It’s a curiosity of scientific progress that black holes were postulated decades before a theory of evolution was1. Not only is evolution a latecomer to the party, it also happens to be a straggler when it comes to popular appeal.
Why did it take so long for someone to come up with the idea of evolution? And even after 150 querulous years, why is it that so many people struggle to accept it?
According to Ernst Mayr, architect of neo-Darwinism, the blame rests squarely with Plato2.
Plato believed that the world we inhabit is but an imperfect projection - a shadow - of an ideal world; a flawed departure from its perfect essence3.
For eg., there are rabbits in the world but there also is the ideal ‘Rabbit’, which is perfect and immutable for all time. Real world rabbits do differ from this ideal ‘Rabbit’ - they may have longer ears or differently coloured eyes. But these, in essence, are undesirable deviations from the ideal 'Rabbit', which serves as a conceptual blueprint for how all rabbits should be4.
Similarly, according to Plato, for every living and non-living thing there exists a category type of the same - its perfect version. Every thing in the world ‘strives’ to embody its category type.
As inheritors of the Greek tradition of thinking, we continue to see the world through the lens of this idea - a cognitive bias now dubbed essentialism5.
Essentialism has us believe that the categories we assign to things (and people) have a deep underlying basis to them. Instead of viewing categories as a helpful way of understanding the world, we begin to see them as factual features that are actually present in the world.
Based on this, we expect sharp and pronounced divides between different categories - triangles and squares, but also rabbits and non-rabbits. Any intermediates are only temporary anomalies.
To really appreciate evolution, however, one needs to disavow essentialism and see the world through the prism of ‘population thinking’.
There are no ideal types in the world, only real instances of populations with variations in characteristics. There is no perfect Rabbit form. Moreover, today’s commonplace rabbit form is anything but immutable and could have very different characteristics a thousand years hence, depending on selection pressures.
Evolution, if nothing else, is a wholehearted embracing of variation.
* * *
If essentialism has a professional cheerleading squad, it has to be the advertising industry.
At the heart of every advertising or brand-building endeavour is an exercise in essentialism.
Step 1: Define an archetypal experience or consumer: for eg., the tastiest burger, the sexiest man, the healthiest breakfast, the smartest housewife or the bounciest hair. Step 2: Present any deviations from these ‘ideals’ as sharply delineated and deeply flawed. Step 3: Suggest corrective action, buying the brand in question.
That’s not all. The process of creating advertising, from start to finish, rests on driving wedges of categorisation in a spectrum of contiguous variations: generations of consumers (Gen Xers OR Millenials), proficiency in using technology (digital natives OR digital immigrants), consumer affinity (favorability OR advocacy), brand personality (hero OR sage), and so on.
And it goes deeper still. Unlike magicians, we remain convinced in the magic of our own trick, even after the curtains have come down.
So when thinking about the future of our industry, we continue to resort to the categorical clarity of Platonic ideals.
We dichotomise between creative types and everyone else (We have a monopoly on creativity); between professionally produced ads and user generated content (Nobody would do this for free); between bold visionary ideas and ideas that arise out of research and testing (A consumer can have nothing constructive to add); between ads that look like ads and content marketing (Nobody wants to read, everyone wants to be entertained); between stories and data (Everybody loves to listen to stories); between the eternal kingdom of advertising and the end of all advertising as we know it (Nothing will change! Everything will change!)
Our instinctive response to all problems - including our own - is to seek ‘essences’, to leave no room for intermediates. Our reality remains firmly bounded by our ideas of it, rather than the other way around.
While Platonic certainty served us well in simpler times, the present and the future are decidedly messier6. To thrive in these interesting times, we need to master an ability to experiment with and vary our response to the world, not impose our mental order on it7.
But as long as we continue to see any deviation from the norm as an undesirable (and temporary) aberration and as long as we continue to mistake the map for the territory, we are destined to remain trapped in an essentialist maze of our own making.