• Paul Rutherford

AIN'T NOBODY HERE BUT US CHICKENS

Updated: May 6


William Muir has known more plucked poultry than you've had hot dinners.

As professor of Animal Sciences at Purdue Agricultural University, he's an expert in breeding and genetics. Not that he always roosted on the lofty perches of Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rocks.

His studies started with flour beetles.

Specifically, Muir examined the beetles' evolution in an (artificial) environment of very little food. Those who survived did so at the expense of others: they grew faster, pupated earlier, and ate the smaller ones.

The flour beetles - usually pests in cereal silos - turned cannibal.

These "curious results" informed Muir's later academic career, researching into the world of poultry productivity and inheritable traits.

The set up was simple: a series of cages, each containing nine hens. The experiment counted the eggs that each hen had laid, then took the most productive bird from each cage, from which to breed the next generation.

And repeat the life-cycle, six times.

The outcome: hyper-aggressive hens. So much so, that at the mature stage of the sixth cycle, there were only three chickens left. They had pecked the others to a bloody end.

Productivity hadn't been the effect of fertility, but from being a bully. Productivity was the outcome of suppressing others.

In parallel, Muir ran a test in which he selected not the single-most productive hen from each cage, but the most productive cage-of-nine. And from there he bred the next generation, again six times.

By the end - and in contrast to the carnage of superstar layers - the egg productivity of the 'team' approach increased 160%.

When Muir presented his findings to a poultry wellbeing conference (such shindigs do exist), the poultry company whose birds had been used were outraged. The experiments were conducted 'in full daylight and did not beak trim the birds’.

Outrageous!

As Muir later commented: "To me this is another example of group selection theory, operating at the breeder level."

When David Sloan Wilson – a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Biological at New York State University - told this story at a lecture, a woman approached him after and said:

"That first experiment describes my department! I have names for those three hens!"

More specifically, she recounted an environment in which individual accomplishments were awarded, rather than collective efforts and results.

In comparison, organizations with the greatest internal dynamics, associated with co-operation and collaboration, are the survivors.

Genetic selection is not – thankfully – on the hiring agenda. Nevertheless, cultural transmission happens all the time.

Which begs a ‘talent’ question: Do 'best' individuals, superstars and personal brands cause a co-operative culture to thrive - or collapse?

Coachaiku: 17-syllable reflections, in a 5-7-5 form, for personal and professional development.

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