Embracing Diversity Requires Taming Some Basic Instincts

By Steve Gilison

A recent family vacation to Israel and Greece forced me to briefly step back from my single-minded focus on our upcoming Diversity Innovation Forum on April 30 (click here for more info and registration). However, the powerful themes of the event colored my reflections while touring these ancient cradles of civilization, especially on the long plane rides and downtime that I spent reading Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant NY Times best selling book Sapiens (Harper).

I had also been thinking about a recent Frances Arnold speech where she mentions biology’s embrace of diversity as the key to survival. She related it to her journey to being awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry this year but that analogy stuck with me: are human beings really driven to embrace diversity or is that just for plants and insects (and the rare Nobel laureate)?

Consider the fact that more than 40,000 plant species live in the Amazon rainforest where over the millennia, each fought for survival and evolved to develop its specialized niche within a complex, harmonious, interconnected ecosystem.

In contrast, when early humans (‘homo sapiens’ or “sapiens” as Harari calls us) eventually migrated to a new location, such as trekking over the land bridge to North America, their arrival triggered a massive reduction in the diversity of the local flora and fauna. Their ability to adapt, or innovate, was unparalleled in nature and they quickly figured out how to collectively hunt previously unknown large prey like 5 ton land sloths (yuck?) and defeat fierce competitors like sabre toothed tigers to the point of extinction. According to Harari, the deadliest weapons in homo sapien’s arsenal were communication and cooperation…aided by flint spears.

Of course early humans didn’t know they were killing the last of a species forever, they were just trying to survive. But Harari also points out that during the Agricultural Revolution, we went from hunter gatherers with a varied diet to subsistence farming where we lived on a limited set of crops that we could tame and cultivate in our local area. Again, reducing diversity in favor of standardization and weeding out (dad pun intended) competitors that inhibited productivity. During my visit, I learned that ancient Greece was a collection of many disparate city states and distinct cultures that transformed through conquest into an empire and eventually a single national identity.

It’s certainly a mixed review of our species: on the one hand we are incredibly resilient and innovative however we don’t play well with others and show a predilection for reducing diversity rather than embracing it as an engine of growth. We’re still at it too. A modern example relevant to our industry: “catch and kill” business practices where companies buy disruptive upstarts just to shelve them which effectively hampers innovation and limits consumer choice.

On the bright side, we are also a self-aware species that seem to be awakening to the consequences of our darker tendencies. Large swaths of the population are progressively pushing forward new narratives armed with insights that will likely lead to the next wave of adaptation needed for our survival.

Specifically encouraging is the resurgent push to respect and embrace the diversity of fellow humans (e.g. our event and others like it); our growing acknowledgement that we have much to learn from nature’s reliance on variation to ensure sustainability; and that creating an inclusive culture yields better performance.

A key insight in Sapiens is that our massively disruptive killer app was, and still is, our ability to collectively believe in abstract concepts like gods, laws, and corporations. These ideas unite individuals to cooperate and tackle challenges that would have been impossible otherwise, like defeating a ferocious beast, curing cancer, and potentially one day taming our less evolved genetic instincts…at least we hope.

Postscript: The Alliance was established to nurture and support the innovation ecosystem in Southern California so we’re unabashedly biased about the importance and inherent benefits of innovation as a concept. We support the drive to build better tools to advance human understanding of the world and improve life on this planet. If you’d like to support what we do, please contact us or attend one of our upcoming events (see below).

SHAMELESS PLUGS:

Diversity Innovation Forum

Join us for a discussion on how diversity of ideas, talent, and perspectives fuels innovation. Don’t miss the all-star speakers and actionable insights that address opportunities to improve D&I representation in your organizations and communities.

Tue, April 30, 2019 @ The Skirball Cultural Center 👉 more info.

Save the Date for the SoCal First Look Showcase

1pm investor panel + early stage startup presentations, 6 pm cocktail reception.

June 19 @ the Pasadena Convention Center 👉details to follow.

Steve Gilison is Head of Programs and Operations at the Alliance for SoCal Innovation. You can also find him on Linkedin.