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Natural Selection


Explanations > Evolution > Natural Selection

Description | Discussion | So what?



Natural selection is the process whereby individuals and species survive or die, based on how well they are able to cope with their environment.

If an individual is slower than a predator, then the individual dies. If one species eats only a particular nut and the nut tree dies out, then the species dies with it.

A critical factor for survival of the species is whether the individual dies before or after having children. If they can have a child (which itself survives) then the species survives. If they are unable to find a mate and procreate then, even though the individual may survive, the species may not.

Four rules for natural selection are:

  1. Reproduction: Individuals mate to produce the next generation.
  2. Individual variation: Individuals differ in various characteristics.
  3. Different needs: What helps one survive does not always help another.
  4. Resource competition: There are limited resources desired by other individuals and species.

General factors that may be significant in natural selection include abilities to:

  • Find food (eg. aggressiveness, smell)
  • Avoid predators (eg. speed, camouflage)
  • Combat disease (eg. immunity, recovery)
  • Find a mate (eg. attractiveness, power)
  • Rear young (eg. feeding, protecting)

An important factor is the ability to compete for food, shelter and for a mate. If you can find food but then someone else eats your lunch, then you still go hungry.

Specialization can help or hinder. If ground food is plentiful then a smaller animal thrives. But if ground food runs out, then taller animals who can reach high leaves will win.

Selection can be done by the environment, for example where a creature cannot withstand increasing temperatures. It can happen through unsuccessful mutation, where genetic changes result in a creature which is less fit. It can also happen as a social process, where individuals are rejected by the people around them and so are unable to feed or protect themselves, or even find a mate.

Learning is important in refining a species. If a new predator appears, then if the prey cannot handle with this new threat they must learn or evolve to cope, or otherwise they will likely die out. If members of a species is not resistant to a particular disease, then a epidemic will wipe out all who are not resistant, leading to a more resistant strain.


Natural selection is the basis of evolution. At the genetic level, mutation makes small changes in individuals. Natural selection then discovers which mutations are successful or unsuccessful. Successful mutations are consequently propagated. It can take a number of generations for mutation-selection experiments to play out as a weakly harmful mutation may allow for some propagation before it is ultimately proved unsuccessful.


The extent to which traits and variations help or hinder an individual is known as 'fitness'. Successful characteristics are 'fit for purpose' in helping the individual and species be selected for continuation.


One of the factors that affects survival of a species is time. Insects with a lifecycle measured in days have plenty of opportunity for mutate-and-select experiments to cope with rapidly changing environmental conditions. Large mammals, on other hand, take years to reach maturity, making their evolution cycle much longer and putting them at risk when conditions change quickly.

Longevity after procreation is interesting. What is the purpose of a person who has raised children? Perhaps if they still contribute to tribal success, then the species will benefit and gradually increase the natural lifetime.

Female selection

In a number of species, the female has a big role in selection. The general principle is that the male woos the female with displays of beauty, strength, skill and so on, and the female picks the male that has the best overall profile. Peacocks, for example, have huge tail feather displays. Other animals use gifts of food, skill at nest-making and so on.

This was proposed by Darwin then ignored for a long time by a male-dominant scientific community, yet clearly has an effect on evolution. Fitness is still important. If the tail of the male peacock is too big, then it makes the bird easier to catch, so its current size is an evolved optimum between attracting a mate and escaping predators.

The competition between males for female attention is often very obvious in humans, too. Body language, body building and skill in changing minds may all be important for men.

Natural selection in organizations

Natural mutation is a random process, but in organizations it does not have to be. Intelligent mutation seeks to change in ways that will be an improvement every time. Yet even when there is more intelligent mutation that seeks to adapt via an understanding of a changing environment, there is still a process of natural selection. Where contextual understanding or future projections are incomplete or inaccurate, then changes will naturally fail. Even if the projection is correct, the complexity of the human character in resisting change can send plans awry.

A good approach for businesses is to manage natural selection by conducting lots of small experiments, doing minor mutations and seeing what happens, then deliberately selecting those which are more successful.

Within businesses, there are rules for 'natural' selection of ideas, products and also of people. If 'your face fits' then you will succeed and prosper. This has a lot to do with culture, which itself is a set of natural rules and can also evolve.

Social Darwinism

'Social Darwinism' is a term used for applying the rules of selection within social contexts. This can become a rather slippery slope and, controversially, it may include ideas of selective breeding (eugenics) and even genocide.

Nevertheless social selection does occur as people who disobey social norms are rejected and are less likely to find a mate.

So what?

Understand the system in which you are working in terms of what you and others need to do to survive. Understand also the system of natural selection for ideas. Map out the written and unwritten rules.

If possible, also understand the system of natural selection, for example by which companies hire, promote and fire people. If you can manage this, then you may succeed even though you are not as fit as others under the old scheme.

See also



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