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The Survival of Teepees

For many of us, the ideas of business and competition go together like Lumberjack and Louie, Navajo and taco, tequila and sunrise – part of the natural order of things. The idea got its biggest boost in the modern world after Charles Darwin connected the idea of competition to theories of evolution and natural selection. Being naturally selective, some thinkers focused only on the idea that through competition, the fittest of a species would survive. If it’s true of all species, in general, they decided, it must be true in unique cases as well. Businesspeople being one of the most unique species around, they naturally applied the theory to them, too. Reasoning further: if it’s natural, then it’s normal. And if it’s normal, it’s good. So, competition is good for people and for business.

Focusing on competition alone, though, leaves out other important and interesting ideas – like adaptation. Humans succeed just as much through adaptation as through other means. Adaptation is one of the big ideas in Jonnie Hughes’s On the Origin of Tepees. For the pun impaired, that’s a play on Darwin’s famous book. The author examines the evolution of ideas in human culture. “Why do some ideas spread, while other die off?” he wonders.

Hughes argues the not-so-obvious. Human success isn’t so much a matter of us adapting to our surroundings. Instead, we have been very successful at adapting our surroundings to us. Did you ever wonder why the Mall of America was built? Sure, it’s to sell goods so sellers make money and buyers have the things they want and need. But it’s also about bringing the outside in. The ideal outside that is. According to Hughes, a lot of human culture and behavior can explained by tracing human origins to their first environment in East Africa, one for which humans were actually over-adapted. We have succeeded in recreating this ideal environment all over the world. What the Mall of America – or any consumer mall – has in common with the African Savannah is: “it’s warm and dry,” has “a superabundance of food and water… no natural predators…and it’s largely disease free.”

Hughes’s aim is to familiarize his readers with the history of human culture in a wide variety of applications, as well as the scientific theories that help explain it. He invites fresh and unusual connections to everyday life and behavior, including applications to business. The evolution of the tuna melt Panini, for example, while not exactly analogous to the evolution of primates, goes a long way towards explaining how the individual selections of consumers dictate, over time, the direction a product will take. Citing the work of Richard Dawkins, Hughes explains that if biological evolution is explained by genes, the evolution of human culture can be explained by memes. Memes help explicate why people buy Coca-Cola even though blind tests show that they actually prefer Pepsi. We override our preference “without our knowledge as a result of the symbolic associations that name and color of a can or bottle of Coke have inside our neocortex.” Memes are individual fragments of ideas. Ideas are what make human culture.

Hughes’s stories, explanations, and examples are wrapped up in an investigatory travelogue and quest. The British author’s account of travels in the United States provides a first-hand experience of “the natural history of ideas,” the evolution of tepees, and many other engaging tidbits of human culture. FBN


Written by Constance DeVereaux, Flagstaff Business News business book reviewer


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