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Why Evolution Runs Backwards in the Refrigerator

Reverse Evolution in the FridgeEvolution-like processes exist in many places beyond genetic adaptation of biological species.  We see similar processes in a great many aspects of modern life, generally running many orders of magnitude faster.  Much of economics and business is governed by processes that select for the most successful product or business model or manufacturing process or organizational structure.  Successful practices thrive and out-compete ones which are less effective at meeting human needs and desires.  Warfare has very obvious parallels.  In computer science, user interfaces, programming languages and system architectures all evolve by analogous processes.  Similar effects can be found in governments, religions, cell phone design or city planning, just to name a few more.  The basic idea that human choices lead to faster propagation and increased presence of BETTER STUFF can be seen almost everywhere.  Except in our refrigerators.

Open your fridge.  If you’ve lived with that fridge for a while, there’s a good chance it looks something like mine does.  Shelf upon shelf of half-used bottles and jars of long-lasting meta-foods.  Condiments, salad dressings, jellies, beverages, chutneys, nut butters, salsas, pickled vegetables, etc.  We expect our fridges to be full of food, so this doesn’t in itself challenge the evolutionary principal of selection.  But taking an inventory shows that there is a strong bias towards foods we don’t actually like.  In fact, the typical selection process for foods in our refrigerators tends to concentrate foods we don’t like, thus running backwards to what should intuitively evolve towards a selection of our favorite foodstuffs.  But for a couple very understandable reasons, that just doesn’t happen.

Consider salad dressings.  Most of us like to have some choices when we’re topping our raw vegetables.  So when we’re at the store, we don’t just buy the one salad dressing we like, but will often try a new variety.  There’s a documented psychological principal called Variety Seeking that encourages diversity in buying because people want to explore different choices.  But what happens when we buy a variety we don’t particularly enjoy?  Like that orange blossom vinaigrette or the honey mustard that’s just a bit too thick and sweet.  We try it once, form an opinion, and the next time we have salad we go for the old-reliable Goddess dressing.  So it lingers.  But we don’t throw it away.  Because there’s nothing WRONG with it.  Besides, one day when we have guests over they might prefer a syrupy honey-mustard dressing.  Or maybe we could dip chicken knuckles into it or something.  Plus the combination of preservatives, low-temperature and food that doesn’t promote bacterial growth in the first place means it can stay edible for years.  So their continued presence provides some small marginal benefit of choice.  The only real alternative is throwing them away  (which makes us feel guilty) since there’s no secondary market for used condiments.

Beyond choice, they do provide marginal benefit in terms of ballast for heat capacity.  Refrigerators run more efficiently when they’re full since there’s a larger thermal mass which is more stable.  But this assumes the fridge has ample space for the food that is being cycled through and consumed.  In many households the need to find space for food you’re actually going to eat creates a selection pressure to remove such undesirable foods.  But the door of the fridge is a niche environment that isn’t very well suited to large, short-lived main courses and thus things like eleven different varieties of mustard tend to thrive.

What’s the take-home lesson here?  How do we fight this scourge on our pallets?  Actually I don’t think it’s that big of a problem.  When we need space in the fridge, we find it.  But otherwise we collect things like Mang Thomas All Purpose Sauce, and pickled cherry peppers.   If clutter bothers you, resist the temptation to try something new and stick with something you know you’ll use.  Heck, get a really big bottle.  Or look for similar reverse-evolutionary processes in your medicine cabinet, liquor shelf, or office supplies, and be conscious that you have the power to change things.  Or just accept that sometimes human nature tends to concentrate our surroundings with things we don’t actually like.

  1. Hazel Ferriss says:

    I think this post is entertaining, but disagree with the statement that evolution works differently in the fridge than in other systems. Having characteristics that keep one from being eaten by others is very consistent with evolution as we know it. :)

  2. Geoff says:


    I read a story years ago about a Japanese guy who had patented a filing system for use in personal offices. It goes like this: when you get a document or related group of documents, after using them, insert them into a labeled manila envelope and put into the right side of a filing shelf or cabinet. Keep doing this with everything you get. If you ever need to go back and get something, sift through the cabinet, starting at the right, until you find it, and when you put it back, put it on the right. Over time, the filing cabinet self organizes with the most recent and most needed files on the right. Time to search is therefore minimized.

    I think fridges are basically organized in the same manner, putting new or useful things in front and pushing yucky or useless things to the back, but salad dressing bottles take up more space than manila envelopes. This filing systems assumes infinite space, which is the main problem.

    I, for one, don't eat salad dressing, and don't have this problem so much.


  3. MentalMagma says:

    I'm currently talking with angel investors and venture capitalists to fund Secondhand-Salad-Dressings.com.

  4. Eric Lippert says:

    I considered naming my house "Condiment House" instead of "Question House" based on the six different kinds of ketchup I found in my fridge one day. Apparently one of my former housemates liked buying weird failed-in-the-market-so-we're-passing-the-savings-on-to-you condiments at "Big Lots".

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