Director Message

The Power of One

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

Our world is made up of systems with individual interacting parts.  Ecological, biological, chemical, physical, social and economic systems determine pretty much everything that happens within, around and to us.  Much of the history of science has been concerned with defining fundamental units that make up systems and determining how they interact to produce various outcomes. 

Classical evolutionary theory tells us that the individual is the agent of natural selection.  Those individuals that are best adapted to survive and reproduce pass heritable traits down to their offspring.  But individuals do not evolve biologically during their lifetime.  The population of which they are a part evolves over time due to the differential contributions of individuals with high value inheritable traits.  That is how we get new species and how the tree of life on earth came to be.  Of course, the individuals within a population aren’t aware of these processes, they are simply doing their best to survive and reproduce – but by doing so they are the engines of evolution at the population level.  The changes only become apparent as new species become distinguishable from their ancestors in some way.

When we model fish and wildlife populations, we rarely have information that distinguishes individuals other than basic measures such as age (or more often age class), size, sex and reproductive status.  We know there is individual variation that is important to capture and that some individuals contribute disproportionately to future generations based on their unique individual characteristics.  For many fish species, older and larger females produce not only more eggs but eggs of higher quality.  For many animals physical or behavioral traits such as large size or specific plumage, or the ability to dance well (think sandhill cranes) can be the difference makers.  From an analytical perspective, it is quite simple to model populations at the individual level (individual based models or IBMs) but we rarely have the data to create these types of models.

Similarly, classical economic theory, first synthesized by the Scotsman Adam Smith in the late 18th century, describes a self-regulating system where competition, supply and demand and individual self-interest keep things in check.  This free market perspective (colloquially known as the “invisible hand”) was embraced by our founding fathers and is fundamental to our system of government.  What is often not appreciated is that classical economic theory assumes that individuals act in a way that optimizes economic utility – a measure of value or satisfaction that one gets from a product or service.  In other words, it assumes that people make choices in unbiased, rational ways.  Common sense tells us this is not the case, but this assumption has driven economic theory for more than two centuries.  In the last few decades, economists have realized the profound interactions that occur as psychology and economics work together to determine the choices individuals make.  Very few decisions are truly unbiased, they are affected by messages received from peer groups, advertising or perception of quality or luxury.  Most of us can cite a purchase we made that wasn’t necessarily an item we needed (or maybe even wanted) but it was a “good deal”.  The University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler is a pioneer in linking psychology and economic theory and was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2017 for his work.

The examples cited above, in which choices at the individual level determine emergent properties of large complex systems such as biological populations or economies, are directly relevant to the social challenges, we face today.  The COVID-19 virus is highly transmissible between individuals and the spread of the disease is driven by human behavior and individual choice.  While we are hopeful that regulatory actions, guidelines relative to large gatherings and the unprecedented effort to develop vaccines pay off in the long run, the infection rate (along with the deaths) will only come down if individuals make the choice to adopt safe practices such as avoiding large groups, regular hand washing and wearing face coverings when social distancing is not possible. 

The United States’ complex history with race relations is not unique among nations of the world, but our relatively young country has progressed and regressed on these issues.  Starting with the 3/5 clause in our constitution, which ultimately allowed white supremacy to maintain a foothold in the south, and moving through the horrors of slavery, the unfulfilled promise of post-Civil War reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and fits and starts associated with the civil rights movement, we are left with the current reality consisting of significant social, educational and economic disparity.  But no one is born with racist beliefs.  These are learned behaviors and perspectives and therefore can be changed if one has the courage to stand up for the greater good.  It is important to note that the concept of race itself has little meaning scientifically.  To draw arbitrary lines along the continuum of existing human genetic diversity makes little sense.   In fact, the genetic diversity among the entire human population on earth (0.1%) is less than that of chimpanzees (1.2%) which means two things:  our ancestral human population was at one time reduced to a very small number and we are all much closer than we realize.

It is easy to become quickly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges with large systematic problems such as COVID-19, a wounded economy, and fractured race relations but these issues are “systems” in the broad sense, and fundamental change can occur as the result of choices made at the individual level.  We each have the power to affect positive change, if we have the courage to do so.

View an archive of “Director Message” articles