Survival of the laziest

Science says that laziness, or as I prefer to call it, economy of effort, could be a fantastic survival strategy:

A new large-data study of fossil and extant bivalves and gastropods in the Atlantic Ocean suggests laziness might be a fruitful strategy for survival of individuals, species and even communities of species. The results have just been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B by a research team based at the University of Kansas.

Looking at a period of roughly 5 million years from the mid-Pliocene to the present, the researchers analyzed 299 species’ metabolic rates—or, the amount of energy the organisms need to live their daily lives—and found higher metabolic rates were a reliable predictor of extinction likelihood.

“We wondered, ‘Could you look at the probability of extinction of a species based on energy uptake by an organism?'” said Luke Strotz, postdoctoral researcher at KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum and lead author of the paper. “We found a difference for mollusk species that have gone extinct over the past 5 million years and ones that are still around today. Those that have gone extinct tend to have higher metabolic rates than those that are still living. Those that have lower energy maintenance requirements seem more likely to survive than those organisms with higher metabolic rates.”

I’m not sure whether this is related, but many of us have had the experience of working with high-energy, high-stress people who scurry around in a whirlwind of activity and give every indication of being extremely busy, and yet are strangely unproductive (and sometimes actively destructive) within the organization. Do they have elevated metabolic rates and if so, are they less “fit” to survive?

“Maybe in the long term the best evolutionary strategy for animals is to be lassitudinous and sluggish—the lower the metabolic rate, the more likely the species you belong to will survive,” Lieberman said. “Instead of ‘survival of the fittest,’ maybe a better metaphor for the history of life is ‘survival of the laziest’ or at least ‘survival of the sluggish.'”

The most successful leaders often have a laconic, hands-off management style, and it’s astounding what a truly great leader can accomplish by just hiring the right people, saying a few words and then heading out for a round of golf. The less perceptive might see this approach as leisurely or even “lazy,” but it’s actually just extremely efficient.

I close with an anecdote from historian Paul Johnson about a 1946 encounter with Winston Churchill:

He gave me one of his giant matches he used for lighting cigars. I was emboldened by that into saying, “Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?” and he said without hesitating: “Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” And he then got into his limo.

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