiances to sages in togas and in lab coats. We think, “It must be true, it was said by the ancients, our elders, wise people in togas who knew timeless truths, the perches we should rest our beliefs on. They were our parents. Toga-father knew best.” But then we also think, “It must be true, it was said by these upstart scientists in lab coats at the cutting edge of humanity’s search party. They know best. The guys in the togas weren’t our wise parents but rather humanity in its infancy.”
Sure, these days we need to change more than ever, but change isn’t the answer to all questions. We’re still dealing with perch vs. search, trying to figure out which old habits to throw out as bathwater, and which old habits are our babies worth reproducing over and over. Though we may identify ourselves as conservatives or progressives we’re all of us blends of both, perchers and searchers, conserving some traits, searching for new traits by which to progress.
Indeed, all efforts to change things are gambits to maintain things too. Every biological adaptation is a bet on what will maintain the lineage. A radical new approach to climate change would be in the service of keeping our planet habitable. Your search for an improving new alternative to what you’re doing already is your way to maintain a habit of growth and progress.
Like those living hand to mouth, we all have limited budgets to allocate to searching. It’s useful to inventory our perches and searches, our activities where we’re contented with our status quo and our activities where we’re seeking ways to improve. Where we’re trying to improve, we become more receptive to critical feedback. Where we’re trying to maintain our status quo, feedback is a distracting reminder of room for improvement we need to ignore if we’re going to perch contentedly.
We tout critical feedback and improvement as pure universal virtues. “You should always be open to feedback we say,” but none of us really are. Our conflicts are often over different attitudes about where to perch and search. You think there’s room for improvement; he’s contented with the status quo. You give feedback he finds distracting. You want him to work on improving here. He’s working on improving elsewhere and not here.
We’d get along better if we stopped pretending that any of us can live as pure conservatives or pure change agents, if we embraced Perch and Search as the way of all life, us included.
For a poignant expression of exploit vs. explore, catch Paul Simon's 1983 tune, Train in the Distance: "The thought that life could be better is woven indellibly into our hearts and our brains."