“Its not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. Charles Darwin
I was starting to write about change and why it is so difficult to make changes in our lives, when I saw this quote by Darwin. This led me to look at the scientific explanation of homeostasis, which is a well-known biological force that resists change.
But why is it so hard to adapt to change? Understanding the concept of homeostasis can help you understand how to be more effective when attempting to make changes in your life.
This is my paraphrase from the Wikipedia definition of homeostasis. It can be applied to many realms of functioning but this explanation is from a biological context:
“The human body is governed by system of many set points, such as body temperature, which needs to hover around 98.6 in order for our organs to function at an optimum level. When something changes in the environment that puts stress on a set point, a built in, pre-determined feedback loop will respond to that change, for the purpose of maintaining or restoring balance to the set point. In this example, sweating is a feedback response to the room temperature being too high. A person sweats in order to keep their internal temperature at 98.6.” Paraphrased from Wikipedia
Another example includes “when an obese person starts exercising, homeostasis in the body resists the activity to maintain stability. [Or when a person reduces calorie intake and the metabolism slows down in order to function with less energy.]” George Leonard
I believe that what Darwin was referring to in the above quote is that when something in the environment changes or becomes the rule instead of the exception, or if it becomes a permanent environmental condition, then something in the system of set-points and feed back loops has to change or the system will exhaust itself with continuous efforts to restore an impossible standard.
You can’t read about homeostasis without seeing the amazing parallels and metaphors in human behavior. Volumes have been written describing these parallels based on a theory, which states that a great deal of human behavior is an attempt to preserve homeostasis and restore equilibrium in the social or relational system. If this is true, and I think it is, then in order to effectively make changes in our lives and fully embrace it’s benefits; it is helpful, if not necessary, to examine the set-points and feedback loops that will act toward resisting those changes. Otherwise, our efforts toward change will result in a vicious circle where our change effort is met by equal or greater efforts in the form of feedback designed to resist that change. These set points and feedback loops are patterns of reacting that are learned from our families, schools, and peer relationships while growing up. They may no longer be effective or relevant in our present lives, yet we keep responding in those ways out of habit.
One example regarding relationships, which Leonard uses is “an unstable family where the father has been a raging alcoholic and suddenly stops and the son starts up a drug habit to maintain stability [or what seems normal] in the family. Homeostasis is the main factor that stops people changing their habits because our bodies view change as dangerous unless it is very slow.” George Leonard
In order for change to occur, it is important to understand the mechanisms that are at work against those changes efforts. Our emotional, physical, and cognitive systems are DRIVEN by powerful feedback loops. These are sometimes referred to as “human nature” or by some spiritual traditions, as our sin nature, and can usually be traced to primal fears of abandonment and rejection, or threats to survival. For example, a man who is abusive to his wife may vow to change that behavior, but when faced with a perceived threat to the relationship system, such as his wife going back to school or getting a job, he might become overwhelmed with fears of abandonment if she were to become more self-sufficient. Therefore his reaction; which is the feedback loop designed to maintain homeostasis, is that he begins to criticize, ridicule, and sabotage her efforts. It is unlikely that this man can change his abusive behavior without first understanding and addressing those deeper processes and needs.
To conclude where I began, I could expand on Darwin’s quote by saying that “adaptation” is a complex process of addressing the set points and the feedback loops which act to resist change and adapting those in order to create a new environment that welcomes change rather than resisting it.
Here is a quote of my own, inspired by today’s writing:
“The biggest mistake we make when approaching change is to think that we can make changes without things having to change”.