Insight article

Panglossian hyperadaptationism — or, why jaws are made for punching


That’s the view that jaws were made for punching, noses were made to support eyeglasses, and acne was made to scare off potential mates until they’re more mature.

A fascinating recent BBC Inside Science show explored a tendency to ascribe an evolutionary purpose to anything and everything related to human behaviour and physical characteristics. As Professor Alice Roberts pointed out, this tendency is decidedly Panglossian. According to Roberts (paraphrasing Voltaire): “Legs were clearly intended for breeches, and we wear them. Things cannot be other than they are. Everything is made for its best purpose.”

This logic, as psychologist David Canter argued, becomes circular: “Something occurs, and because it occurs it must have a function, and therefore it occurs because it has that function.”

But, he says, “human behaviour is much more subtle and complex than that.”

This Panglossian thinking may be more widespread than we think. It occurs not just among evolutionary theorists, who come up with compelling stories that seem to explain everything. But these stories make it difficult to consider alternative explanations.

A very similar idea comes up when thinking about institutional and culture change. Many of us seem to have a default mode, a sense of equilibrium that is defined by the status quo. Whenever there are changes to the status quo, we demand an explanation for the change, however small it may be. Small changes, the assumption goes, always signify bigger changes in the pipeline. But unlike Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss character, and his absurd, satirised optimism, our reaction to change is quite often not at all optimistic. We see these small changes as proof points in some broader narrative in which we’re the victim.

A client once told us the story of a call centre in Liverpool whose parent company was acquired by another company. When the new owners visited the centre, the mood was despondent. Eventually they learned that everyone in the centre thought they were about to lose their jobs – even though they weren’t, and there was no indication that they might. There was simply a story within the organisational culture that whenever there was a change in management, their jobs were on the line.

The point is, there is always a narrative – whether it be an evolutionary narrative or a business one. We’re never content to accept a small change as isolated, or a certain fact as random. There’s always a story, and if we don’t know it is, we’ll make one up. That’s why telling facts as stories can influence behaviour so powerfully, because the fact itself is rarely the most influential aspect of change. What matters is how it’s interpreted.

Nailia Tasseel