Ever since Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859, the theory of evolution has been used as a metaphor for many other disciplines, including business. Now Peter Cooke, a professor of automotive management at the University of Buckingham in England, is talking about something called the Galapagos Syndrome with reference to North America’s Big Three automakers

What would Charles Darwin drive? Do the Big Three U.S. automakers represent an evolutionary dead end?

Ever since Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859, the theory of evolution has been used as a metaphor for many other disciplines, including business. Competition, survival of the fittest, natural selection: For manufacturers, distributors, sales reps and financiers, these are concepts that need little explanation.
 
Now Peter Cooke, a professor of automotive management at the University of Buckingham in England, is talking about something called the Galapagos Syndrome with reference to North America’s Big Three automakers.

For those who didn’t pay attention during high school biology, the Galapagos Islands played a key role in helping Darwin formulate his theory of evolution because of the plethora of unique species living there. Isolated from the rest of the world by hundreds of miles of open ocean, a number of bird species-finches in particular-evolved to take advantage of the island group’s unique features.

All well and good, except that such specialized creatures rarely do well when brought back into contact with the wider world-think the flightless dodo birds of Mauritius Island when they were discovered by Portuguese sailors in the early 16th century.

In the case of the Big Three, the idea is that isolated here in North America-a land of cheap gas, high incomes and spacious interstate highways-U.S. automotive companies have followed a different evolutionary path from their competitors in Asia and Western Europe. Most of the world can’t afford to buy Hummers. Heck, most of the world can’t even afford to drive the things given the price of gasoline! Nonetheless, the rest of the world does want to buy a car, and there are an increasing number of smart, nimble manufacturers out there willing to build one for them.

And the Big Three can’t keep pace.

Whether the Galapagos analogy truly fits, of course, is debatable. GM and Ford, in particular, have long produced cars for the world market in various far-flung assembly facilities. Nonetheless, there is reason to be concerned, given the inflexible natures of many companies’ and industries’ “corporate DNA.”

Case in point: Only months after the UAW and the Big Three seemed to have found a whole new way of working together, the UAW strike at American Axle is once again throwing the industry into disarray. American Axle, one of many divisions spun off by GM in recent years, says the union is being inflexible. The UAW says American Axle isn’t negotiating in good faith. Assembly plants are closing left and right. How can something like this possibly be allowed to happen given the current business climate?

Whether or not the Galapagos Syndrome is appropriate to the Big Three, there is one Darwinian concept that does apply to all businesses, one that the automotive industry should never forget-and that is the concept of extinction.