She tells of a radical fringe of scientists who are realizing that natural selection isn’t individual, but mutual—that species only survive if they learn to be in community.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

The notion of life as a competitive game found its way into the science of biology by interpreting Darwin’s theory of evolution through the cultural lens of capitalism. The complementary perspective of life and evolution as a cooperative game as described by Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902) was largely ignored in “developed” capitalist societies throughout most of the 20th century.

In the capitalist narrative the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic success of China following Mao’s death are interpreted as evidence for the superiority of capitalism and market based competition over other forms of organising economic activity. In the Western “developed” world, capitalist ideology developed a symbiotic relationship with the science of evolutionary biology, culminating in books such as ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins in 1975 and in the hyper-competitive interpretations of human nature that are baked into neoliberal ideology.

For many years evolutionary biologists such as E.O Wilson (sometimes referred to as the father of sociobiology and the father of biodiversity), Elisabet Sahtouris, and David Sloan Wilson (2018 and 2019), who where exploring alternative framings and complementary aspects of biological evolution, such as cooperation in the evolution of social species, multi-level selection theory, and gene-culture co-evolution, did not receive much attention.

Only in the last 20 years have the cooperative aspect of evolution and multi-level selection theory been more widely recognised as a valid theoretical framework for evolution in general, including in the context of gene-culture co-evolution.

In parallel with the growing awareness of the role of cooperation in evolution, critical views of capitalism have become part of the allowable sphere of academic and political discourse in Western “developed” societies, whilst in the “real” world of corporate busyness the competitive view of economic life still dominates.

Even though Western science likes to think of itself as ideology neutral, it is not immune to ideological influence. The Western scientific worldview continues to be plagued by artificial discipline boundaries that slow down the process of transdisciplinary knowledge transfer and the discovery of new insights that remain hidden in the deep chasms between established disciplines.

The ideological influence in Western science is visible in metrics of academic success such as the number of publications in journals and various journal ranking schemes. Academics have to conform to predetermined criteria of success and productivity if they want to climb the career ladder in universities and research institutions that are run as profit generating busynesses, especially in countries that have fully embraced the neoliberal ideology.

Elisabet Sahtouris (2011; Sahtouris and Wahl 2020) provides us with a good introduction to a broader and more inclusive framing of evolutionary theory, which also acknowledges the value of insights that are part of alternative non-Western frameworks of knowledge and reasoning.

The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations

When applying multi-level group selection theory of evolution (MLS) to human societies that are driven as much by culture (social norms) as by genetic biological programmes, the most relevant subjects of evolution are social groups at various levels of scale (This View of Life 2017).

The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations

Cultural evolution allows human society to evolve much faster than the speed of genetic evolution, which is constrained by the interval between generations. However, within any given society, the vast majority of people only experience a very limited sense of individual agency. Gene-culture co-evolution has led to a mix of capabilities in a group where: ​

  1. The beliefs and behaviours of the vast majority of people are shaped by cultural transmission from the people around them – the majority of people primarily learn by imitation.
  2. ​​A minority of atypical people is much less influenced by cultural transmission – this minority learns by consciously observing the human and non-human environment, and then drawing inferences that form the basis of beliefs and behaviours.

The extremely important role that culture has played and still plays in human evolution represents a transformational change in the mechanisms available to evolution – it is a major step in the evolution of evolution, comparable to less than two handful of other major steps such as the emergence of the first cells, the emergence of multi-celled life forms, the emergence of sexual reproduction, etc.

The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson observes that small groups are the organisms of human societies. This should provide all of us with food for thought and it has massive implications for the gene-culture co-evolution that characterises our species.

The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations

But emergence shows us that adaptation and evolution depend more upon critical, deep, and authentic connections, a thread that can be tugged for support and resilience. The quality of connection between the nodes in the patterns.

Dare I say love.

And we know how to connect—we long for it.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Collaborative niche construction allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and results in resilient social ecosystems.

The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations

An evolutionary approach to co-design frames the activity of design as collaborative niche construction. Evolutionary co-design entails elements that correspond to core elements of modern evolutionary theory, i.e. selection, variation, replication, and sustaining: ​​

  1. experimentation with variations of the system under design (small trials, parallel experiments), to confirm which variants are useful and needed in which (niche) contexts ​
  2. selection of common features that genuinely benefit multiple agents and making them available in the form of best practices and power tools, but without imposing universal standardisation (monoculture) on everyone
  3. ​​replication, i.e. assisting rapid widespread adoption of best practices via suitable power tools, this maximises the benefits of standardisation for those who elect to opt in to a new standard ​​
  4. sustaining the provision of services and quality of service by continuously monitoring feedback

These four categories represent an evolutionary lens (Bettin 2020), a modelling language for collaborative niche construction. Evolutionary co-design allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into the living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems.

The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations

Scientists now say that niche construction may be every bit as important for survival as natural selection (Lewontin, 2010; Odling-Smee, Laland, & Feldman, 2003).

Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life

Though you might be used to thinking about evolution in terms of biology, evolutionary principles can just as easily be applied to thinking about changes in behavior, language, and culture. Indeed, we believe that evolution must be at the center of thinking about behavioral and cultural change in order for us to step up to the challenges the modern world gives us. Unless we become “wise managers of evolutionary processes,” social evolution might well take us where we do not want to go.

Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups

Fast-forwarding to the present, Darwin’s insight has grown into a sophisticated and empirically supported approach to evolution called multilevel selection (MLS) theory, which we’ll now briefly explore. Our aim is to help you see the world through the lens of continuous and simultaneous evolution that’s occurring at multiple levels. Once you see life in that way, you’ll be much better equipped to understand how the principles we introduce later can enhance group functioning at any level.

MLS theory can be summarized in terms of the following tenets:

  1. Social behaviors are almost invariably expressed among sets of individuals (groups) that are small compared to the total evolving population. Thus, almost all evolving populations are multigroup populations. One religious group may be prospering, another shrinking; one business is growing, another is going bankrupt. The groups form, dissolve, and are connected to each other in diverse ways in different populations.
  2. As a basic matter of tradeoffs, behaviors that are for the good of the group often have costs for the individual doing the behaving, and therefore they seldom improve the relative fitness of the individual within the group. Even the smallest acts of kindness, such as opening a door for someone, typically require at least a small amount of time, energy, and risk on the part of the prosocial individual. These costs are amplified with more substantial acts, such as helping others develop skills, creating social events, or consoling someone who is upset. This makes natural selection at the smallest scale—among individuals within a single group—primarily disruptive as far as prosociality is concerned.
  3. Because of the first two tenets, between-group selection—a process by which certain groups prove themselves fitter than others in the context of their environments—is typically required in order for prosocial behaviors to evolve. Furthermore, between-group selection must be strong enough to oppose the disruptive effects of within-group selection. Said another way, cooperation and prosociality are selected for because they benefit the group that’s competing with other groups more than they hurt the individual who’s competing with other individuals within the same group. Multilevel selection is like a tug-of-war, with within-group selection pulling toward self-serving traits and between-group selection pulling toward group-serving traits. This is why we see a mix of prosocial and disruptive self-serving behaviors in human life and why—with sufficient know-how—we can tilt the playing field in the direction of prosocial behaviors.
  4. What we have shown for two levels of selection—between individuals within groups and between groups within multigroup populations—can be extended to all levels of selection. Extending the hierarchy downward, a single multicellular organism is a group of cells and genes. Extending the hierarchy upward, single species are embedded in multispecies ecosystems in the biological world. At every rung of this multitier hierarchy, the logic of within- and between-group selection repeats itself. In human terms, what’s good for you can be bad for your family. What’s good for your family can be bad for your clan. What’s good for your clan can be bad for your nation. What’s good for your nation can be bad for the world. The general rule is this: adaptation at any level of a multitier hierarchy requires a process of selection at that level—and it tends to be undermined by selection at lower levels. Or, as David, one of this book’s authors, concluded in an article written with Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”
Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups

Once culture gets off the ground, it enables adaptation to new niches, situations, climates, and ecologies in a vastly more efficient way than can be achieved by ordinary natural selection. Societies with culture, and thus the individuals constituting them, can adapt quickly to changed circumstances of any kind, taking advantage of new opportunities and avoiding threats to their way of life, without waiting for the cumbersome process of natural selection to do its work.

Mixed Messages: Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Human Society

Evolution by natural selection achieves fitness only through a very inefficient process that does not involve foresight, an ability to plan, an ability to remember and thereby learn from past experience, an ability to survey the environment and decide what changes are likely to prove beneficial and then put them into effect, or an ability to utilize feedback from the environment via conscious trial and error or other experimental methods-in short, an ability to set goals, recognize or invent what needs to be done to achieve them, and do it.

Put in this way, it seems obvious that an organism that was in fact able to do all these things in the course of its phenotypic life would be able to run evolutionary rings around almost any competitor that lacked such abilities. While I do not speculate about how or when in evolutionary time these capacities emerged, it is self evident that the genome of Homo sapiens did develop such capacities, just as it developed the human ability to cooperate effectively in groups. So the next question is, how does culture make these feats possible?

An answer offered by dual inheritance theorists is that humans’ enormous capacity for social learning enables adaptive information to be passed from one generation to the next, and that the human brain has evolved under natural selection to allow learners of culture to model their own actions on those of already enculturated “teachers” (though without the implication that they necessarily “teach” in any self conscious or explicit way).

Mixed Messages: Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Human Society

Evolution now includes niche construction, as well as natural selection, as a second inheritance system: ecological inheritance as well as genetic inheritance.
An ecological inheritance implies it’s the inheritance by descendant organisms of selection pressures previously changed by ancestors.

How niche construction affects inheritance systems in human evolution | University of Oxford Podcasts

It is reckless to suppose that biodiversity can be diminished indefinitely without threatening humanity itself. Field studies show that as biodiversity is reduced, so is the quality of the services provided by ecosystems. Records of stressed ecosystems also demonstrate that the descent can be unpredictably abrupt.

 E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation » The Diversity of Life

Every one knows that change is inevitable. From the second law of thermodynamics to Darwinian evolution, from Buddhism’s insistence that nothing is permanent and all suffering results from our delusions of permanence to the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (“To everything there is a season”), change is part of life, of existence, of the common wisdom. But I don’t believe we’re dealing with all that that means. We haven’t even begun to deal with it.

Parable of the Sower (Parable, 1)

Connecting humanity with other species in a single process was Darwin’s great natural historical accomplishment. It showed that some of the issues relegated to religion really come under the purview of science. More than just a research program for technoscience, it provides a eureka moment, a subject of contemplation open in principle to all thinking minds. Beyond the squabbles over its mechanisms and modes, evolution’s epiphany derives from its widening of vistas, its showing of the depths of our connections to others from whom we’d thought we were separate. Philosophy, too … in its ancient, scientifico-genic spirit of inquiry so different from a mere, let alone peevish, recounting of facts, needs to be reconnected to science for the latter to fulfill its potential not just as something useful but as a source of numinous moments, deep understanding, and indeed, religious-like epiphanies of cosmic comprehension and aesthetic contemplation.

Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science

The extreme loss of biodiversity that characterises the Anthropocene should be a warning, as it highlights the extent of human ignorance regarding the knowledge and intelligence that evolution has produced over a period of several billion years.

The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations

Further reading,