11/27/2013 04:29 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

The Red Queen

It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place - Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)

I recently revisited an interesting book by evolutionary scientist Matt Ridley that was the subject of a previous blog. Ridley addresses the hypothesis known in the scientific community as The Red Queen, where continuous adaptation is necessary for a species to keep in shape with respect to its environment.

Continuous improvement allows living species to maintain a balance with an also-evolving environment. As a result, it is very difficult for a specific species to obtain a special benefit since everyone is in constant transformation.

Ridley also notes that competition is inherent to human nature; it is in our genes, and manifests itself in our most basic expressions.

According to The Red Queen, the battle has extended over the course of millions of years, expressing itself as an evolutionary process, the result of the struggle of individuals for survival.

Companies are also fighting to survive, and in this struggle they introduce innovations, some successful and others not. But since the environment is moving, there is no single innovation that can ensure the long-term survival of a company. Companies can never remain static and they should always follow the advice of Carroll's Red Queen to never stop running.

Another way of viewing this is that individuals and organizations that are not subject to competition do not evolve, which is a very strong argument against monopolies.

I often argue that competition allows us to improve, both on a personal level as well as in business. Competition brings improvement and progress, better trained people, and companies in a constant struggle to offer better products and services in order to prevail over their competitors. Furthermore, this process is never ending, even though we may wish the contrary at times.

Ridley poses the idea that humans evolved to solve problems, and therefore evolution is not an end in itself but rather the means to achieve our goals. Mankind thrives in accordance with our ability to make decisions and exercise our individual talent.

This ability related to free will is not accidental, but is a means to satisfy our needs, to compete with other human beings, to deal with adversity, and to resolve problems.

The Red Queen tells Alice that it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place because the entire country is also moving. But if you really want to advance, you need to run at least twice as fast. Hence the need to redouble efforts to outperform our competitors. And even when we do so, we can't rest on our laurels.

Of course, competition isn't everything. Ridley quotes the evolutionary biologist William Donald Hamilton, who raised the idea that in evolution there is also room for animal altruism and cooperation. The vast human capacity for altruism and generosity is as natural as selfishness.

But if reciprocity is the key to human cooperation, free competition is also inevitable. According to the book, the gigantic experiment known as communism in a laboratory called the Soviet Union is proof that any human endeavor, if not exposed to the fire of competition, is doomed to failure.

This is why it still surprises me to see politicians who would have us believe that it is possible to abolish competitive forces by decree. We cannot fight against our own nature.

Ridley concludes that "the goal and bane of Western policies for centuries has been the challenge of finding the right balance between cooperation and competition," and with this in mind he quotes biologist Egbert Leigh, "human intelligence has yet to design a society where free competition among the members works for the good of the whole."

This poses yet another conundrum.