Thank you, Charles Darwin

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Why Diversity Matters

Diversity, it seems, is hardwired into Mother Nature’s plans. The culture wars currently raging around acceptance of expressions of individual diversity in our culture would argue otherwise. Who’s right? Is a rich, diverse and multi-faceted melting pot of ideas, races, faiths, ethnicities, orientations, lifestyles, and practices, where all is acceptable and where “doing your own thing” is perhaps the mantra and goal? Alternatively, is the goal the limiting of options what is acceptable living restricted to those options that have “stood the test of time”? It can be argued that without conserving the established norms of clans, tribes, communities, and culture, human beings might not have developed without active threats to the survivability of the individuals making up those groups. As with so many debates that are black and white, the answer is neither and both!

Good Golly, Miss Mollie

To dive into the diversity pool, I’ll introduce you to mollie. No, not Mollie, your friend’s ex-girlfriend, but mollie, a small, unassuming fish from South America. The Amazon mollie gives birth to clones of itself. This means that every offspring is genetically identical to every other offspring and to its mother. Scientists recognized this genetic anomaly as a rich opportunity for a wonderful experiment. They took these mollie offspring and raised them under three different identical conditions — alone, together for a short time and then separated, or together for longer before being separated. The results showed that when raised in these three identical conditions, the mollies developed widely different personalities. In short, the drive to diversify, to express uniquely individual traits, and to exhibit uniquely individual behaviors in response to identical environmental cues, overcame the common genetic heritage of each individual mollie. If diversity of personality is hardwired into mollies, what are the implications of the drive toward diversity in us?

3 Core Diversity Skills

Has anyone shaped our views of diversity more than Charles Darwin? His 19th century Galapagos studies highlighted life’s central imperative to pass on our genes while learning to survive in environments that are constantly changing. His work helps us appreciate that life is a grand experiment involving the core skills of adaptive flexibilityuncertainty tolerance, and novelty-seeking. There are no guarantees in life and there are many dead ends. Survival is sometimes a matter of luck, but thriving in life is not just a matter of chance. To thrive in ever-changing environments demands a combination of diversity-building characteristic and the simultaneous expression of tried and true routines.

Diversity Thrives Within Us

Let’s begin our closer exploration of how we can build resilient, life-enhancing diversity by looking in an unexpected place: our guts. Our gut is a living ecosystem where the benefits of diversity are on full display. Every week, new studies are published showing the many way in which diversity of our gut’s bacterial culture — our microbiome — is essential for health. The diverse strains of bacteria that compete with one another inside of us serve as a check and balance system, assuring that no single bacterial strain gets too dominant or gets wiped out altogether. Moreover, it is only in a richly varied bacterial environment that we, the hosts of these microscopic multitudes derive maximum physical, mental and cognitive health. When our gut’s diversity is out of whack, the doors are thrown wide open to illnesses big and small, especially those driven by inflammatory, auto-immune forces. (See an earlier blog:

Is Diversity Losing Out Around Us

Next, let’s travel from the diversity-rich world of our micron-sized bacteria to diversity at the scale of our country’s citizen’s social communities. Cognitive dissonance is a term describing our urge to narrow the gap between our beliefs and perceptions that run counter to those beliefs. When our tolerance for dissonance is low, we will actively seek to dispute or reject whatever fails to conform to our pre-existing beliefs.

Over time, this trend means we will gravitate toward people who hold opinions most like our own. We see, socialize with, and find virtue primarily with people who are most likely to agree with our own preconceived ideas. In the process, we form groups that, like the Amazon mollie, are more and more alike. The presence of diverse opinions that, like the diverse bacteria in our gut, drive healthy flexibility of thought, tolerance of difference, and empathic respect for others begins to disappear. More to the point, what remains are opinions that are even more extreme than the opinions found in communities where people holding diverse points of view routinely interact with one another. The capacity to “agree to disagree” while still maintaining healthy connections gets replace by the view that “not only are you wrong, but you are actually bad or evil” and the odds for sustaining future connections effectively becomes extinct. Once again, with loss of diversity, there is loss of health.

Is Diversity Key to Intimate Connections to Others

Earlier, I cited three of Darwin’s observations that helped he said increase a species survival fitness: adaptive flexibilityuncertainty tolerance, and novelty-seeking. In closing this blog, let’s examine the role that diversity plays within our intimate relationships, and their connections to Darwin’s three characteristics. In my experience treating couples in my office, the most common observation I’ve made is that regardless of the specific issue that brings the couple in, there is intense and painful disagreement about the “facts” surrounding the disagreement. “He always.” “She never.” “That is simply not true.” “I don’t know what world you are living in, but…” “That never happened.” Tolerance of fundamental differences in points of view and remembered experiences are absent. A battle over ownership of the one and only TRUTH follows, with undeniably destructive results. Clearly, tolerance of a diversity of opinion in such relationships is toxic to the perceived survival of each individual in the relationship.

Putting Diversity to Work for Your Relationship's Health

When acceptable connection is defined in terms of agreement, and where disagreement is viewed as a threat to the relationship’s survival, there is a loss of relationship flexibility. Such couples shift from exploring novelty in their lives and in each other toward guarding against the cracks in the armor of sameness, stability and routine. They come to equate sameness with emotional security. But, intimate connection is ultimately about the ability to “see you as you are” and not force you to become “who I need you to be.” Deep respect for those differences necessarily requires tolerance and even appreciation of those differences. When relationships incorporate precious diversity into their personal and interpersonal systems - 

  • doubts become topics to explore together,
  • differing views become issues to air with patience and open-minded curiosity, with each party being informed and enlarged by the views of the other,
  • and the presence of diversity of desire, opinion, behavior and dreams can, as Darwin showed, pave the way for making the relationship adaptive not just for long-term survival but the flowering of vibrant thriving for a lifetime.