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The adaptive urge

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1988. The adaptive urge. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, May:15–16.

A short time ago, in the midst of reading a note posted on one of the [Great Lakes Forestry] Centre's bulletin boards, a passer-by stopped and asked me what I was doing. My first reaction was one of puzzlement, since it was pretty obvious (at least to me) that I was just reading a note. But it soon dawned on me that it was the way I was reading the note that had attracted the question. The note had been pinned up with a single tack, and had slipped askew so that I was forced to turn my head about 45 degrees to read it. It was quite windy that day, and near the time of my annual (well, sort of!) haircut, so I suspect that I was quite a sight.

As you've no doubt already guessed, this thoroughly innocent little event became something to write about. I do dwell on the minutiae, don't I? But what was interesting about this event was that it led me to consider the way we all react to the world around us. It would have been just as easy to move the note to a vertical position as to tilt my head, and I'd have looked a lot less odd to the passer-by. But for some reason I chose to move myself rather than to move the note. I suspect that this has something to do with the way that I generally respond to the world.

For the most part, I'm prepared to adapt to the world around me rather than to force it to adapt to my needs. Perhaps I just lack management potential, but it didn't seem necessary to move the note when I could read it just as well by adapting myself a little. Then again, maybe I'm just too lazy to reach out and shift things around. This oversimplifies, of course, but in such trivial things are greater principles reflected. A larger example of the same principle is that my preference concerning the works of Man has been to favor those that blend in with the natural environment rather than opposing it: it's why I prefer a well-constructed Japanese rock garden to the traditional suburban grass wasteland that seems so much more common.

This is not to say that I'm entirely an adaptive sort (as opposed to a manipulator). I grew my first beard out of laziness (or perhaps fear of blood loss), not because of any overt desire to adapt to nature or any fear of altering the natural order for my own purposes. After all, I'm quite prepared to wear clothing in summer to avoid shocking the neighbors, and to turn up the thermostat to stay warm in winter. I toast my morning bagel, and I wash my hands before eating. I live indoors rather than adapting constantly to that most stochastic marvel of nature, the northern climate. As animals go, I suspect that I'm one of the tool users. In short, I manipulate where it suits me, and I suspect that this is true of most of us.

To a greater or lesser degree, we all adapt, yet at the same time, each of us manipulates in some situations. Much of our interaction with others illustrates this quite well. Take, for example, the acquaintance of mine who loved dandelions, and cultivated them, albeit lackadaisically [you should pardon the pun], on his lawn. Now to most of us, the dandelion is a mere weed, albeit an attractive one—tolerable for so long as it stays off our lawns. It can be eaten, you can make wine from it, and it needs none of the continuous care that grass requires. However, while the neighbors were willing to concede the natural role of weeds in the ecosystem and the utility of dandelion wine, and perhaps even to surreptitiously admire the golden flowers, they drew the line when the dandelions set seed and began casting their tiny white parasols across the neighborhood.

This conflict could have ended in a midnight raid on the dandelion patch and a massacre of the innocent weeds. What actually happened was that the pressure "to weed or not to weed" was diverted by judicious and subtle manipulation of public opinion. Dandelion greens added nicely to a summer salad. Dandelion wine became fairly popular in that neighborhood, and a great deal of cooperation developed so that supplies of the drink could be maintained at desired levels. Of course, this required that a little tolerance be exercised towards those hardy little beggars that seemed to keep cropping up no matter what efforts were exerted to stop them. After all, no one was foolish enough to pick the dandelions from the local roadsides and industrial parks, which up to that point had been the only source of raw materials. And weren't the flowers pretty? Weren't the delicately floating seeds an attractive sight?

I suspect that, left to ourselves, most of us would be quite willing to adapt to many of the changes that occur in the natural world. But the pressure of living together in large numbers requires that we subdue our environment until we arrive at a compromise that everyone can live with. But it seems to me that it's the manipulators who largely determine the position of the compromise, and we adaptive sorts... well, we just adapt. Sometimes we just lose the dandelions, if we're lucky. I often wonder if I wouldn't prefer the dandelions, no matter how manipulative that made me.

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