Why Darwinian metaphors work for start-ups

Peter Thiel is a deep thinker. I say that because some of my friends in the Bay Area whom I respect for being punctilious practitioners of cognitive hygiene nevertheless exhibit awe in relation to their conversations with him (for what it’s worth, most do not agree with his politics). Though Thiel has the standard educational qualifications and cognitive abilities of America’s ruling class, I think the key aspect is that people perceive in him a deep cunning which is very unnerving. This cunning is why he is a successful entrepreneur, and not an affluent lawyer on staff at a major tech firm.

Zero To One has many insights for the typical reader, though perhaps less so for those steeped in economic history, endogenous growth theory, or evolutionary biology. The novelty is in a situation of scientific ways of viewing in the world in the business and tech landscape of Silicon Valley.

But one way of talking that Thiel expresses skepticism of is the “Darwinian” language of competition employed by many people in business. I think here he misses the mark because he conceives of Darwinian processes in purely biological terms. As it is, a lot of the ideas in the field of cultural evolution, which models inter-group human dynamics, dovetails with recommendations in Zero To One.

Probably the biggest takeaway for me was the importance of asabiyyah in the likelihood of the long-term success of a firm. But anyone who has worked at a start-up knows this intuitively. Financial alignment of interests are necessary, but not sufficient. Culture matters.

One thought on “Why Darwinian metaphors work for start-ups

  1. Interesting as always. Really enjoyed the book and hope you’re not posting on it. Thiel is often quite measured and calm in rhetoric but you might enjoy the only time I have seen him let loose. Peculiarly it was directed at Eric Schmidt as he was sitting next to him:
    He is incredibly sharp. He could be a quite formidable and useful public intellectual if he chose to. His defence of his support for Trump was also quite good given the inherent restraints attached with his candidacy.

    If you’re on a startup reading binge then I can recommend Ken Segall’s Insanely Simple. My tech partner told me is the closest you can get to a Steve Jobsian way of doing business.

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