In Rafe Sagarin’s Learning from the Octopus, an excellent survey of what humans can learn from adaptive strategies drawn from the natural world, there is a passage on “learning from failure”:
When we take a biological perspective on learning, we realize that we are biased toward learning from failure because of the selective forces at work. In nature, the selective agent acting on learning processes is anything that identifies one variant over another and helps it reproduce or kills it off — a violent storm that rips the weaker kelps off the rocks, a clever predator that lures deep-sea fish directly into its jaws with a glowing lantern, a picky mate that passes up the advances of any male companion whose claws or antlers or tail feathers or just a little too small.
When it comes to how we respond to big events in society, it is often news media that play the selective agent. After the Cosco Busan spill, images of hundreds of frustrated San Francisco volunteers waiting to clean up oiled birds, but held back by government bureaucrats, were disseminated by national medi. Those kind of images result in calls to Congress and demands for investigations. By contrast, the Coast Guard’s valiant attempts to clean up oil spills following Hurricane Katrina hardly made newsworthy footage relative to images of people stranded on the roofs of their flooded houses and Americans begging for deliverance from the overwhelmed refugee camp in the Superdome.
One result is that it is relatively rare that we “learn from success.” This came to mind as I read Josh Kraushaar’s latest column on the fact that Republican efforts to win a majority in the U.S. Senate have been badly undermined by weak candidates in Ohio, Florida, North Dakota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and (I would add) Missouri. In the future, the NRSC and Republican donors should consider making more rigorous and systematic assessments of past recruiting successes to develop a better sense of how to replicate them. Some of the vulnerabilities that are cropping up now should have been detected long ago.
I strongly suspect that campaign finance regulations that have weakened the national parties are a significant part of the story. Many strong candidates are deterred from running in expensive statewide races due to the weakness of their personal fundraising networks. And so we select for effective fundraisers rather than effective candidates in many cases, with predictably problematic results.