Thursday, 20 November 2014

First mover advantage

The concept of first mover advantage is perhaps more familiar in cultural than organic evolution. Many people are familiar with the idea that early players have advantages in business contexts.

So: my task here is rather the reverse of my usual one. Frequently, I claim that some aspect of organic evolution applies to cultural evolution more than might naively be thought. Today, I'll argue that a well-known aspect of cultural evolution also applies to the organic realm. The theme is the same though: evolutionary dynamics in the two domains are more similar than they at-first appear.

Early players in a space harvest easily-accessible resources - which are then not available to later arrivals. They use these resources to reproduce, grow and adapt themselves to the niche. This raises the barrier to entry. Newcomers are in unfamiliar territory and they face competition which has already adapted to the niche and is fighting on familiar ground.

Since the issue is fairly clear and simple I don't plan to spend too long on it. Many animals are territorial - and the territory owner often has a significant advantage. Like those inside medieval castles, territory holders can build traps for intruders, build barriers to impede prospective invaders and surround their home turf with an inhospitable moat.

The hermit crab that gets into a shell first has a clear advantage in any dispute over it. The mason bee that finds a hole first will dam it up, and take it out of service. Late-arriving bees simply don't have so many accommodation options.

First mover advantage is a thing for parasites and mutualists too. Famously, if you get infected by , you won't be colonised by smallpox. This was the basis of the first smallpox vaccine. There's an advantage to penetrating the immune system before it has built any defenses. Similarly, an ant colony in a thorned Acacia is pretty hard for later arrivals to displace.

Though first mover advantage exists in the organic realm, it isn't always enough to result in success. The marsupials in Australia had the advantage of being first in their territory, but they are busy following in the footsteps of the marsupials in South America. They are busy being displaced by placental mammals. New Zealand's birds were also unsuccessful early arrivals. Sometimes the first colonization wave gets overrun by later waves.

Since the focus of this blog is memetics, I should mention how first mover advantage applies to memes. Like parasites memes benefit from getting into young and inexperienced hosts. They face a weaker memetic immune system and suffer from reduced levels of competition from other existing memes. As a classic example of first mover advantage among memes, the QUERTY keyboard layout has become a locked in standard. It's main advantage was early adoption.

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