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The Evolutionary Basis of Rigidity: Locks in Cells, Minds, and Society

Marten Scheffer, Wageningen University
Frances R Westley, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA

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Abstract

Feedbacks leading to alternative stable modes of behavior occur on levels varying from the cell and the mind to societies. The tendency to lock into a certain pattern comes at the cost of the ability to adjust to new situations. The resulting rigidity limits the ability of persons, groups, and companies to respond to new problems, and some even suggest that it may have contributed to the collapse of ancient societies. In the face of these negative effects, it may seem surprising that lock-in situations are so ubiquitous. Here, we show that the tendency to lock into one of several alternative modes usually serves an apparent purpose. In cells, it filters out noise, and allows a well-defined and consistent behavior once a certain threshold is passed. Basically, the same holds for the attitudes and behavior of individuals and groups. This functionality is not surprising as it has evolved through selection for fitness. Understanding why rigidity makes sense may help in finding ways to avoid traps in situations where flexible response and innovation are needed.

Key words

adaptive capacity in humans
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087