Attenborough, Gladwell & pikas: Can we be ‘stronger together’?

by DGO Web Administrator

In his fascinating book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion of the “10,000 hour rule,” based on the research of Swedish psychologist Dr. Anders Ericsson, which states that 10,000 hours is roughly the amount of time it takes in deliberate practice to achieve world-class expertise in any skill, be it golf, chess, violin or taxidermy.

While Gladwell may have oversimplifed the principle, on a recent episode of “Freakonomics Radio,” he said his intention was to show not just how much practice is needed in addition to any natural ability or talent the person began with, but also something we don’t always recognize as being integral to success at anything: The help and support of others.

“If you have to play chess for 10 years in order to be a great chess player, then that means that you can’t have a job, or maybe if you have a job it can’t be a job that takes most of your time,” Gladwell said. “It means you can’t come home, do the dishes, mow the lawn, take care of your kids. Someone has to do that stuff for you.

“If there’s a kind of incredibly prolonged period that is necessary for the incubation of genius, high-performance, elite status of one sort of another,” Gladwell said, “then that means there always has to be a group of people behind the elite performer making that kind of practice possible.”

I often think of Gladwell and his views on the 10,000-hour rule inside our rank political climate with the rhetoric of “makers and takers,” where one is vilified for having the optimism to say that we’d be “stronger together,” and another absolutely crucified for saying “if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.” And of course, the megalomaniac running for president who attributes his wealth to his big brain and cunning business genius and nothing to do with the million-dollar headstart he received from his rich father, born on third base thinking he hit a triples, they have thousands of fans in the stands admiring their alleged skills at the plate.

I recently got thinking about the notion of being “stronger together,” how things work better for all when we cooperate, give to others and pool resources for the greater good. It came from a wildly unexpected source: pikas.

In an episode of his documentary series “Life Story,” naturalist David Attenborough shows the food-stockpiling behavior of the tiny, large-eared rodents living in alpine regions of the North American Rockies, including here in Colorado.

Pikas often make their homes in vast boulder fields near grassy fields and meadows that are free of snow cover for just a few months a year. Over a span of mere weeks, pikas, because they do not hibernate, must stockpile as much vegetation as possible to get through the winter.

This stockpiling requires around 100 trips a day from the safety of their rocky homes to the open fields. And the location of their burrows makes a huge difference. A pika that lives closer to the field – call her the rich pika – makes shorter trips, therefore more trips and is exposed to fewer predators. And as a result of this simple proximity, the rich pika’s burrow overflows with food.

Meanwhile, pikas living away from the meadow have to travel farther, work harder, expose themselves to more danger, and in the end, still have less food.

Now, would anyone think that this rich pika has an abundance of food because she is smarter or works harder or is more cunning? Or that the poor pikas have less because they are lazy, dumb or inferior? Of course not. It’s easy for us to identify why some pikas are rich and some are poor.

And then something else happens. While the rich pika is away in the meadow gathering even more food to add to its cache, another pika raids the rich pika’s stash and helps herself, stealing as much grass as she can fit in her mouth.

“This life of crime will save her time, energy, and reduce the risk of predators,” Attenborough narrates.

In the episode, the rich pika catches the poor pika in the act squeals in her high-pitched alarm call and gives chase to confront the thief.

Of course, the rich pika is only concerned about her survival. But if she had an evolutionary inclination to look out for the rest of her pika community, she might behave differently. Recognizing how and why one pika has more than the rest, they might devise a system where worker pikas bring loads of vegetation from the fields to a safe distribution location and then dispersed throughout the rest of the pika colony.

With an intelligent birds-eye view, it’s easy for us to imagine a more peaceful, thriving community of cooperation, one where everybody wins and not just a few.

So, do we want to live in a society where the rich are rewarded often because the luck of the draw they were born into, the burrows they occupy that just so happen to be closer to the meadow?

Pikas are pint-sized animals with the pea-sized brains. What kind of animals do we want to be?

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