How an Israeli biologist changed the way I think about my disability

During an interview I was recently asked if there had been a specific occasion in my life when my view on my disability changed from negative to positive. The question reminded me of a moment that I had totally forgotten about.

How an Israeli biologist changed the way I think about my disability

It was the moment I heard about the work of Amotz Zahavi, an Israeli biologist who postulated the idea of the handicap principle in the mid 70s. It was not really recognised back then, but it is now getting more and more attention. Anyway, I remembered this moment and the huge fireworks that went off in my brain.

Until that point, my understanding of my disability was this:

  1. It’s unfortunate, but now that I have it I need to make the most of it.
  2. It is a flaw and I need to compensate for it.
  3. To be as good as everyone else, I need to always give 150% everywhere.

Unfortunately my explanation of it must have been rather confusing, and I felt that it didn’t come out right in the printed interview. So let me try again. Oh boy, this is difficult to explain in a short article. So I’ll stick to the basics. It’s also going to contain a few words that might make your child protection software go BLING!

But hey, it’s all in the name of science.

Alright, let’s dig into the principle itself, before I’ll explain how it changed my view on my disability 180 degrees. My guess is, by the time you have read through my explanation you might have figured it out by yourself.

Dating, singing and making baby beetles

It all goes back to good old Charles Darwin and all the misconceptions we have about him. Like this one: The first thing when people hear the name Darwin is they look up from their drink and go: “Oh yes, survival of the fittest.” Which is the first misunderstanding already. Darwin never said that – it was Herbert Spencer, reinterpreting him for his own works. What Darwin was talking about was natural selection. Basically it means that if an animal is not fit to survive in its environment, it’s time to knock on the pearly gates up in the sky while someone more suited will take the vacant place down on earth. And by weeding out the weak, the species keeps on going (or swimming, flying, standing around looking cute, respectively)

But that wasn’t his only finding. His theory of natural selection stood next to another one, much grander and much more curious – and pretty much still unknown to the layman even today. See, Charles with his pen and sketchbooks, could not understand why, since fitness was so paramount to the survival of the species, so many animals – pretty much all of them! – wasted their resources (time, food, energy, safety, etc) like a playboy billionaire on a weekend trip to Vegas.

A bird without any way of protecting itself would boast the brightest colours, when you’d think camouflage would make so much more sense. Instead of hiding in a tree-hole shutting their beak and being happy to live another day, they’d sit on treetops chirping their little lungs out. To the hungry hawk that’s the equivalent of a burger jumping on your dinner table yelling “I’m HERE and I’m for free”. And don’t even get me started on the peacock – from a survival and fitness standpoint, that tail makes as much sense as chain smoking. The Japanese rhino beetle grows a horn so big and useless (no, they don’t fight with it) that it’s a wonder they make it to work each day. But it’s not only ornaments and sounds, it’s wasteful behaviour as well. There’s the Thomson’s Gazelle among others, that instead of running away from a lion, would run around it in circles, and hop in front of it like a kid that’s been left alone in a candy factory for a weekend. I wonder if its life insurance policy would file that as suicide.

If it’s all about survival, then the smartest thing to do would be to be grey, quiet, sedate, and sit in a dark cave doing the animal equivalent of watching afternoon TV until the grim reaper comes knocking. That’s how you survive. Not by being so bright you glow in the dark and then sit on a tree singing loud enough to attract every meat lover in a 5 mile radius, or by having enough huge blue-eyed feathers sticking out of your butt that you can barely run away from everyone who wants to eat you.

This is where Darwin realised: It’s not just about survival. That’s just the background music. Survival is the baseline a species needs to achieve in order to make it into the game. The game then is about making baby birds, baby gazelles and baby rhino beetles, or whatever floats your boat. If you’re unable to survive for longer than, say, 30 seconds – the equivalent of a candle light dinner and some sexy time in the animal world – then there’s really no need to sign up on a dating website. However, once that annoying survival thing is taken care of and you know what you’re doing in terms of finding dinner and a place to sleep, then the question becomes: who get’s to paint the kids room and populate it, and who’s going to sleep in an empty nest reading romance novels?

“Easy”, you say, “the fittest!” Well, yes – so we’re back at square one. Lets assume at this point, that everyone who managed to sign up to the dating newsletter is fit enough to survive. How does nature decide whose genes get to do an additional round in the next generation? (We’ll leave out those few species that fight this out.)

The answer is – drumroll! – conspicuous consumption. Or: if everyone is fit enough to survive, then the one who can afford to waste the most resources is clearly the fittest.

It’s one thing to find food, have shelter and run away from the occasional hungry meat eater. It’s another thing entirely to do that very same thing while you’re singing at the top of your lungs and you’re bright enough to glow in the dark.

Who do you think is more likely to win American Idol? Gazelle Harry, who runs away from the approaching lions like everyone else who’s making a decent living in the savanna, or Gazelle Geoffrey who hops around the lions in circles, just to make a point? If gazelles had middle fingers, the lions would probably see a lot of his.

It’s one thing to go around the animal kingdom and do OK, and quite another to do OK while you have tail feathers on your ass that are huge and heavy and completely useless. (Apart from the fact that the peahens dig them, and for exactly that reason).

These are disabilities that nature designed to run it’s very own talent show. To find out who’s really the fittest. And the entire animal kingdom is watching – it’s the greatest show on earth.

If everyone is holding up in a given environment, then the one with the biggest handicap is the strongest.

And that was when my view of my disability changed.

If I can do just as well as everyone else in life, while having a disability – then I am among the fittest of them all. I don’t have to give 150% in school, work and everywhere else to keep up with the rest. If I manage to give just as much as everyone else, I am already way ahead of them. That was the most fundamental change to my thinking. My own understanding of my disability changed completely.

I used to see my disability as a flaw. Now I see it as my peacock tail. It’s my birdsong. My jumping gazelle.

(And sometimes, my middle finger.)

Nature does this everywhere! The more obvious the handicap is, then the more resources are wasted, and the fitter the creature is. Unless it gets eaten. That’s true just as much for peacocks as it is for those of us that have parking privileges. And since you’re reading this text, I guess you haven’t been eaten.

Welcome to the Best.

Now I’ve really just skimmed over the entire Handicap principle, and I’ve only explained one little aspect of it – the one aspect that led to my changed perspective on my disability. I’ve left out so much, regarding Zahavi’s principle and Darwin’s principles of selection. I invite you to read up on the Handicap Principle on Wikipedia or get this great book: The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle. And on a completely different, yet fascinating side note: If you wonder why humans don’t grow bright feathers or display any other form of conspicuous waste, I invite you to listen to Beethoven’s Symphonies, look at the Sistine Chapel or read Rilke’s poems. The Mating Mind is a facinating book on this.

Or, you could just ask in the comments…


text ©Michael Herold  Safe Creative #1401030108909
image ©

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