Episode 31: The problem with superchickens

Superchickens, high school Model UN students, and retail have a surprising common denominator: what makes individuals “super” is also what makes them terrible.

Super chickens

A group of scientists in Indiana bred a strange kind of chicken that lays a lot of eggs, but they found it also displays more nefarious qualities.
Photograph by Neumann & Rodtmann

Scientists discover a fascinating paradox: when they bred together superproductive, egg-laying hens, they found the chickens produced fewer eggs. We examine what went wrong with these so-called superchickens, and we look at human examples of this phenomenon—a high school Model UN team and a retail giant.

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ILANA STRAUSS (HOST): Let's start with a riddle. Picture a long, flat building in rural Indiana, surrounded by corn and soybean fields. There are thousands of chickens inside.

BILL MUIR (BIOLOGIST): Oh my goodness. It was a lot of noise. They're calling and their rooster sounds and cock-a-doodle-doo, and you know.

STRAUSS: That's Bill Muir, a professor emeritus at Purdue University specializing in genetics.

MUIR: But the females, you know, they're pretty quiet except they peck a lot. They're pecking on the ground, and they're kind of sometimes pecking with each other, and sometimes there'd be a fight, and there'd be squawking and screaming going on.

STRAUSS: Bill is surrounded by chickens because he is running an experiment: he is making superchickens.

Bill picks out the hens that lay the most eggs. And then he breeds them together for a few generations—I assume some roosters were involved. Then, he gathers all these hyper-bred superchickens. He puts them in cages together, and compares them to cages of regular chickens.

How many eggs do you think the superchickens produced compared to the regular chickens? A few more? Twice as many? Ten times?

Here's where it gets weird: the regular chickens produced more eggs than the superchickens. What happened there, do you think? Feel free to pause to make a guess.

STRAUSS: All right. So here's what happened. It turns out that whatever genes make chickens super egg producers also make them really aggressive.

MUIR: We don't know what those genes are, but that's the only explanation.

STRAUSS: The superchickens pecked each other’s eggs and plucked each other's feathers.

MUIR: And pretty soon the bird would just be naked. Most of its feathers would be gone. And then sometimes when it plucked the feather, it would bleed. And of course, chickens see blood, then they go right after—once the bird bleeds—like a shark, you know, they're right in there, pecking at that wound.

STRAUSS: In the end, the superchickens, they didn't stand a chance against the regular chickens. The cages of superchickens turned into chicken graveyards.

MUIR: They annihilated themselves. I have a picture of one cage that was typical. We had a 12-bird cage with four survivors.

STRAUSS: That's typical?

MUIR: Yeah. We were removing hundreds of birds a day. You know, the farmhands were quite concerned about how many were dying.

STRAUSS: Dead chickens don't lay eggs. If you want the most productive cage of chickens, you don't want superchickens. Because often, what makes something “super” is the same thing that makes it bad for those around it.

I’m Ilana Strauss, and this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

Today, we don't stop at chickens. We learn what superchickens, cancer, high school Model UN, and retail can tell us about why the best of the best are often the worst of the worst.

But before we head into the break, adventure is never far away with a free one-month trial to Nat Geo Digital. For starters, there’s full access to our online stories, with new stories published every day, plus every Nat Geo issue ever published in our digital archives! There’s a whole lot more for subscribers, and you can check it all out for free at natgeo.com/exploremore.

Superchickens aren't just on farms. They're everywhere. You might even work with them.

DAVID SLOAN WILSON (BIOLOGIST): Long ago, when I was first using this example, a professor ran up to me afterwards and said, “That first chicken experiment describes my department. I have names for those, for those murderous chickens!”

STRAUSS: That's David Sloan Wilson, professor emeritus of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University. And he says the world is full of superchickens. These are high-performing individuals who look impressive on their own but destroy their teams. In fact, they often become impressive because they're so cutthroat.

And that doesn't just apply to chickens. It happens all over the natural world, even in our own cells.

WILSON: A cancer is a great metaphor for this. A cancer is something that grows faster than the other cells and then destroys everything including themselves as a result. And so we have to be on the lookout for cancerous behaviors, which can seem successful unless you look at the slightly larger picture.

STRAUSS: So chickens, cells, but what about people? Are there human superchickens? Well, we're going to need a group of impeccably dressed teenagers to figure that out.

We're in a high school in the Chicago suburbs. It's filled with teenagers, but it takes a minute to notice since everyone is dressed like they're on Capitol Hill.

This is high school model UN. It's an activity where high school students pretend to be United Nations delegates. They take on the role of countries, give speeches, write resolutions, and compete for awards.

We're here because I did Model UN in high school, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, because It was the most cutthroat experience of my life. See, Model UN has its own version of superchickens, a kind of delegate other students fear: the power del, short for power delegate.

MIA KORSUNSKY (STUDENT): They'll come in with this huge stack of papers they've never glanced at—they've never even read, right? But it's all about the intimidation factor. It's about the thud that it makes when you drop it on your desk.

STRAUSS: That's Mia Korsunsky, a high school Model UN delegate from Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois. I'm talking with her and her teammate, Aarushi Sharma. Here's Aarushi.

AARUSHI SHARMA (STUDENT): They'll have like a little pin with their country's flag on it, or they'll walk in wearing like the best looking suit you've ever seen. And they just, they have this kind of aura around them.

STRAUSS: Aarushi remembers being in a committee when a power del walks in.

SHARMA: He's wearing a charcoal gray suit, and it looked great. And his tie matched his socks. And everybody was like, this guy knows what he's doing.

STRAUSS: And that impression set the pace for the rest of the committee.

SHARMA: Everybody kind of just like revolved around him ‘cause he just had this presence to him. And as soon as we would go into an unmoderated caucus or a break, it was like, he would start almost shouting orders at people. And he put himself in this position of leadership at the start and everybody kind of just ran with it.

STRAUSS: They may have regretted that decision.

SHARMA: This guy talked over everyone the entire four days—didn't let anybody's ideas get passed through.

STRAUSS: Aarushi says it's not that this guy was actually coming up with any great international solutions for the resolutions he was working on.

SHARMA: And looking back, his speeches nor his content was that good. And I don't think he wrote a single clause that weekend. He just had other people write the clauses and he just brought them together.

STRAUSS: Unlike Aarushi, who wrote a lot.

SHARMA: So he was kind of just sitting there nodding along like, “Hmm, this seems like a good idea. I like this idea, like, let's keep your clause. Let's get rid of your clause.”

STRAUSS: Oh, so you ended up kind of working for him.

SHARMA: Yeah. It was like everybody in this committee was working for him. Even if you weren't in the same block as him.

STRAUSS: And this is because he matched his socks to his tie?


STRAUSS: The guy ends up winning the best award in the committee. And he wasn't unique. Mia has experienced her own share of power dels. She went up against one recently.

KORSUNSKY: This six-foot-tall senior guy in like a matching suit and a little vest underneath.

STRAUSS: But Mia wasn't intimidated.

KORSUNSKY: I've been around. So, you know, I know what I'm doing a little bit too, and I kind of start butting heads with him in the sense that he wants what I want and I want what he wants. And it's just a competition of who's gonna get it.

STRAUSS: One day, Mia and this power del are attending a committee and writing papers. They’re sitting next to each other, and at one point, she looks over.

KORSUNSKY: He's actually cheating.

STRAUSS: The guy had written a paper before the committee had even started.

KORSUNSKY: Which you're not allowed to do. It's a very big no-no. We call it pre-writing—not allowed. And I look over, and he's on his legal pad while we're all writing. And he's just copying word for word what he had pre-written before the committee.

STRAUSS: He ends up winning first place. And Mia went up to the committee chair to ask why the power del won.

KORSUNSKY: And he goes, Oh, it was his papers. Which he had brought with him. Because he had all like the time to prepare, write them, you know, the best paper as possible, and just copy them down on a legal pad—versus mine were coming—whatever thought I had at the time.

STRAUSS: There's something odd about all this, right? This is Model UN. The whole point is that students are supposed to be collaborating to come up with big solutions, not embroiling themselves in cutthroat competition, but that’s what power dels do.

STRAUSS: It seems like when they're kind of running things, you probably end up with worse papers and solutions. Is that true?

KORSUNSKY: Very true. Because these are the same ones that don't do any work themselves.

STRAUSS: But of course, no matter how much Model UN wants to be cooperative, it's dealing with a bigger reality that makes that difficult. While Model UN is pretend, the thing driving a lot of these students is all too real: college admissions.

KORSUNSKY: Stevenson has a huge number of first-generation Americans. A lot of people I know are the child of immigrants. And I think me and Aarushi included, right? So like, you come with the pressure of—your validation comes from academic success.

STRAUSS: And so these students compete with each other so they have more to show on their college applications. If you think about it, admissions departments are looking at students a lot like farmers look at chickens. Colleges choose the best individuals, and that means the high school students fighting over slots have to do more than collaborate in Model UN—they have to compete.

KORSUNSKY: I will be the first to admit that I bought into it just as hard as everyone else. I am in five clubs, I'm in eight APs, and I am exhausted. I am so tired, and every single person I know like me feels the exact same way.

STRAUSS: If college were all about individual performance, this approach would be great for colleges seeking out the best and the brightest.

But, of course, college isn’t about individual performance. It’s about smart people working together to do research and create projects they couldn’t do by themselves. A college full of cooperative professors and students can produce great projects and research. A college full of people too focused on themselves to help those around them won’t produce much of anything.

And colleges care what their professors and students produce—in part because they’re competing with other colleges for things like breakthroughs and innovations, things that require teams.

So cooperation is the flip side of competition. Students have to be competitive to beat other students, but your college has to be full of cooperative people to beat other colleges.

But in a world where individuals are pitted against individuals, power dels, like superchickens, are chosen. And a lot of the time, they win not with great ideas or hard work, but by plucking everyone else's feathers. It makes us wonder, why do we keep picking them?

If picking top performers often fails, why is it so popular? Why do farmers choose chickens and colleges choose students this way? To get that answer, we’re going to drive east from the suburbs, until we can see the Chicago skyline.

For much of the 20th century, Sears was the largest retailer on the planet, pulling in billions of profits a year. In 1983, one in 30 Americans had worked for this company. It even built the Sears Tower in Chicago, the tallest building in the world at the time, as almost a monument to its glory.

But by the early 2000s, Sears was struggling–its sales were lagging behind Walmart, which had taken over as America’s biggest retailer. Kmart—then the second largest—acquired Sears and they merged to become the Sears Holdings Corporation. Billionaire hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert orchestrated the merger and later became CEO, and he adopted a bunch of new policies to spur on competition.

STEVE DENNIS (CONSULTANT): I mean, he took it to the extreme. He was all about numbers and analysis.

STRAUSS: That's Steve Dennis, a retail strategy and innovation consultant.

DENNIS: I joined Sears in 1991. I was there for about 12 years in a bunch of different roles; left there in 2003. And at that time I was the vice president of corporate strategy.

STRAUSS: As it turns out, Lampert came in with a philosophy that owed a lot to biology. You've probably heard of survival of the fittest. We live in a competitive world. All life has to compete over resources—food, space, promotions. The best survive and reproduce.

A lot of economists apply this to the business world with the idea of free-market competition. That's the idea that if everyone selfishly goes after what they want, the "invisible hand" of the market will choose the best of the best. The best businesses survive, benefiting the common good. David Sloan Wilson says trusting in the invisible hand has become a dominant philosophy in today's world.

WILSON: And for the last 70 years, we've just been immersed in this form of individualism, which treats the self-interested individual as the primary unit.

STRAUSS: So that's what Lampert was going for: survival of the fittest, even within his own business.

STRAUSS: Armed with this philosophy, Steve Dennis says Sears started practicing yank and rank—this business practice of firing its least productive—say, 10 percent or 20 percent—performing employees.

DENNIS: You come in with this financial engineering sort of approach and you say, well, look, I could just get rid of the least performing things, and the math tells me my productivity goes up.

STRAUSS: Steve says Sears didn't just cut out its lowest performing employees. It started adopting all these new policies designed to drive competition at every level of the business. He treated the different parts of the business—like appliances, apparel, consumer electronics—as completely different businesses. That meant that if the apparel department needed IT help, they'd have to draw up a contract with the IT department. Different units had to compete with each other over everything from inventory to advertising to floor space in the stores.

DENNIS: And in many cases, if you're creating this competition between stores and online, or you're creating competition between different merchandise categories, you can often just get into kind of intramural warfare.

STRAUSS: Bloomberg News reported in 2013 that the apparel division fired salespeople to cut costs, figuring the floor salespeople would have to deal with the slack. Marketing meetings turned into screaming matches, with each department demanding more ad space. Executives started bringing laptop protectors to meetings so their coworkers couldn't see their screens. Steve wasn't a fan.

DENNIS: Sort of pitting everybody against each other as if they were the competition, it's so fundamentally flawed, I don't even know what to say about it. I don't know any retailer that has done well that has adopted that. I mean, if all you said was let's look at the relationship between running your business that way and success, what you will find is—I'm pretty certain—zero correlation.

STRAUSS: In 2012, 24/7 Wall St. found that Sears was one of the U.S.’s worst companies to work for based on its negative reviews on job site Glassdoor. So, did all that competition save Sears? Steve says, not even close. Over the last 15 years, Sears closed thousands of stores. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2018. By the end of 2021, only 23 of Sears’s full department stores still remained.

DENNIS: I call it the world's slowest liquidation sale ‘cause it's, you know, taken 20-plus years to liquidate.

STRAUSS: So what went wrong here? I think you already know. Sears was turning itself into a company of superchickens. But Steve says a business is a team, and it needs members that actually work well together, not members that stab each other in the back. A company full of competitive people can’t beat a company full of cooperative people.

DENNIS: And what works for an individual often is to the detriment of the team.

STRAUSS: This actually goes beyond the employees. For instance, you might think it would be a good idea to just stop carrying the worst-selling products in a store, right? That’s what Sears did, except ...

DENNIS: That flies in the face of retailing 101, if that made sense, that approach, Home Depot wouldn't sell lumber. Most grocery stores wouldn't sell milk or diapers because they are notoriously poor profit on an item basis. But if you're smart, you understand that it's the mix that makes sense. So I get you in the store and don't make any money with one thing, and then I sell you nine things, which I make a lot of money on.

STRAUSS: That is really interesting that the actual items you have in a store are sort of like a metaphor for the people you have in a company. Like, If you just kind of focus everything on sort of rankings, whether it's profitability of like, the item or like, I guess the person, you kind of miss the whole mix of what the group can offer. Is that right?

DENNIS: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, not to be too philosophical about it, but I think you make a great point. It's not any one person on the team. You can't just have your Michael Jordan or your Steph Curry. It's the mix that is the thing, that is the magic.

STRAUSS: These policies weren’t the only factors driving Sears’s downfall. The business was facing tons of problems, like competition with online retailers. Still, Steve says Lampert pitting department against department, employee against employee, product against product added fuel to the flames. Sears actually ended up suing Lampert for allegedly siphoning billions from the company.

DENNIS: He served to make the demise of it much worse than it needed to be. I don't think that necessarily anybody could have resurrected that brand, but he absolutely did a number of demonstrably dumb things so, I don't get a Christmas card from him.

STRAUSS: Superchickens, cancer cells, power dels—they’ve got an awful lot in common. They’re all high-performing individuals that do great in one-on-one competitions but are terrible for teams that need cooperation.

And that’s tricky, because David Sloan Wilson says these different levels of competition and cooperation, they build on each other.

A selfish cell like a cancer might outcompete a regular cell, but a group of regular cells will do better than a group of cancer cells, creating a stronger person. But then, a selfish person might outcompete an altruistic person. But a group of altruistic people will beat a group of selfish people. And on and on. At each level, it makes sense to be selfish towards others at your level, but when you do that, you’re at a disadvantage for the next higher level.

WILSON: Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.

STRAUSS: So life at every level is constantly performing this balancing act between being competitive enough to win at its level while cooperative enough to win at the next higher level.

WILSON: So, I mean, the cancerous cell is good for itself, but that's bad for the organism. Self- preservation is a good thing until it leads to self-dealing. Family and friends are good things until it leads to nepotism and cronyism. My nation first is a good thing until it disrupts the world economy. Growing our economy is a good thing until it overheats the Earth.

STRAUSS: That's what's really interesting about this. It could apply to cells on the level of cancer, and it can apply to companies, right?

WILSON: That's right. These ideas are so general that they even apply to the origin of life, Ilana, and all of the major transitions in the complexity of life, such as the first cells, symbiotic communities of bacterial cells, multicellular organisms, the famous social insect colonies.

STRAUSS: So, what is a collection of cells to do? David says that instead of expecting invisible hands to reward selfishness, we ought to do the opposite: think of ourselves as part of a team and arrange society accordingly.

WILSON: Ultimately we need to basically have the largest unit in mind, which is the whole-Earth system.

STRAUSS: It seems kind of difficult though. Like, aren't we sort of evolved to pursue these lower level self interests more than to pursue these sort of global interests?

WILSON: No, Ilana. And so here's where I think everyone needs to learn about the true story of human evolution—human origins.

STRAUSS: Humans and chimps are close evolutionary cousins. Ninety-nine percent of our genes are the same.

WILSON: But naked aggression is a hundred times more frequent in a chimpanzee community than in a human community.

STRAUSS: A chimp bully can get what it wants by beating up other chimps.

WILSON: But in a human community, if somebody attempts to be a bully, or in any other way get things for themselves at the expense of the group, they are collectively opposed.

STRAUSS: Humans gossip about bullies. They make fun of them, team up against them, even send them to jail. Look at us, right now, making fun of all the superchickens in high school classrooms and corporate boardrooms.

Mia and Aarushi, for their part, seem to have figured a lot of this out. They say that back when the first joined Model UN, the upperclassmen leading their team were all about competition.

KORSUNSKY: And their priority was, how do we make the kids good? How do we make them bring home awards? And Aarushi and I have done our very hardest this year to shift away from that mentality. Because our team will always do well. We have great kids and are—you know, they're insanely smart. They know what they're doing, and they're well trained but also we don't care what you come home with. I don't care if you're on the bus with a trophy or a certificate or a tissue.

SHARMA: We don't want you to come to MUN and sit there for like another hour and a half and then freak out that, Oh my God, I have to compete this weekend. How do I win like, you know, best delegate, which is first place. We want them to like learn something new. We want them to become better speakers, better writers, better people just in general.

STRAUSS: In addition to being nicer, Mia and Aarushi have found that this approach might actually make their team better at Model UN. This year was one of the most competitive years they’ve ever had.

In part, that might be because they retain talent better this way. They said that when their team was all about winning, students who didn’t get top positions would figure the club wouldn’t be impressive on their college applications. So they’d just leave senior year.

SHARMA: But this year, we've seen a consistent number of seniors come to every single meeting, go to conferences, and like, mentor the kids around them. So it's been really nice.

STRAUSS: Having those seniors around means the club maintains its most experienced members, which is a huge benefit to any organization.

KORSUNSKY: I think that a lot of kids who I know who at this point would have quit are still here, and have told us that they're still here because our goal is for them to enjoy it rather than get discouraged by, you know, a lack of an award.

STRAUSS: Unlike a lot of other teams, Stevenson’s Model UN doesn’t make students try out, they just let everyone in. So they’re not getting the most polished students from the start, they’re getting the most passionate ones and creating an environment where people want to make each other better. And it’s working.

KORSUNSKY: I think it shows that you don't have to do either or. You don't have to just have fun, or win an award. When you are enjoying what you're doing and you genuinely care about it, naturally that success will come. And I think that's why, like, our team maintains a high ranking, or a high, you know, competitive streak because we have found the kids that do it because they want to, and they'll put in more time—they'll put in more effort, because that's the return for them. And then it doesn't have to be one or the other. They can find that passion and also find, you know, that trophy, if that's what's important to them at the end of the day.

STRAUSS: If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app.

Fuel your curiosity with a digital subscription to National Geographic. It gives you unlimited access to unique perspectives and stories published daily on science, history, animals, and more. Subscribe at natgeo.com/exploremore.

David Sloan Wilson’s theories on competition and cooperation go far beyond superchickens. Take a look at an article he wrote about rethinking economics on Evonomics.com, a website started by one of his former students. And David’s website is davidsloanwilson.world.

And if you were intrigued by Steve Dennis’s candid insights from the retail world, there’s a lot more where that came from. Check out his book, Remarkable Retail: How to Win and Keep Customers in the Age of Disruption, and his podcast, the Remarkable Retail Podcast.

And if you want more detail about what happened at Sears, a Bloomberg article has all the information you could possibly want on the subject.

Plus, Darwin wasn’t just confused about this one piece of evolution. The guy got a lot right, but there was a lot he didn’t know — like that some forms of life can actually trade genetic material. Take a look at our article that goes into that, and more.

Are you curious how technology is affecting evolution? We’ve got an article for you. It’s about how humans are using their own inventions to shape their evolution.

That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.


This week’s episode of Overheard is produced by me, Ilana Strauss.

Overheard’s producers include Khari Douglas.

Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Carla Wills is our manager of audio.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.

Ted Woods sound-designed and engineered this episode.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

And I’m your host, Ilana Strauss. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more?

David Sloan Wilson’s theories on competition and cooperation go far beyond superchickens. Take a look at an article he wrote about rethinking economics on Evonomics.com, a website started by one of his former students. And for more on his work, visit davidsloanwilson.world.

Plus, retail has been through a lot over the last 50 years. To learn more about that world from the inside, check out his book, Remarkable Retail: How to Win and Keep Customers in the Age of Disruption, and his podcast, the Remarkable Retail Podcast. And read a Bloomberg article that goes into detail about what happened at Sears.

Also explore:

Darwin transformed the world with his evolutionary theories. He also got a lot wrong. To learn how modern science is building on his work, see our article on the subject.

For subscribers:

Evolution hasn’t stopped, but it is changing. Discover how humans are using technology to shape their own evolution in our article.