Yesterday I attended a short conference as part of the Swiss Re Dialogue Series. The theme of the day was Resilience, something that I am passionately interested in, approaching from a social insect and behavioural view point. When I was asked to join a debate to close out the day, I was a little hesitant, a little nervous, yet my brain did not tell my mouth and I realised I’d told Amanda “hell yes” before I had finished reminding myself of the awkward debates I undertook during high school. To then discover I was to debate a topic I was a bit of a fence sitter for then made it a little more difficult. I had to convince my audience that “Resilience is Innate” at a conference where it was championed that resilience is learnt. It’s difficult to convince someone of something you don’t believe so I had to do my best to somewhat believe it too. I took a look at what I know best, biology.
The first part felt easy. For us to have survived as long as we have, to have evolved and be a functioning, reproducing species, well, that’s innate. Those first cells that graced this planet 3.8 billion years ago couldn’t think, couldn’t learn, they could only survive the challenges presented to them through chemical reactions. Those with greater genetic diversity were more adaptable, more resilient to the dramatic changes of our young volatile earth, so they passed on that resilience to the next generation. In this instance, resilience is innate.
Moving forward, it still felt easy. Looking at more complex systems, like the social insects I know well, it felt easy to demonstrate that the success of networks within colonies is due to the innate resilience of the species. For example, a honey bee colony has a generally tightly controlled internal temperature. This is to allow for the safe development of the brood (offspring), but also to evaporate water from nectar to turn it into honey. To regulate the colony temperature, honey bees engaging in a fanning behaviour. They arch their backs and beat their wings to cool the hive. No one is telling them to do this. There is no grand plan, or internal thermostat that switches the fanning on and off, but those colonies that don’t fan, that can’t regulate their temperature overheat and die. Those that can fan, and fan effectively, survive and pass on their genes. The propensity to fan is dependent on an individual bees genetic response threshold. To put it into human terms, imagine you are living with someone and you find the dishes are piling up in the sink. It’s driving you crazy, but you’re sick of being the one to always do the washing up. What’s happening is that your response threshold for the sight of dirty dishes is lower than your housemate. They can allow the dishes to pile higher before they are triggered into action. We can demonstrate in bees that this kind of response threshold is genetically determined. Amongst the members of a colony we see variability, individuality if you will, and those colonies with more genetic diversity are capable of moderating brood temperatures more effectively than those colonies with less genetic diversity. Their resilience in the face of changing environmental temperatures, that is, their ability to cope with a really hot summer and still raise brood and make honey, is dependent on the innate diversity within their genes. In this instance, resilience is innate.
But then it got hard. Then it got emotive. But, in the process I had convinced myself that resilience is innate. Coming to the end of the debate, I really believed resilience is innate, but let me elaborate on this, as it’s not as clean cut as you may imagine. I spoke about our fight versus flight responses. These are instincts, these are innate, and it’s undeniable that this innate resilience is what allowed our species to survive and flourish. The idea that we learn resilience was claimed to be demonstrated by our ability to now predict situations and plan for them. Climate change, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, accidents and illness, we have studied the situations, the potential scenarios and can make plans to be resilient in the face of these disasters, to recover from adversity and to improve should we be faced with a similar situation in the future. We can build our houses above predicted flood lines, we can get the right kind of insurance policy, we can stop eating bad food to prevent that early heart attack. All this because we have learnt. So maybe resilience can be learnt?
At this point, I felt the debate was unwinnable, but I had managed to convince myself that resilience was innate and that there was an explanation I was missing here. Then I realised, learning is innate. As we evolved from those simple creatures responding to chemical changes, stepping up to a more complex organism that responds to the local interactions of it’s immediate environment, we developed cognition. Our brains became more sophisticated and those who could learn, who were genetically predisposed to learn, to remember, to recognise a pattern, to plan, those were the ones would could survive, those were our resilient ancestors that passed on that innate ability to learn to us all, which has allowed us to reach the level of society we are at today. We can look to our genes to discover why some people will recover from trauma whilst others may not, why it is more difficult for some to learn than others. Now, this is not to say that those who have experienced a traumatic event, or those who have a developmental disability are less resilient or less important than those who have not, but more to highlight that it’s complex. The success of someone’s recovery from trauma, the success of someone with a learning difficulty, also depends on how they are nurtured. In their environment is it supportive? Are they able to access resources they require? Are they being taught in a way that will enable them to learn, as we all do learn differently? I guess I argue that our ability to recognise that, to be able to compensate for those genetic differences, comes from our ability to learn, which is innate within us.
What makes us resilient is innate. To be resilient in my eyes, we have to be able to withstand, to recover and adapt from adversity, and in order to do that, we need to be able to learn. Humans are incredibly diverse creatures, and if it weren’t for our diversity, for the myriad of personalities and attitudes we see around us every day, we would not be as successful or as resilient moving forward into an ever changing world.
I had a fantastic time at the Swiss Re Dialogue Series, and it highlighted to me more than ever that we need to encourage interdisciplinary communication. There were many things I learnt that were analogous to systems I am familiar with in social insects, and though not a proxy for human systems, I believe we have plenty to learn on all sides of the resilience debate.
A massive well done to the opposing team who took home the win, a massive thank you to my team for their support and banter, and also to the organisers and the people who attended. I felt so welcomed and included, and intend to develop a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to my research on resilience moving forward.