This is the first in a series of interviews about the theory of Major Evolutionary Transitions. It’s part of a larger documentary film project on that topic that I’m developing with David Sloan Wilson. The premise is that humanity is undergoing a major evolutionary transition and that the changes taking place in society can be best understood in light of these transformative events.
Embedded further down in this article are several short video clips from a recent conversation with David. Our discussion took place while we were working on a video for Prosocial, a practical framework for managing cultural evolution at all scales. Why do I bring that up here? Simply this: Prosocial’s mission, though it doesn’t state this explicitly, is to help our modern major transition take place.
I’ve been producing documentaries about environmental issues for much of my career, with the goal of encouraging positive change. However, making environmental documentaries almost always involves covering conflict. Focusing on conflict, while it makes a good story, rarely moves issues forward in a positive way. So I’ve focused on science instead.
To me, science is the best source of accurate and reliable information on which all sides might agree—but only if all sides are open to considering the evidence objectively. When people can come to agreement on underlying facts, it’s easier to perceive where their interests intersect. When people discover shared interests, its easier for them to find new ways to cooperate. A film I made a few years ago, Seeing the Forest, is about just such an event.
The story is told in detail in the article and video at that link. But briefly, three factions—the timber industry, environmentalists, and government agencies—had long been in conflict over use of a public forest on the central Oregon coast. Circumstances (and courageous leadership) brought them together to talk about their situation and look at the facts. They soon discovered a shared interest—saving salmon, a resource that everyone cared about as much as the trees. And the evidence showed clearly that clearcutting the forest had been killing salmon for years.
That led them to develop creative new ways to cooperate in novel partnerships. They began restoring forest health, saving salmon, and creating new jobs. They laid the groundwork for an ecotourism industry that is thriving today. By moving beyond conflict and cooperating around shared interests to achieve a common goal, they generated benefits for everyone involved.
While these events took place in a forest on the Oregon coast, a similar process has driven the major transitions in evolution, beginning with the origin of life.
In a major transition, individual entities come together around shared interests to form new kinds of cooperative groups. They are able to suppress their natural tendency to compete because they develop synergistic fitness relationships, generating greater benefits for all. As they cooperate ever more effectively, they evolve into more complex, higher-level entities where natural selection takes place. As part of this process, they evolve new methods for storing, using, and transmitting information.
For most of life’s history that meant biological information, encoded in ever more complex configurations of genes, chromosomes, epigenetic networks, and neural networks. Humans introduced cultural information, encoded in ever more complex configurations of symbols, such as words, images, formulas, and digital bits. One of the key issues we’ll address in subsequent interviews is the role of electronic information systems in our transition today.
There are a number of conditions necessary for a major transition to occur, but the accuracy and reliability of their new information systems is essential. Without reliable information, identifying shared interests and finding new ways to cooperate are impossible. While the Internet, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are enabling us to cooperate and collaborate in amazing ways, they are also enabling new ways to cause conflict that are difficult to detect, and, as we’re discovering with social media, extremely challenging to regulate.
Without further ado, the major evolutionary transitions during the history of life are listed below. The first line of each description is the transition itself, and the second line encapsulates their new information system.
For those who want to explore the subject in depth, I recommend The Origin of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry. It’s a fascinating and readable exposition of these literally life-changing evolutionary phenomena.
Major transitions encompass both biological and cultural evolution, and there are many unique qualities that affect how and why they occur. The important point here is that they all share two central processes—new ways to cooperate at higher levels of complexity, and new methods of using information that enable higher levels of cooperation to take place.
Before getting to the interview, how does Prosocial figure in? The answer can be found in the article I linked to earlier, titled “The Design Principles Evolve Naturally.” It explains that what brought the parties in the forest conflict together—without them being aware—was the Design Principles for Common Pool Resource Groups, derived by Elinor Ostrom, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009.
Before Ostrom was awarded the Nobel prize, David began a collaboration with her. He recognized in those principles the same forces that governed the process of multilevel selection, which is so central to his work. Along with Ostrom’s colleague Michael Cox, they published a paper titled “Generalizing the Core Design Principles for the Efficacy of Groups.” Prosocial is an organization and a process dedicated to implementing these principles.
In that paper there is a short section that discusses the major evolutionary transitions. I’ve come to see the conditions that underlie major transitions, from the origin of life to to the Internet Age, as connected to those core design principles. That’s why, as I stated at the beginning, I’ve come to see Prosocial as an organization and process dedicated to helping our modern major transition take place.
I hope everyone has made it through this lengthy introduction to the interview, but I wanted to explain why these two things—Prosocial and a film series about the major transitions—have become so central to my life.
When I discuss these ideas with David, there is an additional benefit that I’ve come to value deeply. My years of dealing with environmental conflicts and my worries over the social and ecological challenges we face make me too easily slip into a “glass half empty” frame of mind.
David is decidedly a “glass half full” person. He cheers me up with visions of a better future that is within our reach—if we learn to apply evolutionary principles effectively. He brims with positive examples of cultural evolutionary success that, if we work together, we can emulate.
In this first excerpt from our recent talk. I asked about the role of regulation in major transitions and governing human societies. Government regulation has come in for a great deal of criticism, some of it certainly justified. One of the roles of new information systems in major transitions is the development of regulatory methods to manage higher levels of complexity.
I asked if he thought it was possible for humanity to ever evolve a governance and regulatory framework that could mediate the complexity of billions of humans cooperating at global scales. In his answer he journeys from political and biological regulation, through multilevel selection, the roles of self-organization and norms, Ostrom and the core design principles, and what it would take for global governance to evolve.
Some years ago when I began to search for a more direct way to address the social issues that were at the root of environmental conflicts, I came to believe that disagreements about what was fair usually played a big part. I published two multimedia stories in Pacific Standard magazine that looked at different aspects of the human sense of fairness—”The Evolution of Unfairness” and “Are We Born with a Sense of Fairness?” It was these stories that originally brought my interests to David’s attention, and led to him inviting me to join the Prosocial development team.
I subsequently learned that fairness plays an important role in major transitions, so I asked David to share his thoughts about that.
The two central aspects of major transitions—new ways to cooperate and new information systems—coevolve as transitions progress toward the higher levels of selection they eventually reach. One of the ideas I want to investigate in the course of this project is how the coevolution of cooperation and information is working in our transition today—given the difficulties we’re experiencing with such things as bots, trolls, and fake news.
So I asked David to speculate about the role of our new information systems, how smoothly they’re coevolving, and how that’s affecting the progress of our transition toward cooperation at a worldwide scale—a global superorganism of sorts.
I then asked about one common pushback against the concept of a major transition for humanity as a global scale superorganism. In all of the previous transitions, attaining a higher level of selection meant that there was a higher level of competition with other organisms at that new level as well. Because there are no other planetary organisms with whom we’re ever likely to compete, what does that mean for making a major transition today? How can there be selection at a planetary scale? Here’s his response.
David brought up the subject of democracy toward the close of that statement, and the need for fairness and equity in society’s decision-making processes. Exploring the connection between major evolutionary transitions and democracy is one of this project’s central goals. There’s a case to be made from an evolutionary perspective that democratic governance is humanity’s natural state.
So as my final question, I asked how far back in the evolution of our species can we trace the roots of democracy?
David ends by discussing a problem that has plagued democratic governance throughout history—the ongoing tension between autocratic and democratic rule. While democracies are always vulnerable to self-serving forms of selection by any members of the group, we have to be most vigilant in regard to would-be elites.
The struggle between democracy and autocracy in the world today is only one modern expression of the ancient struggle between cooperation and conflict that reaches back to the origins of life. Understanding our era as a major evolutionary transition can serve as an inspiration to reach for a better future for all of humanity and all living things on the earth.
The theory of major transitions provides an all-encompassing framework to explore both the opportunities and challenges facing humanity in the Internet Age. That’s what we’ll be doing in a series of interviews that will appear on these pages over the next several months.