Adapt or Perish

Adapt or Perish

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.

Photograph by Joe McDonald/Visuals Unlimited, Inc

“I see your fear, and it’s big. I also see your courage, and it’s bigger. We can do hard things.”

Glennon Doyle

On Tuesday night, I was walking through the streets of New York City with a friend. Something in the evening air was signaling the arrival of autumn, of change, and our conversation turned to talking about my transition. I admitted to her that the road ahead of me can feel impossible at times—though not as impossible as the specter of staying the same. My friend reminded me, soberingly, that either path would be hard; why wouldn’t I take the one that leads to liberation?

 

HG Wells once wrote that “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” And while he might have penned that phrase in 1945, his words feel more relevant than ever today. From nocturnal moths that were drawn to daylight to find new food sources—what we now call butterflies—to wood frogs that learned how to survive northern winters by freezing their own blood to chameleons that developed crystal-like cells for changing color to communicate, the history of life on Earth is rife with radical displays of short-term behavioral changes and long-term evolutions.

 

Nature’s most important evolutionary invention may also be its most taken for granted: community. From bee colonies to wolf packs to elephant herds, insects and animals of all shapes and sizes have evolved to create complex social structures—including humans. Recent discoveries in eastern Africa suggest that humans evolved to be social creatures as far back as 320,000 years ago. The driving factor? Large-scale geological and climate change. Fossils from that time period suggest new human behaviors that scientists believe emerged as a way to cope with a changing environment, leading to the evolution of our species.

 

Some of the most remarkable evolutionary advances have occurred in the harshest of conditions as a means of conserving resources. Camels have adapted to desert environments with large, flat feet that distribute weight on sand for increased mobility, thick fur up top to create shade, humps that store fat, two rows of eyelashes to keep out the sand, and most importantly: the ability to go extended periods without water. Other animals, including many species of chipmunks, bats, and bears, adapted to cold environments through the onset of hibernation—an ingenious strategy for both conserving energy and surviving frigid temperatures come winter, all by way of resting.

 

Another remarkable development in the unfurling of the tree of life? Camouflage, which exists in nearly every ecosystem one can think of. Native to Madagascar, Uroplatus phantasticus (the leaf-tailed gecko) evolved to be able to seamlessly blend into surrounding leaves, and even flatten its body. The Phyllocrania paradoxa (ghost mantis) evolved to mimic withered orange leaves. The Caligo eurilochus (owl butterfly) developed patterns that look like the owls of predatory owls. Tigers grew stripes to blend in with grasslands, polar bears developed translucent fur to refract sunlight and become one with the arctic snow, octopuses learned to change their colors to match their underwater environment—the list goes on. 

 

Last but certainly not least on our list is an adaptation that still mystifies scientists: flight. The evolution of flight has occurred in three vertebrate animal groups: pterosaurs, bats, and birds. When it comes to the why, hypotheses range from escaping predators to aiding in mobility in leaping from place to place to gaining access to new sources of nourishment. But long before these creatures found their wings, sometime between 300 and 360 million years ago, insects took to the sky. By going where no other beings had ever gone before, insects ascended to become one of life’s most successful and diverse animal groups—which they still are today.

 

Adapting to the challenges we now face will require us to take a few pages from nature’s playbook. It will require us to lean on one another like never before, to truly learn what it means to be in community. It will require us to find new ways of conserving not only our resources, but our energy—to make sure we are restoring ourselves. It will require us to become one with our environment again, to relinquish our sense of separateness. And it will require us to dream differently, to look up toward new possibilities. As Glennon Doyle says, these things will be hard, but we can do hard things. Life has proven that.

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