Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, as distilled in popular culture, holds that individual humans are brutally selfish as they struggle to triumph in a nasty world of scarcity and competition. Life is supposedly an epic “survival of the fittest,” an idea ratified by the premises of conventional economics and its notion of homo economicus and scientist Richard Dawkins’ famous theory of the “selfish gene.”
But many scientists are rewriting this story based on their own empirical studies of life, which reveal the powerful role of cooperation in evolution. David Sloan Wilson, the renowned evolutionary biologist and scholar of cooperation, is a prominent proponent of “mullti-level selection,” the idea that natural selection doesn’t occur only at the level of genes and individuals, but among groups and even ecosystems.
Evolution is not just a matter of competition among individual organisms, he and other scientists argue. It’s also about cooperation within groups and how groups of cooperators enjoy evolutionary advantages over groups consumed by internal competition.
“A group of cooperators can robustly out-compete a group whose members cannot cohere,” said Wilson. In a famous essay co-authored with biologist E.O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson offers a concise summary of this idea: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”
In my latest episode of Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #32), I explore with David Sloan Wilson some of the insights that evolutionary science reveal about cooperation and other prosocial behaviors.
Wilson is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences and Anthropology at the State University of New York, Binghamton. Throughout his long and distinguished career, he has brought the discoveries of anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and religion to evolutionary theory, giving his popularly accessible books a transdisciplinary vigor.
In 2009, when Wilson encountered Elinor Ostrom’s scholarship on the commons, he realized that her eight design principles for successful commons have a lot to say about the cultural evolution of humanity. Wilson worked briefly with Ostrom until her death in 2012, and has continued to explore how “prosocial behaviors” (as he calls them) can prevail over competition within groups and spur more effective levels of evolutionary development.
The debate between scientists about how exactly natural selection works – at the individual level or group level, among other levels – is something of pivot point in the field.
“If most antisocial behaviors are locally advantageous,” writes Wilson, “and most prosocial behaviors are locally disadvantageous, then we have an enormous problem explaining the nature of prosociality, including the nature of human morality, from an evolutionary perspective.”
Wilson has doggedly set about addressing this question in a number of books, including Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (1999) and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others (2016).
Far from being a cloistered theorist, Wilson remains active in exploring how evolutionary thinking can be applied to real-world circumstances. His book, The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time, deals with cooperative improvement in urban settings.
More recently, Wilson published Prosocial to explain how members of groups can work to align their interests and achieve shared goals. Its subtitle: “Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups.” (His coauthors are Paul W.B. Atkins and Steven C. Hayes.)
Wilson continues to spread the word through Prosocial World, a nonprofit that he cofounded and for which he edits an online magazine, “This View of Life.” Recently, he has even ventured into writing fiction, with his recent book Atlas Hugged — a response to Ayn Rand’s classic novel celebrating libertarianism, Atlas Shrugged.
In trying to understand human behavior, Wilson leans into the actual diversity of humankind rather than trying to assert a single model. In our interview, he cited the acronym WEIRD, which stands for “Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic,” a term popularized by Harvard evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich.
“Virtually all scholarship and science take place in WEIRD societies,” said Wilson. “And so we’ve been mistaking our culture for human nature…. We have to actually comprehend cultural diversity. How do these other cultures think, especially Indigenous cultures?”
You can listen to my interview with David Sloan Wilson here.
Teaser photo credit: Ants build their-body bridge to cross the big canyon The canyon was to big to cross it by one ant. Group of insects (2 dosens) start building two horison bodyes pyramids on both canyon walls. Finally bridge is ready.. The photos were taken by author in wild rain-forest with couple of small barns surrounded by trees. Thailand, around Chiang Mai, Mai Clang waterfall. Date December 2015.. By Igor Chuxlancev – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78185678