Taylor Pearson is this fellow who clearly knows nothing about evolutionary theory, has missed the point of the most basic concepts, but has no problem with appropriating evolution to justify his simplistic versions of business. No, really, he’s got this article titled
Cambrian Leaps: One Way to Apply the Genius of Warren Buffett to Your Life which doesn’t actually have anything to do with Warren Buffett, dispenses useless, vague advice, and along the way trashes punctuated equilibrium while praising his flawed understanding of it.
He starts off by praising Darwin and evolution, because his insight helps us understand…marketing.
More than that, it provided a metaphor for many other systems in the world around us. We talk about people, marketing, and ideas evolving in the same way species do.
However, Darwin got one thing wrong in On the Origin of Species, which has an important implication on how you think about evolution as a metaphor for how to change your life.
He believed species evolved gradually and linearly.
Wrong. We could argue about “gradually” — Darwin was necessarily vague about the rate of evolution, and what seems slow and gradual from a human perspective might actually be rapid from a geological perspective — he definitely did not argue for linearity. The most famous illustration from his notebooks says otherwise!
He clearly had branching cladogenesis in mind. What does Pearson have in his ill-informed mind? Apparently Gould and Eldredge’s punctuated equilibrium. But he doesn’t understand that, either!
This phenomenon, called punctuated equilibrium, is the way that most natural systems evolve. Understanding punctuated equilibrium is essential to understanding how to change your life.
The left image is a gradual, linear view of Darwin’s theory of evolution where species emerge gradually and consistently over time. The right image is a “punctuated equilibrium” view of evolution where there are long periods of very little change and short periods of “explosions” with huge amounts of evolutionary activity.
No, that’s not a good model of punctuated equilibrium. All he’s got in his head are two versions of anagenesis, or gradual evolution within a single lineage in the absence of branching. In his left cartoon version, he’s got everything involving continuously at the same rate. His species 1, 2, and 3 are simply chronospecies that blend insensibly into one another. In the right cartoon, there are variations in the rate of evolution, nothing more, but you’ve still got a single lineage progressing into a couple of different species over time. That’s a poor and uninteresting model for punctuated equilibrium.
As well as not understanding the theory, he doesn’t get the facts right.
The Cambrian explosion is the most well-known example of the rapid growth stage of punctuated equilibrium in evolutionary history.
Over a period of only 20 million years (a short period in evolutionary time representing only 0.5 percent of Earth’s 4-billion-year evolutionary history), almost all present animal classes appeared.
Before the Cambrian explosion, most organisms were simple, composed of individual cells. By the end of that time period, the world was populated by a huge variety of complex organisms.
The Cambrian explosion was an adaptive radiation. That’s different from punctuated equilibrium. Multicellular animals preceded that Cambrian by about a billion years. There was a long period of soft-bodied complex animals that were evolving before the Cambrian. “Class” has a specific taxonomic meaning; most animal phyla arose before or during the Cambrian, but not most extant classes — there was no class Aves or Mammalia anywhere near the Cambrian. This is just a horrible mish-mash of mangled concepts. I’d give it an “F” if it were an undergraduate essay I was grading (grading is on my mind right now, as finals week ends).
But his gravest, most fundamental error is that he doesn’t grasp that evolution is a property of populations, not individuals. It means that all of his analogies make no sense at all, or even suggest models that contradict what he’d like to be true.
This is revealing. He gives all this pseudoscientific background to justify his picture of how people’s progress in a career works. He’s trapped in a mode of thinking that is narrow and linear.
So, because people’s individual lives are not a constant monotonic rise to ascendancy, but have stops and starts, he thinks it’s useful to use punctuated equilibrium as a model.
Gah. This isn’t how it works. Think instead about peripatric speciation.
Here’s a better analogy. Taylor Pearson starts a company to sell polka-dotted widgets. He’s doing fine, there’s a stable demand, he’s got a 100 people manning the phones, pushing those widgets. Some of those salespeople are doing great, hitting their quote, making their bonuses, but others are lackluster and uninspired and just flopping…so he lets them go, hires fresh people, he’s still got a hundred employees and is keeping up with demand.
But a couple of those fired employees get together and resolve to try something new — they start working for themselves, selling paisley widgets. The market is thrilled. They were tired of those boring polka dots, and soon the paisley widget sellers overwhelm everyone, Taylor Pearson is out of business, reduced to peddling polka dot widgets out of a tin can on a street corner. Maybe with his free time he can hang out in the library more, actually reading up on evolution.
That’s punctuated equilibrium. All the observer from the outside sees as they’re digging through the rubbish heaps left by this civilization is that polka dot widgets were the default widgets for years and years, and then fairly abruptly there was a shift, and almost all the widgets in higher strata were paisley. You could decide that all the individuals in the widget population underwent a simultaneous, gradual transition, or you could argue that an emergent novelty in a small subpopulation led to a sweeping expansion of that group and replacement of the prior dominant group. The latter is more likely.
I have to ask, though, about a more substantial criticism than the fact that he’s got the facts and theory all wrong. What do these marketing people gain by slapping an inappropriate label on an observation about variable rates of success? When Pearson says,
How To Change Your Life with Cambrian Leaps, what does that mean? He’s attached a buzzword to a phenomenon, but naming it doesn’t suddenly give insight into how to take advantage of it, even if there were some relevancy to the phrase. It’s all empty noise.
And then I read the comments, which were all full of praise for his brilliant insight. I realized that this isn’t about providing useful knowledge — it was about self-promotion. It’s about selling Taylor Pearson as the marketing guy who knows about Science! Unfortunately, he’s only going to fool the people who know even less science than he does, and to the rest of us, he’s just the half-assed bullshit artist who is cultivating an audience of wanna-bes. I guess it’s a living.