The hardest thing for a fish to see is water. This adage aptly expresses the difficulty we have understanding our own cultures. We spot the foibles of other cultures–even our own cultures in the past–but are blind to our current foibles.

What is the water of our current culture, which we can scarcely see? Individualism, the unquestioned assumption that the individual person is a fundamental unit and that all things social can only be understood in terms of individual thought, preferences, and action. Individualism exists in a number of forms, which tellingly are not always consistent with each other. In economics, it takes the form of Homo economicus, a fictional being who cares only about maximizing his personal “utility”, which is uninfluenced by anyone else’s preferences. In the social sciences it is called Methodological Individualism. In my own field of evolutionary biology, it is called the Theory of Individual Selection and Selfish Genes. In everyday life, it is captured by former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that “There is no such thing as society; only individuals and families”.

Even the concept of mindfulness, derived in large part from Buddhist and other contemplative traditions, ironically can succumb to the assumptions of individualism, as if the main goal is for the individual to achieve peace of mind, with scant attention to what this might mean in terms of social action.

Our culture was not always this way and also is not homogenous in the present. A hundred years ago, society was conceptualized as something in its own right that couldn’t be reduced to individual psychology or biology. Often that “something” was described as itself an organism, which made individuals part of something larger than themselves. The concept of society as an organism stretches back to antiquity in religious and political thought and is represented by words and phrases such as corporation (derived from the Latin for ‘body’) and the body politic. In fact, it was so common and unquestioned that it was the water that our predecessors couldn’t see. When it was questioned in the middle of the 20th Century, it was largely rejected as too axiomatic, as if all aspects of all societies must always have an organ-like function, with little scope for individual agency. It was the rejection of organicist views of society that led to our current Age of Individualism. The word “largely” is important because social histories are not as clear cut as I am able to relate in a short essay. The roots of individualism stretch back centuries and the concept of society of organism persists here and there to the present.

Is our culture destined to swing back and forth, like a pendulum, between organicist and reductionistic views of society? No. Advances in evolutionary science have reached a new plateau of understanding that is permanent and provides a foundation for improving well-being at all scales, from individuals to the planet.

To begin, it is important to distinguish between two kinds of causation, which evolutionists call proximate and ultimate. Proximate causation refers to the material basis of life and its study is reductionistic. Not only does proximate causation reduce societies to their individual members, but it reduces individuals to their cells, genes, and molecules. There is nothing privileged about the individual organism as far as proximate causation is concerned.

Ultimate causation refers to the environmental forces that shape the properties of organisms by the process of selection—artificial selection in the case of domesticated plants and animals and natural selection in the case of all other species (even domesticated animals are shaped by natural in addition to artificial selection). When a poultry breeder selects individual hens to produce as many eggs as possible, the hen becomes an egg laying machine and the parts of the hen, right down to its molecules, become coordinated to achieve that end. The hens might interact in groups, but those social interactions will be byproducts of how they were selected to lay eggs as individuals. In other words, even though hens can be studied from molecules to society, the individual hen becomes a privileged unit as far as ultimate causation is concerned because it is the unit of functional organization. Realizing this is essential for studying everything both below and above the individual level.

But this is only because the individual was the unit of selection. Imagine what would happen if poultry breeders decided to select whole groups of hens to produce as many eggs as possible. Now their social interactions would be shaped by artificial selection, in addition to their individual physiologies. The social group would become the unit of functional organization and therefore the privileged unit of analysis as far as ultimate causation is concerned. The actions of individuals could be understood only in terms of their contribution to the common good, defined by the poultry breeder as the total number of eggs.

These two artificial selection experiments are not hypothetical. Both have been conducted and resulted in very different outcomes. The individual egg-laying machines that resulted from the first experiment achieved their productivity in large part by suppressing the productivity of other hens. That’s not what the poultry breeders had in mind, but it is what resulted from selecting at the individual level and led to a collective decline in productivity. The group egg-laying machines that resulted from the second experiment resulted in sociable hens who didn’t interfere with each other. Needless to say, poultry breeders learned from these experiments to select hens at the group level, which is where the eggs in your refrigerator come from.

This example is fascinating in its own right but has broader significance for our discussion of individualism and its alternatives. Privileging a given unit, such as an individual or a group, need not be axiomatic. There are principled reasons for deciding whether a given unit qualifies as a unit of functional organization on a case-by-case basis. It all depends upon whether it was a unit of selection.

Combine this insight with the fact that natural selection takes place at multiple levels throughout nature. That everything we call an organism is a highly cooperative group that evolved by group-level selection. That the eusocial insects (ants, bees, wasps, and termites), famed for their collective efficacy, qualify as superorganisms because they evolved by colony-level selection; that humans are largely (although by no means entirely) a product of group-level selection, first at the scale of small groups throughout our genetic evolution and then at the scale of ever-larger groups during the last ten thousand years of cultural evolution. That all of the fast-paced changes currently swirling around us and even within us, as evolvable entities, can be understood in terms of multilevel selection. That knowing this, we can begin to manage the cultural evolutionary process to achieve cooperation at the global scale.

Welcome to the Post-individualism Age.


This article was originally posted on the Rebuilding Macroeconomics website. This article was written in connection with the project “Managed Evolution: A New Narrative for Macroeconomics” which has been generously funded by Rebuilding Macroeconomics and the Economic and Social Research Council (UK). 

Published On: December 22, 2019

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.


  • Steve Davis says:

    Individualism as a school of thought, or as a world-view, or as an ideal, can only develop in a society in which a privileged elite class has established itself, a class in which individuals can reach adulthood without having to interact with society as a whole.

    In other words, it has no basis in reality.

    I trace its origins to the Norman invasion of Britain, where such an elite class was established overnight, but with the added distinction of being foreign, and seeing themselves as separate from society.

    It first took written form in the works of Hobbes, but did not gain political ascendancy until the Thatcher era, with the victory of neo-liberalism and free market economics.

    The free-marketeers redefined economics, (formerly the study of the production and distribution of goods and services,) as the study of scarcity.
    By redefining economics as the study of scarcity, it immediately became the study of the maximisation of economic security, a search for the unattainable, for an illusion, for a wild imaginary ideal more closely aligned to insanity than reality. That insanity is clearly seen in the foundation articles of free-market ideology that competition will bring benefits to all and that free market democracy is so far above criticism that it must and will be imposed by force on those who resist it. Such thinking has obvious major flaws, but one perhaps a little less obvious is that we do not gain security by making the lives of others more dangerous or more difficult, quite the opposite. Yet that is what is practised when economics is the study of scarcity; for to put it in its crudest terms, economics then becomes the creed of “get what you can while you can,” in other words, how to maximise your enemies.
    Now if we do not gain security by making the lives of others more dangerous and difficult then the corollary of that is that we can gain security by making the lives of others less dangerous and difficult, in short, by cooperation. A realistic and productive view of economics therefore, is that it should be the study of the maximisation of the benefits of cooperative behaviour and of the structures that facilitate such behaviour.

  • Current economic theory is predicated on social power being fungible, and able to be purchased with material wealth. The plutocrats are not really striving to get ‘material wealth’, they are striving to get ‘social power’. Because with ‘social power’, they can get anything they want.

    Social power, like ‘territory’ is zero-sum. Social status is simply an ordered ranking of individuals in a social hierarchy. The only way to move up, is for others to be moved down.

    If a zero-sum material is to be acquired by exchanging it for ‘something’, that ‘something’ must also be zero-sum. That is why the plutocrats are striving to acquire every last penny of wealth that the economy creates. They need/want wealth to be zero-sum, because only if wealth generation is zero-sum can wealth be used to acquire what they really want, social power (which is a true zero-sum material).

    This is the lesson of the ‘mean chickens’. When chickens compete against each other, the easiest way to ‘be successful’, is by bringing down your competitors. Make the competition zero-sum, and the result will be driven by what ever is the easiest way to ‘win’ the zero-sum competition.

    Bringing your opponents down is trivially easier than improving yourself until you are are better than your opponents.

    Group selection prevents those engaged in a zero-sum competition from prospering more than those engaged in a positive sum cooperation.

    If those engaged in a zero-sum competition are allowed to prosper more than those engaged in positive sum cooperation, that is how human society will end up.

    Just like the mean chickens.

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