Natural lessons

mist is a friend
I am alien
to expectations
absent from definitions
— W. S. Merwin, Fox Fire

Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum / The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.
— Desiderius Erasmus, Adages I V 18

But we are still part of Earth’s fauna and flora, bound to it by emotion, physiology, and, not least, deep history. It is folly to think of this planet as a way station to a better world.
— Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence

The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose. Rather than agonising over alternatives, he responds effortlessly to situations as they arise. He lives not as he chooses but as he must. Such a human being has the perfect freedom of a wild animal – or a machine.
— John Gray, Straw Dogs

We learn from nature because we are of it. In particular, we are drawn to the realms of animals, birds, fish and insects, studying their behaviours and actions, borrowing from them in our folk tales, mythologies, poetry, fiction, even our business literature. In his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, E. O. Wilson points to humanity’s anthropocentricity, our fascination with both ourselves and others like us. We project our humanity on to other things, other creatures, in order to sense-make and explain. He elaborates: ‘Our stories about animals require human-like emotions and behavior understandable with well-worn guidebooks of human nature.’ This is common knowledge for students of human storytelling through the ages like Marina Warner, Steve Seager and Vladimir Propp. It informs our understanding of narratives about Little Red Riding Hood’s lupine encounters, Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis, Aslan’s wanderings through Narnia and the adventures of Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad.

The attraction of metaphors drawn from the natural world applies as much to those who perceive humankind to be at the centre of the universe as it does to advocates of Gaia theory, who recognise the Earth as a self-regulating system and maintain that humanity has no more value or meaning than any other life form. The metaphors expose the porousness of boundaries, serving as bridges between apparently contrarian views. They are open to interpretation from a variety of perspectives, bringing personal context and subjectivity into play. Phil Jackson, the former coach of the Chicago Bulls, used to cite a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Law of the Jungle to articulate the importance of both the team unit and the skilled individuals within it: ‘For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.’ It is a concept that has been picked up in recent years by the Saracens rugby team who describe themselves, particularly their approach to defence, as a wolf pack. In Reinventing Organizations, however, Frederic Laloux argues that the wolf pack is a marker of red organisations, redolent of early forms of human consciousness and organisation. It is a metaphor, then, that has both positive and negative connotations, dependent on your perspective at a given point in time.

Other business writers have been drawn to animal pairings. They continue a tradition that can be traced to Aesop’s tortoise and hare, via the satirist Jonathan Swift’s bee and spider. Charles Handy explores the elephant and the flea, Rogier Noort contrasts the bear and the eagle, while Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom examine the differences between the starfish and the spider. From such studies we learn about human characteristics, decision-making capabilities, leadership style and organisational preferences. One of the most recurrent pairings to appear in recent literature both about business and our understanding of people has been the hedgehog and the fox. The concept has a long lineage. The adage from Erasmus quoted above can be traced back to the Ancient Greek Archilochus. It was then popularised mid-Twentieth Century by Isaiah Berlin in a celebrated study of Tolstoy. This gave us the building blocks for exploring the differences and potential synergies between specialists and generalists.

Berlin’s central ideas subsequently were co-opted and modified by others in diverse fields. Philip Tetlock, for example, in Expert Political Judgment, describes a twenty-year study exploring how successful people were at making predictions, and highlighting the differences of people on a hedgehog—fox continuum, including hedgefox and foxhog hybrids. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, makes a case for the value of hedgehog-like qualities in leaders. His argument has been somewhat undermined, though, in that many of the individuals and companies he chose to focus on have suffered badly during the recent economic crisis. A suggestion here, perhaps, of the myopia of expertise. In The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox, his brilliant thesis on why we need to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities and do away with age-old misconceptions, the polymathic Stephen Jay Gould builds a case for the hybridisation of the hedgehog and the fox.

There are theoretical underpinnings here, then, for the notion of neo-generalists; for people who generalise to specialise, serially, remaining open to broader influences and sensitive to shifts in context. As Gould rightly observes, these are not Renaissance People. They do not just look to the past and the knowledge of the Ancients. Nor are they simply scientific Modernists looking to the future and filling knowledge gaps. These are holistic individuals, adept at navigating all times, comfortable in the domains of knowing and not knowing, both with the manuscript and in the virtual world. Tetlock’s terminology (echoed by Ian Leslie in Curious), in which he recognises the existence and value of hedgefoxes and foxhogs, resonates not only with Gould’s call for hybridisation but with our organisational requirements for a diversified workforce. It is never a case of either/or but always of both/and. We need our polymathic foxes just as much as our expert hedgehogs. But we also require the full spectrum of everything that sits in between too.

For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.
— Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox

While hedgehogs were locked into their own disciplines, foxes could think laterally, applying the insights from one field to another. Knowledge had handicapped the hedgehogs, while the wide ranging curiosity of the foxes gave them the edge.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

What experts think matters far less than how they think. If we want realistic odds on what will happen next, coupled to a willingness to admit mistakes, we are better off turning to experts who embody the intellectual traits of Isaiah Berlin’s prototypical fox.
— Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment

Scramble or persist. Foxes owe their survival to easy flexibility and skill in reinvention, to an uncanny knack for recognizing (early on, while the getting remains good) that a chosen path will not bear fruit, and that either a different route must be quickly found, or a new game entered altogether. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, survive by knowing exactly what they want, and by staying the chosen course with unanswering persistence, through all calumny and trouble, until the less committed opponents eventually drop away, leaving the only righteous path unencumbered for a walk to victory … Diversify and color, or intensify and cover. Foxes (the great ones, not the shallow or showy grazers) owe their reputation to a light (but truly enlightening) spread of real genius across many fields of study, applying their varied skills to introduce a key and novel fruit for other scholars to gather and improve in a particular orchard, and then moving on to sow some new seeds in a thoroughly different kind of field. Hedgehogs (the great ones, not the pedants) locate one vitally important mine, where their particular and truly special gifts cannot be matched.
— Stephen Jay Gould, The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox

3 thoughts on “Natural lessons

  1. Pingback: Natural lessons | Socially Build

  2. Pingback: Infinite loop | IndaloGenesis

  3. Pingback: Repositioning the T | IndaloGenesis

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