Someone called this Big Think piece to my attention because some quotes from me are in it. And they are, but that’s not the important part, which is the evolutionary biology of giving up, and I guess I’m the Expert Evolutionist in this take. The piece is by Julia Keller, a prolific author and journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2004, and this is an excerpt from her new book Quitting: A Life Strategy: The Myth of Perseverance and How the New Science of Giving Up Can Set You Free. which came out April 18.
Although I had some association with Julia when she wrote for the Chicago Tribune (I think she helped me get a free-speech op-ed published), I don’t remember even speaking to her on this topic, but it must have been quite a while back. At any rate, I certainly want to be set free from my maladaptive compulsions, which include persisting when I should give up, so I’ll be reading her book.
Click on the screenshot to read:
The science involved is largely evolutionary: it pays you to give up when you leave more offspring by quitting than by persisting. Or to couch it more accurately, genes that enable you to assess a situation (consciously or not) and give up at the right point—right before the relative reproductive gain from persisting turns into a relative loss compared to other gene forms affecting quitting—will come to dominate over the “nevertheless she persisted” genes. Keller engages the reader by drawing at the outset a comparison between Simone Biles stopping her gymnastic performance in the 2021 Tokyo games, and, on the other hand, a honeybee deciding whether or not to sting a potential predator of the nest.
If the bee does sting, she invariably dies (her innards are ripped out with the sting), and can no longer protect the nest. But if that suicidal act drives away a potential predator, copies of the “sting now” gene are saved in all the other nest’s workers, who are her half sisters. (And of course they’re saved in her mother—the queen, the only female who can pass on her genes.) If a worker doesn’t sting, every copy of that gene might be lost if the nest is destroyed, for if the nest goes, so goes the queen, and every gene is lost. On the other hand, a potential predator might not actually prey on a nest, so why give up your life if it has no result? You have to know when stinging is liable to pay off and when it isn’t.
Inexorably, natural selection will preserve genes that succeed in this reproductive calculus by promoting stinging at the right time and place—or, on the other hand refraining from stinging if it’s liable to have no effect on colony (ergo queen) survival. And in fact, as you see below, honeybees, while they surely don’t consciously do this calculus, they behave as if they do, and they do it correctly. Often natural selection favors animals making “decisions” that cannot be conscious, but have been molded by selection to look as if they were conscious.
As for Simone Biles, well, you can read about her. Her decision was clearly a conscious one, but also bred in us by selection—selection to avoid damaging our bodies, which of course can severely limit our chance to pass on our genes. This is why we usually flee danger when there is nothing to gain by meeting it. (She did have something to gain—gold medals—which is why she’s like the bees.)
Why do young men street race their cars on the street, a dangerous practice? What do they have to gain? Well, risk-taking is particularly prevalent in postpubescent males compared to females, and I bet you can guess why.
I’ll first be a bit self aggrandizing and show how I’m quoted on evolution, and then get to the very cool bee story. It’s a short piece, and you might think of other “quitting vs. non quitting” behaviors of animals that could have evolved. (Hint: one involves cat domestication.)
“Perseverance, in a biological sense, doesn’t make sense unless it’s working.”
That’s Jerry Coyne, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, one of the top evolutionary biologists of his generation. [JAC: a BIT overstated, but I appreciate it.] I’ve called Coyne to ask him about animals and quitting. I want to know why human beings tend to adhere to the Gospel of Grit—while other creatures on this magnificently diverse earth of ours follow a different strategy. Their lives are marked by purposeful halts, fortuitous side steps, canny retreats, nick‑of‑time recalculations, wily workarounds, and deliberate do‑overs, not to mention loops, pivots, and complete reversals.
Other animals, that is, quit on a regular basis. And they don’t obsess about it, either.
In the wild, Coyne points out, perseverance has no special status. Animals do what they do because it furthers their agenda: to last long enough to reproduce, ensuring the continuation of their genetic material.
We’re animals, too, of course. And despite all the complex wonders that human beings have created—from Audis to algebra, from hot-fudge sundaes to haiku, from suspension bridges to Bridgerton—at bottom our instincts are always goading us toward the same basic, no‑nonsense goal: to stick around so that we can pass along little copies of ourselves. [JAC: note how this is an individual-centric view rather than the correct gene-centric one, but it’s good enough.] It’s axiomatic: the best way to survive is to give up on whatever’s not contributing to survival. To waste as few resources as possible on the ineffective. “Human behavior has been molded to help us obtain a favorable outcome,” Coyne tells me. We go for what works. We’re biased toward results. Yet somewhere between the impulse to follow what strikes us as the most promising path—which means quitting an unpromising path—and the simple act of giving up, something often gets in the way. And that’s the mystery that intrigues me: When quitting is the right thing to do, why don’t we always do it?
Well, who ever said that every aspect of human behavior was molded by natural selection? Please don’t think that I was implying that it was, as we have a cultural veneer on top of the behaviors conditioned by our genes. In this piece Keller doesn’t get to the subject of why we don’t quit when we should. I’m sure that’s in the book.
Now the very cool bee story:
Justin O. Schmidt is a renowned entomologist and author of The Sting of the Wild, a nifty book about a nasty thing: stinging insects. Living creatures, he tells me, echoing Coyne, have two goals, and those goals are rock-bottom rudimentary: “To eat and not be eaten.” If something’s not working, an animal stops doing it—and with a notable absence of fuss or excuse-making. . . .
. . . For a honeybee, the drive to survive carries within it the commitment to make sure there will be more honeybees. And so she defends her colony with reckless abandon. When a honeybee stings a potential predator, she dies, because the sting eviscerates her. (Only the females sting.) Given those odds—a 100 percent mortality rate after stinging—what honeybee in her right mind would make the decision to sting if it didn’t bring some benefit?
That’s why, Schmidt explains to me from his lab in Tucson, sometimes she stands down. When a creature that may pose a threat approaches the colony, the honeybee might very well not sting. She chooses, in effect, to quit—to not take the next step and rush forward to defend the nest, at the cost of her life.
His experiments, the results of which he published in 2020 in Insectes Sociaux, an international scientific journal focusing on social insects such as bees, ants, and wasps, reveal that honeybees make a calculation on the fly, as it were. They decide if a predator is close enough to the colony to be a legitimate threat and, further, if the colony has enough reproductive potential at that point to warrant her ultimate sacrifice. If the moment meets those criteria—genuine peril (check), fertile colony (check)—the honeybees are fierce fighters, happy to perish for the greater good.
But if not… well, no. They don’t engage. “Bees must make life‑or‑death decisions based on risk-benefit evaluations,” Schmidt tells me. Like a gymnast facing a dizzyingly difficult maneuver that could prove to be lethal, they weigh the danger of their next move against what’s at stake, measuring the imminent peril against the chances of success and the potential reward. They calculate odds.
And if the ratio doesn’t make sense, they quit.
That’s a bit oversimplified, for the calculus is not only unconscious (I doubt bees can weigh threats this way), but the decision capability has been molded by competition over evolutionary time between different forms of genes with different propensities to sting or give up. Further, individual worker bees are sterile, and so what’s at stake is the number of gene copies in the nest as a whole—and especially in the queen. The asymmetrical relatedness between the queen, her workers, and their useless drone brothers (produced by unfertilized eggs) makes the calculus especially complicated.
On the other hand, explaining the gene calculus to lay readers is hard, and it might be better to read the seminal work on how this all operates: Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene.
Here’s Schmidt’s short paper (click to read; if it’s paywalled, ask for a copy). He died just this February.