CommentariesFocus Articles

The Blueprint of Multilevel Selection

A reply to Commentaries on Blueprint for the Global Village

As part of an ongoing study on social cooperation, using Norway as a case study on the benefits of “The Nordic Model,” we recently wrote an essay on the potential role of Norway as a “blueprint for the global village”. The point of departure for this essay was the classical paradigm of the balance between self-interest and cooperation (which of course still may be motivated by self-interest). At every rung of the ladder – from genes to communities – there is a potential conflict between the interests of the lower-level units and the welfare of the higher-level units. What’s good for me can be bad for my family. What’s good for my family can be bad for my village. This extends all the way up to what’s good for my nation can be bad for the global village. The question is whether the assumed social benefits of the village can operate at the national level and beyond. In our essay, we addressed both the obvious benefits of the social democracy and spirit of dugnad as generally perceived in Norway, but also the cases of national selfishness.

Another intention was to provoke a discussion on the topic. We are grateful for the stimulating set of commentaries and we especially value the diversity of the authors that have responded to our essay. Nina Witoszek and Lars Trägårdh are distinguished cultural historians. Peter Richerson and Peter Turchin are at the forefront of cultural multilevel selection theory. And Victor Hwang is in a class by himself, creatively applying evolutionary concepts to the study of innovation and entrepreneurship.

The commentators praise our thesis in some respects and appear to challenge it in others. We say “appear” because we agree with most of the challenging comments and see them as supplementary rather than contrary to our thesis. At the end of the day, there is still a blueprint for the global village based not on Norway or villages per se, but on a theory of multilevel selection that takes both genetic and cultural evolution into account. Being aware that the perfect society is a utopia, the issue is not to search for the non-existent perfect society, but to search for drivers towards better societies—and also to raise awareness of drivers toward worse societies with increased inequality, more individual or small-group selfishness, social injustice and reduced incentives for cooperation and mutualism, which ultimately leads to “tragedies of the commons” in myriad forms. This blueprint offers a better guide to action than social theories uninformed by evolution.

Here, we address some of the most important issues raised by the commentaries:

On the dangers of idealizing small groups: Witoszek and Trägårdh stress that village-sized groups have a dark side: the same monitoring that guards against cheating can also stifle creativity. Trägårdh provides a marvelous passage from Kant to delineate the concept of asocial sociability and the virtues of individuality in addition to cooperation. We do not wish to imply otherwise and Trägårdh’s phrase “egalitarians who value personal freedom and autonomy” is a perfect description of hunter-gatherer society, as described in detail by Christopher Boehm (1993, 1999, 2011), Jared Diamond (2013) and others.

Group selection favors any behavior or institution that causes groups to outcompete other groups. This includes, but is not restricted to, overtly cooperative behaviors. Basing status on reputation rather than coercive power channels self-interest to group-beneficial ends (Henrich and Gil-White 2001), as do other ways of aligning self- and group-interests (e.g., swarm intelligence; Rolling 2013). Individual innovation is good for the group insofar as the benefits of the innovation are shared. Many activities are performed best by individuals and working with others only gets in the way. Group decision-making processes often require a phase where individuals explore on their own and a phase where they compare their insights (Wilson 1997). Finally, a healthy dose of self-regard is required to resist unfair demands by other group members, often in the name of the group. For all of these reasons, we think that Kant’s depiction of asocial sociability is perfectly compatible with our multilevel perspective, and hence captures the essence of the inherent and intuitive dilemma we describe initially.

On conformity and innovation. Does enforcing cooperation invariably stifle creativity and innovation? Must small-scale society always be the valley of squinting windows? We think not. If creativity and innovation are recognized as valuable commodities, then they can become the norms of the group and stifling creativity becomes an act of cheating. This is not just a conjecture. In his book The Rainforest, Victor Hwang describes Silicon Valley and other successful entrepreneurial cultures as like human hunter-gatherer societies whose members are willing to help each other without insisting on narrow reciprocity (see also Adam Grant’s book Give and Take). People who don’t play by the cooperative rules are excluded or otherwise punished. The reason that efforts to create innovation zones often fail is because they fail to provide a freewheeling-yet-protected culture of cooperation.

If some cultures stifle innovation (at any scale) it might be that innovations are not very important in those cultures. There is a difference between being well-adapted to a given environment and being adaptable to environmental change. The latter requires a history of cultural evolution in highly variable environments. Many cultures evolved in socioecological environments that didn’t change much over the course of generations, placing a premium on sticking to the daily round of life. Hwang describes a similar transition in the life cycle of businesses, where an innovation stage is replaced by a production phase that stifles innovation. The bottom line is that if modern times call for cooperative innovative cultures that are well protected against exploitation, such a culture is within the realm of possibility.

On the challenges of higher-level adaptation. Peter Richerson is one of the main architects of cultural multilevel selection so it is important to show that his commentary does not challenge the fundamentals of our own account. To begin, group selection is a significant factor in the evolution of many single traits (crudely, whenever the group term of the Price equation is positive; Okasha 2006). Again it is worth stressing that multilevel selection by no means runs counter to self-oriented interests and mixed traits both among individuals within groups and groups per se. An outstanding example recently published in the journal Nature concerns the mix of aggressive and docile individuals in social spider colonies (Pruitt and Goodnight 2014). A major evolutionary transition involves the suppression of disruptive within-group selection for most traits. The rarity of major evolutionary transitions says little about the role of group selection in the evolution single traits.

Other points stressed by Richerson, building on the early insights of Darwin, are that warfare was an important agent of cultural evolution in the past and that the challenges of creating a globally cooperative society are daunting. We agree but we don’t see anything in his commentary that challenges our account of what is needed. One point to make is that direct intergroup conflict is not the only agent of group-level selection, so its importance in the past says little about its necessity in the future. Clearly, we need to rely on other forms of group selection such as imitating success and the deliberative selection of policies informed by theory and experiment.

Is the Nordic Model replicable? All of the commentators stressed that cultures are products of history and what works for one cannot necessarily be transplanted to another. We agree, but still believe that the village model covers some important cultural universals. We also believe that multilevel selection theory is rooted in evolutionary and cultural universals and thus insightful on this topic, which also bears upon Trägårdh’s distinction between the universal and the particular. Still, there are obvious attributes of the Norwegian economy, social organization and homogeneity that hardly or never can be transmitted to other nations or beyond the national level, but which nevertheless may serve as guidelines of better societies.

What’s universal is the functional design principles required to coordinate appropriate action and to suppress self-serving behaviors within the group. What’s particular to Norway is its implementation of those principles at a national scale, due as much to the vagaries of history as to intentional planning. It pays to examine a successful case study in detail to see what might be transferrable, but it also pays to realize that any particular design principle can be implemented in many ways. If the Nordic model doesn’t work, some other model or home-grown solution might. For this reason, it is superficial to point to a given feature such as ethnic homogeneity as an essential ingredient, although it is fairly obvious that in the case of poor integration, increased ethnic (or, rather, cultural) heterogeneity could cause a withering of the societal identity and coherence from within. A strong group identity is the functional design principle. Ethnic homogeneity might make this principle relatively easy to achieve, but it isn’t required, as cases such as Switzerland and the United States during its more egalitarian periods discussed by Turchin attest.

All of this calls to mind the work of Elinor Ostrom on groups that attempt to manage common-pool resources (Ostrom 1990, 2010; Wilson, Ostrom and Cox 2013), and this is a core issue from our perspective. At first, she tried to correlate specific institutional arrangements of the groups with their ability to manage their resources, with little success. Only when she grouped the arrangements into functional categories (such as “monitoring” and “graduated sanctions”) could she make sense of her data. The reason is obvious in retrospect: if there are many ways to monitor (for example), then correlating only one of the ways with group success will yield low correlations. The same distinction between functional design categories and their many possible implementations needs to be made at a national scale. This distinction underscores the major theme of our target article, which is that the principles of multilevel selection apply at all scales. In the end, coping with, or overcoming the tragedy of the commons is not only the ultimate challenge for societies in a cultural context, but also when it comes to environmental issues. For example, global warming is a tragedy of the commons from the individual up to the group level (nations), the latter best exemplified by the slow progress in reducing CO2 emissions.

What is a group? Almost 40 years ago, one of us coined the term “trait-group” (Wilson 1975), defined as the set of individuals that influence each other’s fitness with respect to a given trait. The trait-group for a warning call (other individuals within earshot) can be different than the trait-group for resource conservation (other individuals drawing upon the same resource) even within a single species. A trait-group can be physically bounded and visible to the naked eye (such as caterpillars feeding on a leaf) or physically dispersed (such as mobile individuals communicating from a distance). Hwang makes some of the same points for human social interactions and we love his term “flash village” to refer to people who behave like villagers, no matter how dispersed or for what duration. Spatial proximity will probably always be important but electronic communication enables social interactions among physically dispersed individuals and organizations more easily than ever before. As Hwang notes, it is theoretically possible for social control mechanisms to evolve in a bottom up fashion without the involvement of formal institutions such as governments. After all, that is how social control takes place within villages. We speculated along the same lines in our discussion of corporations that must earn their reputations in the same way as individuals in villages, as long as mechanisms that implement the core design principles are in place.

On cancerous ideologies. The iron law of multilevel selection is, “adaptation at level X requires a process of selection at that level and tends to be undermined by selection at lower levels.” It follows that in a multi-tier human social hierarchy, “cancers” that benefit lower-level units but undermine higher-level units are an ever-present danger. Even in cases where the higher-level solution is an evolutionary stable strategy (e.g., locally stable), it can still be destabilized by being knocked out of its basin of attraction. We must be vigilant about preventing, detecting, and removing cancers for the body politic no less than our own bodies.

A cancerous ideology can only be identified by its effects on the welfare of the body politic, not by the claims of the ideology. Most ideologies are framed in ways that seem to promote the common good, so that their proponents feel morally justified and even impassioned. Alan Greenspan, who helped to implement free market policies in the US as chair of the Federal Reserve Board, was by all accounts a good person who thought that he was doing the right thing. During the widely reported congressional hearing that followed the 2008 financial crisis, he was genuinely dumbfounded that the policies he helped to implement led to such disastrous results: “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.”

Turchin worries that neoliberal policies implemented in the US and UK during the Reagan and Thatcher administrations were cancerous in those countries and are now metastasizing throughout the world, threatening to undermine the comparatively well-functioning body politics of the Nordic countries. We also spoke to the same concern at the end of our target article.

What to do? One step is to recognize that “ideologies extolling individualism, competition, untrammeled free markets, and conversely, disparaging cooperation and equality” (as Turchin puts it) have no scientific justification. An unregulated organism is a dead organism, for the body politic no less than our own bodies. It is also true that regulations are like mutations—for every one that is beneficial, there are many that are deleterious. Multilevel selection theory and examples of body politics that work at all scales serve as useful guides. Our challenge is to winnow the regulations that work from the many that don’t work, and to contribute to a discussion on this from novel angles – which hereby is done.

Literature Cited

Boehm, C. (1993). Egalitarian society and reverse dominance hierarchy. Current Anthropology, 34, 227–254.

Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the Forest: Egalitarianism and the Evolution of Human Altruism. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Boehm, C. (2011). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. New York: Basic Books.

Diamond, J. (2013). The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? New York: Penguin.

Henrich, J., & Gil-White, F. J. (2001). The evolution of prestige: freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22(3), 165–196. doi:10.1016/S1090-5138(00)00071-4

Rolling, J. H. (2013). Swarm Intelligence: What Nature Teaches Us About Shaping Creative Leadership. New York: Palgrave.

Hwang, V., & Horowitt, G. (2012). The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley. Regenwald.

Okasha, S. (2006). Evolution and the levels of selection. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The Evolution of institutions for collective Action. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ostrom, E. (2010). Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. American Economic Review, 100, 1–33.

Pruitt, J. N., & Goodnight, C. J. (2014). Site-specific group selection drives locally adapted group compositions. Nature, 514(7522), 359–362. doi:10.1038/nature13811

Wilson, D. S. (1975). A theory of group selection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 72, 143–146.

Wilson, D. S. (1997). Incorporating group selection into the adaptationist program: a case study involving human decision making. In J. Simpson & D. Kendricks (Eds.), Evolutionary social psychology (pp. 345–386). Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Wilson, D. S., Ostrom, E., & Cox, M. E. (2013). Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 90, S21–S32. doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2012.12.010

Published On: October 31, 2014

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.

Dag Olav Hessen

Dag Olav Hessen

Main scientific interests and areas

  • Stoichiometric principles from genes to ecosystems. I.e. how elements like carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus and elemental ratios regulates RNA-content, RNA:DNA-ratios and growth rates in organisms, trophic transfer efficiency in food webs and biogeochemical cycling of these key elements. Starting off from the favourite lab pet Daphnia, these studies now include various taxa (C. elegans, Drosophila, Collembola, rotifers)
  • Genome size evolution in organisms and the link between genome size, growth and metabolism accross phyla.
  • Carbon flux and sequestration in individuals and ecosystems, linked with stoichiometry and climate change.
  • UV-radiation, ozone depletion and effects on alpine and Arctic ecosystems.
  • The role of polyploidy (multiple chromosome copies) for life cycle strategies, genetic diversity and speciation.
  • Patterns and causes of species diversity within lakes, focussing phyto- and zooplankton.
  • Ecology and evolutionary biology in general, environmental issues and the philosophical implications of biology in general and evolutionary aspects in particular.

For master students, PhDs and post.docs: There are possibilities for interesting topics of research and ongoing projects, both at various field sites (including the high Arctic), lab experiments and more theoretical studies  and lab experiments. My work is mostly performed at Biological Institute at University of Oslo, where I am affiliated as core member at Center for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (http://www.cees.no/). A general presentation of my research group and activities is given at: http://www.bio.uio.no/akv/ansatte/biografi/hessen_Dag.html.

For those with their interest devoted to science, an updated (more or less) list of books, publications and some more general scientific writings and merits are given in my CV.

News, comments and current topics (a semi-blog, including some recent writings, popular stuff and media, mostly in Norwegian): look here


  • Why pick Norway? On various measures (such as the UN’s Human Development Index), Australia is every bit as successful a country, while being both larger in population and much more ethnically mixed. So, on the face of it, a rather more replicable example.

    Also, there is a difference between cooperation and coordination. To the extent that “neoliberal” is a useful analytical category (which is not very), it is much more about limitations in the role and capacity of the state as a coordination mechanism than the value of cooperation.

    This is where ethnic heterogeneity matters–the more ethnically homogeneous the society, the easier it is to have a larger state operate effectively; the more ethnically diverse the society, the harder it is to do so. For reasons to do with difficulties in communication, trust, common preferences, common understandings, etc. All of which matter in coordination.

    As for “cancerous ideologies”, in a world where various versions of Islam are busy re-imposing slavery, massacring those who believe differently, and trying to implement a thoroughly hierarchical social structure (where male believers dominate women and non-believers), surely such jihadism is a far more potently “cancerous” ideology than the neoliberal bogey.

    This is relevant to, for example, Norway, since problems in the integration of second-generation Muslim males are clearly an issue across Europe. For example, in employment

    That “neoliberal” UK does notably better than France in integrating second generation migrants into its labour market points to the difference between cooperation and coordination. As does liberal cities in the US being rather worse at providing affordable housing:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/10/why-are-liberal-cities-so-unaffordable/382045/ Helping to generate a flight of Africa-Americans:

  • Concom says:

    Fascinating topic indeed, but some critical details of this blueprint remain quite blurry.

    1. Does the “Global Village” require a “Global Town”?
    If so, what is blueprint for “Global Town”? What kind relations between both are suggested? And more importantly, who will became “villagers” and who “townspeople”?
    If no, what will prevent the “villagers” from “urbanization” (gaining control under other communities)?

    2. The same kind of ambiguity can be address to using the terms “inequality” and “Nordic model”. For instance, both Norway and Denmark have quite similar distribution of income (gini o.26 and 0.24), but strikingly different distribution of wealth (gini o.63 and 0.81 accordingly). Note that Norway is one of the most equal (in distribution of wealth) countries, while Denmark is one of the champions in wealth inequality (even ahead of the US). It seems that there is not general “Nordic model” as well as “one-dimensional” definition of inequality.
    So, “getting to Denmark” (as Fukuyama insisted) and “getting to Norway” are two somehow opposite directions. First one supposes that super powerful elite treats the rest of population equally well nourish, while second one presumes some grass-rooted power sharing mechanism at community level.
    When the Norwegian case is presented as a special case of the Nordic model, it becomes unclear which particular mechanism of the balance between self-interest and cooperation is meant.

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