Imagine being a finch on the Galapagos Islands. It’s 1973, the year when a billion people watched Elvis Presley wave “Aloha From Hawaii!” on television, and 135 years after Charles Darwin first identified you as a subfamily of perching birds.
It’s also the year when two evolutionary scientists from Princeton University, Peter and Rosemary Grant, a married couple land on the Galapagos Islands and develop an obsession with you.
You don’t really notice the Grants, because you are in a state of shock.
Another finch species has rapidly inhabited the island, swooping down on your feeding grounds like an army of inebriated teenagers. These birds look like you, but they are bigger. Meaner. Stronger. They’re you on steroids.
The winged-immigrants dig straight into the large, hard seeds that have been your staple since, well, Darwin. You stare at the carnage in horror. It’s drought season. Your beak hangs low, Clintonesque. You were hungry before the über finches got here.
Because you’re a finch, it’s hard for you not to take the threat of extinction personally. But it’s not personal. It’s a treatment prescribed by Mother Nature. In fact, every species on the planet in existence today has swallowed her medicine regularly over the course of four billion years, in order to become who they are today.
It’s called Gause’s law or the competitive exclusion principle. The law states that when two competing species face the same limited resources they must either differentiate their skills or eliminate the other through competition.
The bottom line is you either (1) specialize or (2) vaporize.
And this is what got the Grants so crazy about you. No one observed Gause’s law in real time before 1973. Not even Darwin himself, who theorized about it in 1873 when he first observed 15 different finch species on the islands, wondering if that kind of propagation was a quirk.
Georgy Gause was a Russian biologist who published Gause’s law after studying mixed cultures of yeast and a unicellular protozo named a Paramecium. The results were clear. When two species compete for the same requirements, one of them will become extinct, unless the other creates a new ecological niche through mutation or adaptation. Gause later used the same principle to create novel antibiotics.
But how well did Gause’s law hold up in the animal kingdom? That’s the question that kept the Grants in the Galapagos for 30 years.
What they observed is an evolutionary change known as “character displacement.”
Over time, the native finch with its slightly smaller beak was able to hack open smaller seeds, while the immigrant species wiped out the bigger seeds. The survival rate increased amongst the small-beaked population, evidenced by more small-beaked finch babies.
Three decades later you find yourself in a new ecological niche, consuming a new staple, with a new beak and a new identity. It’s like waking up on a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon’s table and asking the mirror who you are again.
The answer is that you are a new species.
The Grants published their results in the Scientific Magazine in 2002. It is a statistical case study on how a species can adapt in real time via natural selection to extreme adversity and a sudden lack of resources.
Why is this relevant to us? Because the finches’ dilemma in 1973 parallels the human dilemma of the 21st century.
The big seeds that the 1973 native finches subsisted on are the Wal-Marts, Costcos, and Chevrons of our reality. We believe we will never run out of stuff. We believe technology will save our energy needs and stop the sea from rising. We believe there are a bunch of indigo children out there who will fix the mess we leave behind.
That’s exactly what the native finches thought before hoodlum invaders landed in their backyard.
Another parallel is drought, which stands for the limited lifespan of our unsustainable production and consumption model. Take your pick: water, food, oil, or raw minerals. They all have limited trajectories.
The third parallel is an invading species which stands for overpopulation and the geopolitical strife that comes along with it, like ongoing wars in 80 countries.
But we are also different from the finches. We are smarter. We actually have ways of calculating what is going on in our environment. We can play game theory models on variable outcomes, and at least prepare for some of the nastier ones.
Or maybe not.
Frogs don’t jump out of slowly warming water. They boil to death. Maybe we see what’s coming, but we are not sufficiently reacting. We should be pro-acting.
That makes us the lucky bastards. We literally get to observe our own species deal with Gause’s law in this century.
What does the finch teach us about our pending journey? That Mother Nature knows what’s right for us. When she puts us into harm’s way, she’s doing it for a reason: to shape us up or wipe us out. The finches that came out of Gause’s wormhole were once again perfectly adapted to their new environment. Some guys with big beaks had to take a hit for it.
The finches remind us that natural selection is not possible without variance. The native finches survived as a collective only because some of them had slightly different sized beaks. Since humans don’t have beaks, we have to use other methods to adapt mentally. Maybe this is how the finches tell us to survive the 21st century.
Revel in variety.
Jan Wellmann was born in Helsinki, Finland, in a very cold atmosphere. Later he rebelled, believing that he belonged to an extinct Gecko species that could only thrive in tropical climate, and escaped to California. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he projects multiple fractured images of himself, some of them reminiscent of human behavior. Submit your story or essay to Buzzworthy Blogs.