A new view on specialization

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Politics at 3:27 pm by justakim

Endemic species are ones that exist in small geographic areas. The most common examples of these are creatures that live on islands, where the species adapt to life on their little plot of land and become distinct from those on the mainland, or other islands. Similarly, animals that live on the tops of mountains effectively live on an island where there may be other environments not too far away that would suit them, but there is a vast distance between mountaintops that they are not well equipped to cross through.

For a long time, the notion of an endemic species evoked some sense of pity in me. It brings to mind images of flightless birds being devoured by invasive snakes, rats, humans, or whatever else might come their way. Little chicks helpless, unable to deal with change, species so specialized they can’t live outside the bounds of their little space walled off from the rest of the world.

But another word for specialization is efficiency. Endemic species have become so effective at living and reproducing in their habitats that they’ve given up on some flexibility in order to thrive in a very specific place. I can marvel at how the Olympic marmot co-evolved with the plants in the Olympics and make homes in extreme conditions where they have to hibernate more than half the year. I have to wonder at what great evolutionary marvels the dodo developed that we will never know about. I have to be impressed that despite the many adaptations polar bears now have, they can still re-learn how to fish like grizzlies.

One can consider companies in a similar way. Some companies develop in a certain business environment, and so long as there aren’t any drastic changes, a company could be very successful by specializing to that economic environment. This is why companies hate uncertainty. Not only does a business want to be able to plan ahead, the less change there is, the more a business can focus on improving efficiency to thrive in a specific regulatory, political, and economic environment. The more things change, the more businesses have to invest in being able to change their strategies to adapt to the changes in their world. Overall, there’s a tradeoff between being extremely efficient and being adaptable.

Both extremes can be admirable.