Life consists of units within units. In the biological world, we have genes, individuals, groups, species, and ecosystems – all nested within the biosphere. In the human world, we have genes, individuals, families, villages and cities, provinces, and nations – all nested within the global village. In both worlds, a problem lurks at every rung of the ladder: 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, and so on, all the way up to what’s good for my nation can be bad for the global village.

For most of human existence, until a scant 10 or 15 thousand years ago, the human ladder was truncated. All groups were small groups whose members knew each other as individuals. These groups were loosely organized into tribes of a few thousand people, but cities, provinces, and nations were unknown.

Today, over half the earth’s population resides in cities and the most populous nations teem with billions of people, but groups the size of villages still deserve a special status. They are the social units that we are genetically adapted to live within and they can provide a blueprint for larger social units, including the largest of them all – the global village of nations.

Groups into Organisms

The conflict between lower-level selfishness and higher-level welfare pervades the biological world. Cancer cells selfishly spread at the expense of other cells within the body, without contributing to the common good, ultimately resulting in the death of the whole organism. In many animal societies, the dominant individuals act more like tyrants than wise leaders, taking as much as they can for themselves until deposed by the next tyrant. Single species can ravage entire ecosystems for nobody’s benefit but their own.

But goodness has its own advantages, especially when those who behave for the good of their groups are able to band together and avoid the depredations of the selfish. Punishment is also a powerful weapon against selfishness, although it is often costly to wield. Every once in a great while, the good manage to decisively suppress selfishness within their ranks. Then something extraordinary happens. The group becomes a higher-level organism. Nucleated cells did not evolve by small mutational steps from bacterial cells but as groups of cooperating bacteria. Likewise, multi-cellular organisms are groups of highly cooperative cells, and the insects of social insect colonies, while physically separate, coordinate their activities so well that they qualify as super-organisms. Life itself might have originated as groups of cooperating molecular reactions.

Only recently have scientists begun to realize that human evolution represents a similar transition. In most primate species, members of groups cooperate to a degree but are also each other’s main rivals. Our ancestors evolved to suppress self-serving behaviors that are destructive for the group, at least for the most part, so that the main way to succeed was as a group. Teamwork became the signature adaptation of our species.

Extant hunter-gatherer societies still reflect the kind of teamwork that existed among our ancestors for thousands of generations. Individuals cannot achieve high status by throwing their weight around but only by cultivating a good reputation among their peers. Most of human moral psychology – including its other-oriented elements such as solidarity, love, trust, empathy, and sympathy, and its coercive elements such as social norms enforced by punishment – can be understood as products of genetic evolution operating among groups, favoring those that exhibited the greatest teamwork.

From Genes to Culture

Teamwork in our ancestors included physical activities such as childcare, hunting and gathering, and offense and defense against other groups. Human teamwork also acquired a mental dimension including an ability to transmit learned information across generations that surpasses any other species. This enabled our ancestors to adapt to their environments much more quickly than by the slow process of genetic evolution. They spread over the globe, occupying all climatic zones and hundreds of ecological niches. The diversity of human cultures is the cultural equivalent of the major genetic adaptive radiations in dinosaurs, birds, and mammals. The invention of agriculture initiated a positive feedback process between population size and the ability to produce food leading to the mega-societies of today.

Cultural evolution differs from genetic evolution in important respects but not in the problem that lurks at every rung of the social ladder. Just like genetic traits, cultural traits can spread by benefitting lower-level units at the expense of the higher-level good – or by contributing to the higher-level good. There can be cultural cancers, no less so than genetic cancers. And for teamwork to exist at any given rung of the social ladder, there must be mechanisms that hold the wolves of selfishness at bay. A nation or the global village is no different in this respect than a human village, a hunter-gatherer group, an ant colony, a multi-cellular organism, or a nucleated cell.

Modern nations differ greatly in how well they function at the national scale. Some manage their affairs efficiently for the benefit of all their citizens. They qualify at least as crude superorganisms. Other nations are as dysfunctional as a cancer-ridden patient or an ecosystem ravaged by a single species. Whatever teamwork exists is at a smaller scale, such as a group of elites exploiting the nation for its own benefit. The nations that work have safeguards that prevent exploitation from within, like scaled-up villages. The nations that don’t work will probably never work unless similar safeguards are implemented.

Accomplishing teamwork at the level of a nation is hard enough, but it isn’t good enough because there is one more rung in the social ladder. Although many nations have a long way to go before they serve their own citizens well, a nation can be as good as gold to its own citizens and still be a selfish member of the global village. In fact, there are many examples in the international arena, where nations protect their own perceived interests at expense of the common global future. We will address some of these issues for Norway, which serves its own citizens well by most metrics and also has ambitions to serve the global village well, but still sometimes succumbs to selfishness at the highest rung of the social ladder.

The Norway Case

Norway functions exceptionally well as a nation. Although it is small in comparison with the largest nations, it is still many orders of magnitude larger than the village-sized groups of our ancestral past. Seen through the lens of evolutionary theory, the dividing line between function and dysfunction has been notched upward so that the whole nation functions like a single organism. This is an exaggeration, of course. Self-serving activities that are bad for the group can be found in Norway, but they are modest in comparison with the more dysfunctional nations of the world.

Norway’s success as a nation is already well known without requiring an evolutionary lens. Along with other Nordic countries, it scores high on any list of economic and life quality indicators. The success of the so-called “Nordic Model” is commonly attributed to factors such as income equality, a high level of trust, high willingness to pay tax, which is tightly coupled to strong social security (health, education), a blend of governmental regulations and capitalism, and cultural homogeneity. These and other factors are important, but we think that viewing them through an evolutionary lens is likely to shed light on why they are important. Our hypothesis is that Norway functions well as a nation because it has successfully managed to scale up the social control mechanisms that operate spontaneously in village-sized groups. Income equality, trust, and the other factors attributed to Norway’s success emanate from the social control mechanisms.

Our evolutionary lens also sheds light on Norway’s behavior as a member of the global village. Not without reason, Norway prides itself as a “nation of goodness.” Norwegian foreign policy no doubt plays a positive role in world affairs, also aiming for a “civilized capitalism,” and Norway is the country that has pressed the UN to accept guidelines that make not only states, but also multinational companies, liable for violation of human rights. Also, Norway is currently the world’s most active advocate of corporate social responsibility on all international arenas. Hence, in this context, Norway has done a great deal to behave as a solid citizen of the global village. On the other hand, for all its success and wisdom, the management of the state pension fund illustrates that even Norway is sometimes guilty of selfishly feathering its own nest at the expense of other nations, the planet, and, therefore, ultimately its own welfare over the long term.

The Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global is by far the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, currently exceeding 800 billion USD, and rapidly growing. The fund is owned by the state on explicit behalf of current and future generations. It is administrated by the Ministry of Finance, which gives guidelines to the investment branch of the Norwegian State Bank (Norwegian Bank Investment Management, NBIM). A separate Council of Ethics (appointed by the government) serves the role of advising the Ministry on which companies to divest from due to serious ethical misconduct. Details in the structure and mandates can be found here

The fund has two major ethical concerns: It should provide good returns to future generations, and it should not contribute to severe unethical acts. The major emphasis has been on the first goal. A core management issue is the rule of maximum spending (handlingsregelen), i.e., that no more than 4% of the annual income can enter the annual state budget for public spending. This ensures that the fund will be used for the long-term welfare of Norway, not just short-term welfare.

This is admirable management of common goods and can serve as an example of how natural resources can be managed for the benefit of an entire nation. At the opposite extreme, consider Equatorial Guinea, which allocates almost the entire income from its oil to the benefit of a single family (the president and his close relatives). For the rest of the population, the life expectancy is 51 years, and 77% have an income of less than 2 US dollars per day. Most other oil-producing nations direct at least some of their revenues to collective goods, but much of it is diverted to political and corporate elites and/or short-term spending. In this context, the Norwegian Pension Fund is quite unique with is long term investments.

However, if we go further and ask whether the investments are to the benefit of the long-term welfare of the global village, the answer is very close to a “No.” The main goal of the fund is maximum return, and although Norway has set up to 3 billion NOK aside for preservation of rainforests, it has also (at least up to now) invested heavily in logging companies replacing rainforest with palm oil. There are also heavy investments in mining industries, coal and oil companies, and other activities that do not contribute to a sustainable future. There is no overall “green,” sustainable, or ethical profile for evaluating investments. There is only an Ethical Council that advises the Ministry of Finance, which decides (often after considerable delay) whether or not the bank (NBIM) should divest in certain companies that perform major, unethical practices. Such divestments are made public, so at least they are open to the gaze of Norwegians and the rest of the world – no doubt increasing their impact. The problem is, however, that the investments per se are guided almost solely by the principle of maximum returns, not by principles of long term, sustainable (environmental as well as morally) investments that would benefit the global village – as well as Norway. So, if even Norway fails to recognize the long-term benefits of a strategy beyond narrow national self-interest, what kind of mechanisms can be invoked to the benefit of the global village?

Organizing the Global Village

Norway’s double standard at the highest rung of the social ladder is typical of most nations. Around the world, politicians talk unashamedly about pursuing the national interest as if it is their highest moral obligation. Double standards easily trigger a feeling of moral indignation. How could persons or nations be so hypocritical? But wagging fingers at nations is not going to solve the problem. A smarter approach is to understand why moral indignation works at the scale of a village, why it doesn’t work at the scale of the global village, and how it can be made to work with the implementation of the appropriate social controls.

Imagine living in a village and meeting someone who talks unabashedly about her own interests as if no one else matters. As far as she is concerned, the other villagers are merely tools for accomplishing her own ends. How would you react to such a person? Speaking for ourselves, we would be shocked to the point of questioning her sanity. We might entertain similar thoughts, but we wouldn’t be so open about it. Moreover, our selfish impulses are tempered by a genuine concern for others. Empathy, sympathy, solidarity, and love are as much a part of the human repertoire as greed. We would probably experience the same feeling of moral indignation welling up in us that we feel toward Norway’s questionable behavior. Even if we remained dispassionate, we would avoid her, warn others, and feel moved to punish her for her antisocial ways. As would most of the other villagers, so despite her intentions, she would probably not fare very well.

Moral indignation works at the scale of villages because it is backed up by an arsenal of social control mechanisms so spontaneous that we hardly know it is there. The most strongly regulated groups in the world are small groups, thanks to countless generations of genetic and cultural evolution that make us the trusting and cooperative species that we are.

The idea that trust requires social control is paradoxical because social control is not trusting. Nevertheless, social control creates an environment in which trust can flourish. When we know that others cannot harm us, thanks to a strong system of social controls, then we can express our positive emotions and actions toward others to their full extent: helping because we want to, not because we are forced to. When we feel threatened by those around us, due to a lack of social control, we withhold our positive emotions and actions like a snail withdrawing into its shell.

This is why people refrain from unethical acts – to the extent that they do – in village-sized groups and why cooperation is accompanied by positive emotions such as solidarity, empathy, and trust. The reason that nations and other large social entities such as corporations openly engage in unethical acts is because social controls are weaker and are not sufficient to hold the wolves of selfishness at bay. This is why politicians can talk openly about national self-interest as if nothing else matters – even though a villager who talked in a comparable fashion would be regarded as insane.

Understanding the nature of the problem enables us to sympathize with the plight of Norway when it chooses how to invest in the global market. Like a snail, it might want to emerge from its shell and support the most ethical enterprises. But to do so might be too costly in a market environment that rewards naked selfishness. Norway might be required to shrink into its shell and make selfish investments to survive. After all, snails have shells for a reason.

A third option is available to Norway and all other nations, which is to create the same kinds of social controls at a large scale that curtail selfishness in smaller groups. This is also costly, like investing in ethical enterprises that don’t yield the highest profits, but it has a more lasting benefit because once a social control infrastructure is in place, it is the ethical enterprises that yield the highest returns. Norway has come a long way to employ this principle in its official foreign policy, but it is clearly lagging behind on the global business scene when it comes to own investments.

There is evidence that village-like social controls are starting to form at larger scales without the help of governments. In the United States, a nonprofit organization called B-lab (B stands for benefit) provides a certification service for corporations. Those that apply for certification receive a score on the basis of a detailed examination. If the score exceeds a certain value, then the company is permitted to advertise itself as a B-Corporation. Xiujian Chen and Thomas F. Kelly at Binghamton University’s School of Management recently analyzed a sample of 130 B-corporations and compared them to a number of matched samples of other corporations. The samples were matched with respect to geographical location, business sector, corporation size, and other variables. In all cases, the B-corporations were either as profitable or more profitable (on average) than the corporations in the matched samples. Engaging in ethical practices did not hurt, and might even have helped, their bottom lines.

More analysis will be required to pinpoint why B-corporations do well by doing good. One possibility is that they have become like villages in their internal organization so there is less selfishness from within. Another possibility, which is not mutually exclusive, is that consumers are increasingly adopting a norm that causes them to prefer to do business with ethical companies and to shun unethical companies, exactly as they would prefer and avoid people in a village setting. Certification as a B-Corporation makes it easier for consumers to evaluate a company’s ethical reputation. Knowing someone’s reputation comes naturally in a village setting, but work is required to provide the same information at a larger scale. Adherence to other codes performs a similar function, such as the UK Stewardship Code (FRC 2012), the International Corporate Governance Network´s Code (ICGN) or the Singapore Code of Corporate Governance Statement on the Role of Shareholders (SCGC) to mention a few.

There are even indications that the corporate world is becoming more village-like without requiring formal certifications. As an example, Apple chief executive Tim Cook was recently criticized by the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) for failing to maximize profit for its shareholders by investing for the benefit of the climate and the environment. Cook became strikingly upset and advised those with such narrow self-centered goals to sell their stocks. He was behaving precisely as a good villager would behave – and if his reaction became the norm among large corporate entities, the global village would become more like a real village without the need for formal certifications.

It might seem too good to be true that consumers and the corporate world are spontaneously starting to hold the wolves of selfishness at bay by implementing the same kinds of social control that we take for granted at a village scale. If this did come to pass, then Norway would no longer be faced with difficult choices in how to invest its vast wealth in the global market, because the most ethical companies would also be the most profitable. But if this is happening at all, it is still in its initial stages. At present, it is still the case that some of the most profitable investments are of the cancerous variety.

Therefore, Norway is faced with a difficult moral choice similar to that of most investors. It can remain in its shell and make the most profitable investments to maximize short-term returns for its shareholders (in this case, the Norwegian population) without regard to worldwide ethical concerns, or it can emerge from its shell, live up to its ideal standards in domestic as well as foreign policy, and join with other right-minded individuals, corporations, and nations to help create the social control system that can make ethical practices most profitable. The crucial point is that this is a win-win situation in the long term because, ultimately, we are all in the same boat, and what is good for the world, in a long-term sustainability perspective, will also be good for Norwegians.

A New Narrative

In this essay, we have sketched a surprisingly simple solution to the apparent conflict between self-interest and mutual benefits at all hierarchical levels. We are suggesting that the social dynamics that take place naturally and spontaneously in villages can be scaled up to prevent the ethical transgressions that routinely take place at a large scale. Why is such a simple solution not more widely known and discussed? Although we immediately realize this solution when it comes to cell-organism relationships or individuals within villages, we do not realize that the same principles also hold for companies or nations. One reason is because of an alternative narrative that pretends that the only social responsibility of a company is to maximize its bottom line. Free markets will ensure that society benefits as a result. This narrative makes it seem reasonable to eliminate social controls – precisely the opposite of what needs to be done. Governments have been under the spell of this narrative for nearly 50 years despite a flimsy scientific foundation and ample evidence for its harmful effects. We can break the spell of the old narrative by noting something that will appear utterly obvious in retrospect: The unregulated pursuit of self-interest is cancerous at all scales. To create a global village, we must look to real villages.

Published On: September 4, 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


  • Wonderful–well said–I would only add that it isn’t selfishness but hatred that is the world problem. As groups get bigger it’s harder to hold them together except by uniting them against an “enemy.” Right now, racial, ideological, and religious hate are destroying the world. Selfishness is most problematic when selfish leaders find they can succeed best by whipping up the hatreds of the less selfish but perhaps more gullible masses.

    • David Sloan Wilson says:

      It’s true that we are easily inflamed by rhetoric that arouses hatred, etc. but once again I think that small groups provide a blueprint. In past years I conducted research on gossip in the context of small groups and showed that it is highly moralistic. Self-serving gossip is highly disapproved but gossiping truthfully about social transgressions is normative. If someone used inflammatory rhetoric for disruptive purposes in a small group, they’d be hammered, so I think that Gene’s point fits within the theme of our article.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with the ‘global village’ goal promoted in the article but I think that focusing on Norway, although an interesting case, also gives a rather skewed perspective on how plausible this change in mindset would be for the majority of nations. Developing countries will benefit in the long term from sustainable industries but if you have populations facing civil wars and famine, as in the extreme cases, it seems rather unlikely that you will have much time to spare for concern with the global village. Similarly, while relationships within a village can be represented as largely cooperative, I’m not so sure that our equally long standing inter-village/group mentality will be easy to overcome. Politics today looks remarkably parochial, and the general trends evident in Europe, East Asia and elsewhere seem to reflect a shift to the right with more nationalist, rightwing parties winning elections. Many of the politicians in such parties want to withdraw from international associations and ignore/deny global problems like climate change. As such, as much as I would like to see Norway’s model and the global village mindset spread, I don’t hold out much hope.

    • EdwardT says:

      It is not always self-evident what is self-interest and what isn’t. Who decides the global moral and environmental ideology for national and corporate social responsibility? Is it to be Red or Blue? For example should responsible investment go towards preventing global warming or preventing global cooling? Who decides what the problem is? How do you prevent the emergence of an exploitative class who say the one thing they’ll get the most money from that is not strictly true. Take the example of “climate change” a phrase I dislike because it can mean anything and the climate has always changed so for all the money they’re telling you you’re not actually buying anything new. While it’s obvious to me the destruction of unique rainforest, its natural ecological library of data and its contribution to climate systems, is a disaster for the Earth and its people, it far less obvious what effect the toggling-up and down the CO2 indicator makes. All the models from the ’80s and ’90s were wildly inaccurate and wasted a lot of investment that could have been better spend preventing destruction of the rainforest. So who makes the decision what is best for the largest scale? Surely nobody does, that scale has to emerge naturally once human civilization has expanded beyond the pull of the Earth’s gravity.

      • ‘Climate change’ is typically used as a phrase because when the term ‘global warming’ is used people often respond by pointing to recent cold spells they personally experienced or areas displaying a cooling trend. This, of course, confuses climate with weather and so the term ‘climate change’ helps to somewhat avoid this misunderstanding, while admittedly being somewhat less specific. Your response also seems to imply that the link between increased CO2 and global warming is an area of open debate and uncertainty, and while that is certainly true in the political and social spheres, it is certainly not the case in the scientific sphere where there is a clear consensus.

    • David Sloan Wilson says:

      Here is how I think about Chris’ point from a multilevel evolutionary perspective. In a multi-tier hierarchy of units, conflict at a lower scale (such as among clans within highly dysfunctional nations) cannot attend to functional organization at a larger scale (such as global climate change). The lower-level conflicts must be resolved first.

  • Mark Sloan says:

    Describing the unregulated pursuit of self-interest as cancerous, as in “The unregulated pursuit of self-interest is cancerous at all scales”, is a revealing metaphor whose power arguably comes from its truth in both evolutionary biology (as described above) and evolutionary game theory. I really like it.

    But the post here is vague on how we can derive the norms and enforcement means for a global village from the norms of actual villages where everyone knows everyone else.

    The philosopher John Rawls’ Theory of Justice provides one approach (for both global village norms and norms on all the levels down to families and individuals). That approach is summarized in his “original position” as something like: “… a group of persons is set the task of reaching an agreement about the political and economic structure (including regulation of self-interest) of a society which they are, once an agreement has been reached, to occupy. Each individual, however, deliberates behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ (concerning their place in that society).”

    While Rawls’ seems to me the best approach from the standpoint of human well-being, it may be too intellectual to be motivating for most people. Perhaps we need another powerful metaphor beyond “global village”.

  • Mark Sloan says:

    The metaphor “The unregulated pursuit of self-interest is cancerous at all scales” suggests a cancer cure (chemotherapy) metaphor for regulating the pursuit of self-interest on the global village level (as well as all other levels).

    How about something like “’Do to others as you would have them do to you’ is chemotherapy for the cancerous products of the unregulated pursuit of self-interest.” In its favor, the Golden Rule is arguably a simple heuristic for both Rawls’ original position and indirect reciprocity, thus providing grounding in both science and philosophy.

    • David Sloan Wilson says:

      Mark, I’m glad you like the cancer metaphor, as I do. You’re right that our article is vague on how to scale up and some of the mechanisms that work at a large scale might be quite unlike what works at a smaller scale. Peter Turchin’s work is insightful on this point. On Rawls, it always seemed to me that his veil of ignorance was a prosthetic device for getting people who think entirely in terms of self-interest to behave prosocially by regarding themselves as a representative individual.

      The reason we end the article with a section on narrative is because so much depends upon framing, which can be anything from a formal scientific theory, to a highly refined ideology, to a story of any sort. The neoliberal narrative makes it seem that eliminating social controls is good for the group. Calling it cancerous is a step toward creating a new narrative that by itself can be impactful. Of course, as scientists we have a responsibility to ground our narrative in what’s true to the best of our knowledge, but the cancer metaphor can be scientifically justified. An ideology that benefits some individuals at factions at the expense of the body politic really is analogous to cancer cells spreading at the expense of real bodies.

  • This sounds a lot like the approach to holistic systems known as holonics. If you are familiar with it, I’d like to know what you see as the similarities and differences. If you are not familiar with it, the best discussion I’ve seen lately is by Mihaela Ulieru in Ch. 11 in the new volume by John Clippinger and David Bollier titled “From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond: The Quest for Identity and Autonomy in a Digital Society” (2014). A .pdf download can easily be found.

    Accordingly (p. 115), “The basic idea is that every living entity is both an autonomous whole unto itself as well as part of a larger holistic system. This perspective enables us to see certain recurring patterns of self-organization among interdependent natural systems at many different scales, from atomic levels to earthly physics, biology and ultimately to the Universe.”

    The issues and concerns she raises — now increasingly widespread among scholars and activists interested in new pro-commons thinking — overlap a lot with what you mention. Holonics also comes up now and then at the P2P Foundation blog.

    • David Sloan Wilson says:

      Thanks for bringing this body of literature to my knowledge. I am unfamiliar with it. From your description, however, I have reservations because it seems to assume that adaptive self-organization can occur without a process of selection. This is a common assumption in the complexity literature that is illustrated by the ambiguity surrounding the term “complex adaptive system”. Is this a system of agents that behave adaptively, or is it a system of agents that is adaptive as a system? The essence of multilevel selection theory is that one does not imply the other, but many complexity theorists are unaware of this. Lumping complex non-living systems (atoms, earthly physics and the universe) with complex living systems (biology) is also highly problematic.

  • Trishia Jacobs says:

    I enjoyed reading this. It touches on one of my pet peeves: the US claim to be the greatest nation on earth. I’ve never understood this boast which is often followed by “God Bless America.” How can people be so narrow minded? Why would God bless only America? What about the rest of the world? I fantasize about living abroad. I’d like to get far away from the US and my parting message would be sign language. I’m so sick of the constant contention/rivalry/bitterness that is stirred nonstop in this country. To be the greatest/richest nation and to have the problems we have is all the more horrendous. IF the in-fighting would stop, if cooperation was the norm, oh what great things we could accomplish. But the US is not about that anymore. It’s solely about making the big bucks. Anyone left in the dust of such greedy capitalism, well, tough luck kid. That is the America I see today and it’s revolting.

    • David Sloan Wilson says:

      I highly recommend a book titled The Spirit Level, which shows how America leads the world in social inequality and how destructive it is for America itself. Peter’s work is also outstanding on this point. It is important to stress that the degree of inequality varies over time and can be changed by the right social policies. America once led the world in social equality and can do so again.

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments so far. My article with Dag Hessen is part of an Evolution Institute project on Norway as a case study of cultural evolution leading to a high quality of life. It is one of the first applications of modern evolutionary science to current affairs. Norway is a highly intellectual and literate culture, among its other admirable qualities, and the evolutionary perspective might become part of the public discourse sooner than in the USA. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of the world begins hearing about the evolutionary perspective through the public discourse that is starting to take place in Norway.

  • Richard says:

    OK, so how would your framework deal with someone like Putin?

    • David Sloan Wilson says:

      The received wisdom in the USA is that Putin is an aggressive bully. The framework would call for the collective means to suppress bullying, which is more easily accomplished at a small scale than at a large scale. If the collective means does not exist, then bullying will occur.

      But the received wisdom about Putin might be too simplistic. Here is an analysis that Peter recommended to me (see also his blog posts): http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141769/john-j-mearsheimer/why-the-ukraine-crisis-is-the-wests-fault.

      Among the difficulties we have to contend with is severe distortion in the media

      • Richard says:

        OK, so how would your framework deal with the reality that the vast majority of people in different countries may have wildly different interpretations of the same events (possible due to media, but also due to history, cultural norms, etc.)?

  • Lee Doran says:

    Hello to all,

    I love this way of thinking about our common humanity and the world it/we have created. But I also think we need to be very careful about assuming that major – even dominant – social institutions on the planet are:
    a) ‘cancerous’ because they’re selfish and
    b) driven by ‘narrative’


    Selfishness does not, by itself, define cancer. In fact, the selfishness practiced within groups – that is, in the interests of the group as (narrowly) defined – is one of the group’s core virtues – even helping to define its morality. It is only ‘selfish’ to those in other groups, or to those whose groups have different values.

    Once we have an “Us or Them” dynamic kicking in (which is usually the case) then our ‘goods’ become our others’ ‘bads’ – and vice versa. And we agree to ‘fight’, physically or metaphorically or institutionally, but fight we agree upon in principle and then we do it in practice, according to the rules of the venue we’ve chosen to fight in. It is how we – the human species – have chosen to resolve disputes for the last few thousand years.

    And it works. The competitive ethic that originates from the aggressive tendencies of the human masculine has scaled up to the global very effectively. It now runs the globalized world of capital that manages and controls the economically integrated parts of the world we live in.

    It is the biggest religion that has ever existed – and growing faster than any other at the moment.

    This capitalism is not only dominant but unchallenged, now. Communism, its major adversary for the middle-ish part of the last century, is effectively dead. Capitalism’s ethic is the global ethic now. It is the singular aspirational goal for all who would do better in their material lives. None can compete with it as a value to live – and prosper — by.

    And it is pursued at every level from the global (e.g., World Bank) to the local (e.g., microcredit) with the global corporations leading the charge in the intermediate zones where everything possible in the physical and abstract worlds of humanity is monetized within their ambit and to their singular advantage (they’re in charge there).

    This institutionalized selfishness has made many people very rich and promises to continue to do so for those in charge (those reaping the benefits) for the indefinite future … that is, until the system collapses. Or – yes, Alice, there is an alternative – until a majority consensus emerges around some other way of running the world.

    For now, the 1% remain firmly in charge and continue to be blessed with material rewards beyond anyone’s dreams of avarice in earlier times. (And of course, in the US, this state of affairs has now been anointed by the highest court in the land: money is now allowed – nay even encouraged – to buy anything, including the government. Not that it hadn’t already done so … but now it has been legitimized. It is the way the country is supposed to run as well as the way it actually runs. The Supreme Court said so.)

    How then can we be even slightly surprised that the Norways and the Denmarks of our world adopt the capitalist ethic in order to continue to exist … and prosper? After all, everybody’s doing it … or aspiring to. And, once again, there is no other way at the moment. No alternative systems are available (except peripherally – see Elinor Ostrom et al — operating at the margins, tolerated by dominant capital because it is not even remotely threatened by anything it sees out there yet. Its threats are internal … plus the contradictions of its singular pursuit of monopoly-through-oligopoly and the inequality it inevitably spawns with its growing backlash looking around for its traction in a very slippery system … nevertheless, some at the apex are getting very scared, one suspects.)


    This may be ‘cancer’, but a whole lot of folks are lovin’ it, not to mention livin’ it — and are looking to do more of the same as long as they both shall live.

    So what about the ‘narrative’? Is all of this the result of a story being told to the many by the few? And does that imply that if we change the story, we can change the world? Are we all so gullible and unaware that the ‘frame’ convinces us to behave as the framers would like?

    Seems pretty unlikely to me. I would say it is much more likely that the material realities – and the associated pleasure(s) – have a much bigger influence on peoples’ behaviors. Why when you are richer than you ever dreamed you could or would be, would you deny the story – any story – that appears to have brought you to this exalted and unanticipated – though highly desired and now desirable — state?

    Why, when the very values that you hold dearest – the material rewards that assure your continuing comfort and pleasure – align with your aspirations and accomplishments out in the world, would you even consider changing the story?

    No, it is my guess that the pleasures and rewards are a much bigger reality for most people than the narrative … and provide their own (material and rationalized) justification. And that the carefully and precisely aligned values that go along with these comforts also provide their own quite ample reward. The system is internally consistent and very, very rewarding for those on the inside. And we know, don’t we, that most of the rest of the world aspires to these very same comforts – as well as the values that motivate and enable them?

    Conversely, as long as the values that money can buy are the supreme values of the majority, we can all rest assured that nothing of substance will change.

    And conversely again: when those values do change (if they do), the world will follow suit. And the story will change. But, IMHO, the story follows the values which chase the realities of pleasure and comfort and riches and opulence and abundance. The material realities – and their values — lead, the story follows.

    The moral and ethical shallowness of this value system is evident to many, especially those who have basked in its shadows for a while. The boredom of the perennial shopper is evident in many a mall these days.

    But its shallowness is of little concern to the many, many more who only want their chance to get their toe in the door, to get their fair share of the loot, to share in the boredom of surfeit the malls serve up. For them, the opportunity to enter this beautiful room full of riches and rewards of all kinds is the justifiable fulfillment of a life well lived.

    Who are we to deny them that? Especially when it makes us providers so rich in the bargain, as well?

    The problem, of course, as readers of this forum will be aware, is that the shop-til-you-drop activities are bumping right up against the limits of the planet’s systems in support of human life (not life, just human life). Our very survival is now in our own hands, if we want to grab it. Or not.

    So far, not. But should our values for planetary human survival decide to overwhelm the shallow and profoundly superficial (psychopathic) monetary values of capital, that will change … and perhaps very quickly. So-called ‘sacred’ values trump cost-benefit values and reasoning we know, now (see Scott Atran).

    As an aside: we all need to decide which team we’re on here … and begin acting accordingly in our personal everyday lives.

    Thanks again to the moderators and posters here for stimulating such interesting discussions. At least we are talking about things … and things that matter.

    All best regards to all,


    • Aubrey Salazar says:

      A great many understandings captured here:

      “…the story follows the values which chase the realities of pleasure and comfort.”

      You’re right. Who are we to deny anyone this?

      My only qualm is the transparency with which we operate in these systems and constructs. Ok, my shoes are made from recycled materials, but that’s not the shoe manufacurer’s “story”, and its “story” isn’t even to make shoes for barefoot feet. It’s “story” is about profit and shareholder wealth. And THAT has far more impact. The devastating magnitude of THAT will far outweigh any positive contribution from carbon offsets.


  • Christopher Kummelstedt says:

    This article gave me goosebumps. Wonderfully put!

    What do you feel is the best way to change the narrative of self-interest? What can we do as individual nodes to change what is natural and what is impossible in our collective OS?

    I suppose the cultural barrier to overcoming “the spell” to reach higher level optimal behaviour is feedback between the narrative of what success is and the ability of those that are successful to articulate the narrative?

  • David Milgrim says:

    For out prehistoric ancestors, there may have been nothing more pressing than belonging. Humans have secured their place in the power and safety of the group by making a contribution and inhibiting impulses to self-serve at other’s expense. The short term benefit of “selfish” behavior simply wasn’t worth the risk of exclusion. It’s a very familiar impulse we all still feel.

    But this all depended upon the lack of anonymity and alternative group membership options of primitive life. Today, it is possible to survive in a more experientially separate manner. We still depend upon others, but not in such a personal way. It is possible to operate beyond the view of our peers. and it’s easy to jump to another “group.” Even criminals can find community. The result is that today, we can get away with cheating and other self-serving behavior.

    The big question is how can we scale up the checks on self-serving that naturally exist in small groups. I’m already totally on board with the concept. but wonder how might it be done. I expect it is possible, and I have some ideas, but would love to hear what ideas have already been developed. I love the idea of B-Lab types of clearing houses, and I think there is potential for greater transparency in social media. I also think there is much to be done toward localizing social and commercial activities.

    I’d love to connect to others and their writings on this.


    • Aubrey Salazar says:

      David, I would also like to hear ideas on how the negative consequences of this type of evolution might be minimalized.

      Great point about people escaping culpability for being overly selfish due to our advancements in self-sufficiency.

      Although, I’d like many more social controls for B lab qualifications. I do not fully trust that system as it were to protect my long term investment in it.

      And after recent events, I definitely think media (social and broadcasting) require more social controls. I fully agree there.


  • Eduardo Martín Alves Magaz says:

    I found the evolutionary concepts of Richard Dawkins. He explain something similar in the end of his book “The Selfish Gene”. Also, Elinor Ostrom and his small village concept. Congratulations!
    I’m writing an article about environmental and financial performance. This information will be useful.
    Thank you.

  • Edward says:

    Check out the work of Ken Wilber. He has a “four quadrant” theory that suggests not a unidimensional developmental/evolutionary approach but rather four perspectives (outside, inside, individual, collective) that both codetermine, evolve and causally interact with each other.

  • Torres Oviedo says:

    I can see Marx between lines.

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