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GET AN EDGE
Getting the edge on the competition is and always has been a main goal in business, sports, to win the heart of the mate of your dreams and many other areas of life. The idea is to separate yourself from the crowd!, to be innovative, be creative, get ahead of the pack, get on and stay on the cutting edge.
Below is an excerpt from The Conditions of Existence. It is an extraordinary example of how important having the slightest edge can be when all other things are equal. How the tiniest of advantages can be the difference between success and failure, profit or loss, win or lose, life and death. I could not possibly get the point across better than from this old writing by Thomas Huxley.
An excerpt from The Conditions of Existence by Thomas Huxley
It is extremely difficult to estimate, in a proper way, the importance and the working of the Conditions of Existence. I do not think there were any of us who had the remotest notion of properly estimating them until the publication of Mr. Darwin's work, which has placed them before us with remarkable clearness; and I must endeavor, as far as I can in my own fashion, to give you some notion of how they work. We shall find it easiest to take a simple case, and one as free as possible from every kind of complication.
I will suppose, therefore, that all the habitable part of this globe--the dry land, amounting to about 51,000,000 square miles,--I will suppose that the whole of that dry land has the same climate, and that it is composed of the same kind of rock or soil, so that there will be the same station everywhere; we thus get rid of the peculiar influence of different climates and stations. I will then imagine that there shall be but one organic being in the world, and that shall be a plant. In this we start fair. Its food is to be carbonic acid, water and ammonia, and the saline matters in the soil, which are, by the supposition, everywhere alike. We take one single plant, with no opponents, no helpers, and no rivals; it is to be a "fair field, and no favour". Now, I will ask you to imagine further that it shall be a plant which shall produce every year fifty seeds, which is a very moderate number for a plant to produce; and that, by the action of the winds and currents, these seeds shall be equally and gradually distributed over the whole surface of the land. I want you now to trace out what will occur, and you will observe that I am not talking fallaciously any more than a mathematician does when he expounds his problem. If you show that the conditions of your problem are such as may actually occur in nature and do not transgress any of the known laws of nature in working out your proposition, then you are as safe in the conclusion you arrive at as is the mathematician in arriving at the solution of his problem. In science, the only way of getting rid of the complications with which a subject of this kind is environed, is to work in this deductive method. What will be the result, then? I will suppose that every plant requires one square foot of ground to live upon; and the result will be that, in the course of nine years, the plant will have occupied every single available spot in the whole globe! I have chalked upon the blackboard the figures by which I arrive at the result:-
1 x 50 in 1st year = 50
50 x 50 " 2nd " = 2,500
2,500 x 50 " 3rd " = 125,000
125,000 x 50 " 4th " = 6,250,000
6,250,000 x 50 " 5th " = 312,500,000
312,500,000 x 50 " 6th " = 15,625,000,000
15,625,000,000 x 50 " 7th " = 781,250,000,000
781,250,000,000 x 50 " 8th " = 39,062,500,000,000
39,062,500,000,000 x 50& " 9th " = 1,953,125,000,000,000
51,000,000 sq. miles--the dry surface of the earth x 27,878,400--the
number of sq. ft. in 1 sq. mile = sq. ft. 1,421,798,400,000,000 being
531,326,600,000,000 square feet less than would be required at the end
of the ninth year.
You will see from this that, at the end of the first year the single plant will have produced fifty more of its kind; by the end of the second year these will have increased to 2,500; and so on, in succeeding years, you get beyond even trillions; and I am not at all sure that I could tell you what the proper arithmetical denomination of the total number really is; but, at any rate, you will understand the meaning of all those noughts. Then you see that, at the bottom, I have taken the 51,000,000 of square miles, constituting the surface of the dry land; and as the number of square feet are placed under and subtracted from the number of seeds that would be produced in the ninth year, you can see at once that there would be an immense number more of plants than there would be square feet of ground for their accommodation. This is certainly quite enough to prove my point; that between the eighth and ninth year after being planted the single plant would have stocked the whole available surface of the earth.
This is a thing which is hardly conceivable--it seems hardly imaginable--yet it is so. It is indeed simply the law of Malthus exemplified. Mr. Malthus was a clergyman, who worked out this subject most minutely and truthfully some years ago; he showed quite clearly,--and although he was much abused for his conclusions at the time, they have never yet been disproved and never will be--he showed that in consequence of the increase in the number of organic beings in a geometrical ratio, while the means of existence cannot be made to increase in the same ratio, that there must come a time when the number of organic beings will be in excess of the power of production of nutriment, and that thus some check must arise to the further increase of those organic beings. At the end of the ninth year we have seen that each plant would not be able to get its full square foot of ground, and at the end of another year it would have to share that space with fifty others the produce of the seeds which it would give off.
What, then, takes place? Every plant grows up, flourishes, occupies its square foot of ground, and gives off its fifty seeds; but notice this, that out of this number only one can come to anything; there is thus, as it were, forty-nine chances to one against its growing up; it depends upon the most fortuitous circumstances whether any one of these fifty seeds shall grow up and flourish, or whether it shall die and perish. This is what Mr. Darwin has drawn attention to, and called the "STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE"; and I have taken this simple case of a plant because some people imagine that the phrase seems to imply a sort of fight.
I have taken this plant and shown you that this is the result of the ratio of the increase, the necessary result of the arrival of a time coming for every species when exactly as many members must be destroyed as are born; that is the inevitable ultimate result of the rate of production. Now, what is the result of all this? I have said that there are forty-nine struggling against every one; and it amounts to this, that the smallest possible start given to any one seed may give it an advantage which will enable it to get ahead of all the others; anything that will enable any one of these seeds to germinate six hours before any of the others will, other things being alike, enable it to choke them out altogether. I have shown you that there is no particular in which plants will not vary from each other; it is quite possible that one of our imaginary plants may vary in such a character as the thickness of the integument of its seeds; it might happen that one of the plants might produce seeds having a thinner integument, and that would enable the seeds of that plant to germinate a little quicker than those of any of the others, and those seeds would most inevitably extinguish the forty-nine times as many that were struggling with them. I have put it in this way, but you see the practical result of the process is the same as if some person had nurtured the one and destroyed the other seeds. It does not matter how the variation is produced, so long as it is once allowed to occur. The variation in the plant once fairly started tends to become hereditary and reproduce itself; the seeds would spread themselves in the same way and take part in the struggle with the forty-nine hundred, or forty-nine thousand, with which they might be exposed. Thus, by degrees, this variety, with some slight organic change or modification, must spread itself over the whole surface of the habitable globe, and extirpate or replace the other kinds. That is what is meant by NATURAL SELECTION; that is the kind of argument by which it is perfectly demonstrable that the conditions of existence may play exactly the same part for natural varieties as man does for domesticated varieties. No one doubts at all that particular circumstances may be more favourable for one plant and less so for another, and the moment you admit that, you admit the selective power of nature. Now, although I have been putting a hypothetical case, you must not suppose that I have been reasoning hypothetically. There are plenty of direct experiments which bear out what we may call the theory of natural selection; there is extremely good authority for the statement that if you take the seed of mixed varieties of wheat and sow it, collecting the seed next year and sowing it again, at length you will find that out of all your varieties only two or three have lived, or perhaps even only one. There were one or two varieties which were best fitted to get on, and they have killed out the other kinds in just the same way and with just the same certainty as if you had taken the trouble to remove them. As I have already said, the operation of nature is exactly the same as the artificial operation of man.
But if this be true of that simple case, which I put before you, where there is nothing but the rivalry of one member of a species with others, what must be the operation of selective conditions, when you recollect as a matter of fact, that for every species of animal or plant there are fifty or a hundred species which might all, more or less, be comprehended in the same climate, food, and station;--that every plant has multitudinous animals which prey upon it, and which are its direct opponents; and that these have other animals preying upon them,--that every plant has its indirect helpers in the birds that scatter abroad its seed, and the animals that manure it with their dung;--I say, when these things are considered, it seems impossible that any variation which may arise in a species in nature should not tend in some way or other either to be a little better or worse than the previous stock; if it is a little better it will have an advantage over and tend to extirpate the latter in this crush and struggle; and if it is a little worse it will itself be extirpated.
I know nothing that more appropriately expresses this, than the phrase, "the struggle for existence"; because it brings before your minds, in a vivid sort of way, some of the simplest possible circumstances connected with it. When a struggle is intense there must be some who are sure to be trodden down, crushed, and overpowered by others; and there will be some who just manage to get through only by the help of the slightest accident. I recollect reading an account of the famous retreat of the French troops, under Napoleon, from Moscow. Worn out, tired, and dejected, they at length came to a great river over which there was but one bridge for the passage of the vast army. Disorganised and demoralised as that army was, the struggle must certainly have been a terrible one--every one heeding only himself, and crushing through the ranks and treading down his fellows. The writer of the narrative, who was himself one of those who were fortunate enough to succeed in getting over, and not among the thousands who were left behind or forced into the river, ascribed his escape to the fact that he saw striding onward through the mass a great strong fellow,--one of the French Cuirassiers, who had on a large blue cloak--and he had enough presence of mind to catch and retain a hold of this strong man's cloak. He says, "I caught hold of his cloak, and although he swore at me and cut at and struck me by turns, and at last, when he found he could not shake me off, fell to entreating me to leave go or I should prevent him from escaping, besides not assisting myself, I still kept tight hold of him, and would not quit my grasp until he had at last dragged me through." Here you see was a case of selective saving--if we may so term it--depending for its success on the strength of the cloth of the Cuirassier's cloak. It is the same in nature; every species has its bridge of Beresina; it has to fight its way through and struggle with other species; and when well nigh overpowered, it may be that the smallest chance, something in its colour, perhaps--the minutest circumstance--will turn the scale one way or the other.
Thank you for your time, John
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