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Darwin’s 212th birthday is a good time to introduce Prosocial World (PW), a new organization dedicated to achieving rapid positive multilevel cultural change. 

PW is the direct descendent of the Evolution Institute, which I co-founded with Jerry Lieberman in 2007. As far as my role in the EI was concerned, it was descended from EvoS, a campus-wide evolutionary studies program that I founded at Binghamton University in 2003, and my first efforts to make a difference in my hometown of Binghamton in 2006.1

These programs, in turn, were descended from my personal research, which transcended taxonomic or topical boundaries. My first published articles, starting in 1973, included an experimental study of food size selection in copepods, a field study of the spatial distribution of ant lion pits, mathematical models of group selection and the adequacy of body size as a niche difference, and a speculative article on a cultural route to biological fitness. In the 1980’s I was funded simultaneously by the National Science Foundation to study the community of mites that ride on the backs of carrion beetles and by the J.S. Guggenheim Foundation to develop an evolutionary approach to human psychology.

I list the diversity of my research interests to provide a personal example of the transcendent power of evolutionary thinking. While some of my evolutionary brethren choose to stay with a particular topic or taxonomic group, scaling ever greater heights in their knowledge, others are like me and dance from organism to organism, topic to topic, not as dilettantes but in a way that results in peer-reviewed publications, the gold standard of academic accomplishment. This transcendent power is a property of Darwin’s theory, not any given individual who chooses to indulge in it.

In the Beginning

For this reason, it is instructive to trace the lineage of PW all the way back to Darwin himself. As someone who has been present for 28% of the history of Darwinian thought (my 46 years since getting my Ph.D. in 1975 divided by 162 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859), I believe I am qualified to serve as your guide.

For Darwin, the transcendent power of evolutionary thinking manifested itself from day one. Those three simple ingredients—variation, selection, replication—made sense of everything around him. Identity by descent. The fossil record. Biogeography. Development. The wonderful contrivances that adapted organisms to their environments…

…and the entire human condition!  Imagine what it must have been like for Darwin to scribble in his notebook in 1838, merely 29 years of age, “Metaphysics must flourish—He who understands baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke.” Darwin’s thoughts on the evolution of human moral systems are as insightful today as when he wrote them.

It was the transcendent power of evolutionary thinking that inspired Darwin to write “There is grandeur in this view of life…” in the final passage of On the Origin of Species, providing the title for this magazine, which is one of the first projects that I helped to start at the Evolution Institute.2 And it is in the same spirit that TVOL continues to report on “anything and everything” from an evolutionary perspective.

It is notable that Darwin’s theory can continue to function in this transcendent capacity when there is so much more information that requires organizing today. I explore this theme with the famed evolutionary scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant in a 2016 TVOL interview titled “When Evolutionists Acquire Superhuman Powers.” Unlike my gadfly ways, the Grants have spent their careers scaling the heights of knowledge on Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands. When they started in the 1970s their equipment consisted of little more than binoculars, trapping and banding equipment, and computer spreadsheets for statistical analysis. Now the tools of observation and analysis have grown incomparably more sophisticated, truly qualifying as superhuman powers and requiring the Grants to collaborate with specialists from around the world. But the basic questions that need to be addressed and the power of evolutionary theory to organize the tsunami of information remains the same.

The Great Constriction

While Darwin included all aspects of humanity in “this view of life”, that’s not how the history of evolutionary thinking unfolded. Instead, the study of evolution became confined largely to the study of genetic evolution, as if the only way that offspring can resemble their parents is by sharing the same genes. Other variation-selection-replication processes were relegated to other academic disciplines, which developed largely in isolation from each other and sometimes in perceived opposition to evolutionary theory. The result was an archipelago of knowledge, which lacks the transcendence that Darwin’s theory is in a position to provide.

The constriction of evolutionary thinking to genetic evolution is so deeply ingrained that many people have difficulty seeing beyond it. Consider this image of a mosaic medallion that graces the Jordan Hall of Science at the University of Notre Dame. Around the rim is the famous quote from the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky that “Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, which echoes Darwin’s phrase “there is grandeur in this view of life”. But the quote revolves entirely around a DNA molecule as if evolutionary thinking has no other application! This is why evolutionary training at colleges and universities is confined almost entirely to biology-oriented departments, creating a need for EvoS, the campus-wide evolutionary studies program that I formed at Binghamton University in 2003.

While it is easy to look back upon the advances in evolutionary biology during the twentieth century as a rapid synthesis, it was slow for the people who lived it. When the work of Gregor Mendel was rediscovered in the first years of the twentieth century, the evolution of discrete traits was considered an alternative to Darwin’s emphasis on selection operating upon continuous variation. Decades were required for that controversy to be resolved by the first population geneticists, who showed that continuous variation could result from many mendelian genes with small effects.3 That paved the way for what became known as the Modern Synthesis in the 1940s, which was indeed a synthesis of sorts but also pushed other variation-selection-replication processes into the shadows.

In 1963, the animal behaviorist Niko Tinbergen wisely noted that four questions need to be addressed for all products of evolution, concerning their function, history, mechanism, and development.4 These four questions are best asked in conjunction with each other, but that kind of integration required decades to unfold. In my 2015 TVOL interview with Richard Lewontin, one of Dobzhanksy’s most famous students, he recalled that when he went out into the field with his mentor, it was only to trap fruit flies (Drosophila) with banana traps, without any interest in the fruit flies in relation to their environment. The entire field of Drosophila genetics started out that way and only gradually became more fully rounded. It wasn’t until the 1970s, the time that I entered the field, that the historically separate fields of evolution, ecology, and behavior became fused into a single area of inquiry often identified by the acronym EEB in biology departments. This was also the decade that the term Evo-Devo was coined, signaling that the prior study of development had somehow been detached from the so-called Modern Synthesis.

In some respects, a fully rounded four-question approach is still a work in progress within the biological sciences. Too often, reductionistic research in molecular or neurobiology takes place in isolation from functional, historical, and developmental research. An example is the study of cancer, where the fully rounded approach reported by Athena Aktipis in her 2020 book The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer, stands in contrast to the vast majority of mechanism-only cancer research.

Yet another indication that the Darwinian revolution is still a work in progress within the biological sciences is the term “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis”, which was coined at the dawn of the twenty-first century to reflect the need to go beyond the Modern Synthesis, not by replacing it but by building upon it. Even this judiciously chosen phrase is hotly contested among evolutionary scientists, as I cover in this 2016 TVOL interview with Kevin Laland.5    

Human Arrested Development

If the fulfillment of “Nothing makes sense except in the light of…” required decades within the biological sciences, the process of integration was even slower for the study of humanity and therefore is even more a work in progress today. Consider the publication of Edward O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology in 1975. I was a postdoctoral associate at Harvard at the time and remember reading it in manuscript form in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Ed had sponsored my mathematical model of group selection in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but I was at Harvard on a NSF grant to work on my other theoretical interest at the time, the adequacy of body size as a niche difference, with Ed’s colleague Tom Schoener. The thesis of Sociobiology was that a single theory grounded in evolution could explain all forms of social behavior, from microbes to humans. It was in the same spirit as Darwin’s “There is grandeur…” and Dobzhansky’s “Nothing makes sense except in the light of…” and was hailed as an encyclopedic triumph for the study of nonhuman species. At the same time, the final speculative chapter on humans created a storm of controversy, complete with a pitcher of water being poured on Ed’s head during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1978.6 This was the degree to which it was forbidden to study human behavior from an evolutionary perspective at the three-quarter mark of the 20th century!

If you think that I am going to tell this story as enlightened biologists battling benighted human social scientists, then think again. One of the main complaints of the social scientists was that the biologists were guilty of genetic determinism and didn’t pay enough attention to culture. They were right about that, as I have already emphasized, and the criticism extended to Ed’s treatment of human sociality in Sociobiology. Yet, the social scientists hadn’t even remotely produced a coherent theory of human culture on their own, remaining an archipelago of knowledge. The study of human culture was a vast no man’s land in 1975.

Another battle was fought over the practical applications of evolutionary theory, with the term “Social Darwinism” used as a flag for the idea that all of the horrors of the 20th century rested upon Darwin’s shoulders. Never mind that Hitler rejected Darwinism and progressive social reformers such as John Dewey were directly inspired by Darwin. The actual history of Darwinian thinking applied to public policy demonstrates two things: 1) Any tool can also be used as a weapon. Darwin’s theory is no different than any other powerful idea in this regard. 2) In the human social sciences, all the good scholarship needed to establish the first point coexists with the worst kind of fear-mongering unbefitting the scholarly professions. For more, see the TVOL special edition titled Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism.7

Back to Basics

It wasn’t until the late 1970s and 1980s that scientists and scholars from across the knowledge archipelago went back to basics by defining any process as Darwinian when it combines the three ingredients of variation, selection, and replication. This was the period when terms such as “evolutionary psychology”, “evolutionary anthropology”, and “evolutionary economics” were coined, signaling the need to rethink whole disciplines from an evolutionary perspective. This was also when the study of cultural evolution began to be placed on a mathematical foundation, building upon population genetics models that had been developed fifty years earlier. Two of the main architects of cultural evolutionary theory, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, were my colleagues at the University of California at Davis, my first faculty position. Pete was trained as a limnologist and Rob as an environmental scientist. The fact that they could easily shift to the study of cultural evolution was yet another example of the transcendent power of Darwin’s theory. I vividly remember how fringy it seemed in the late 1970s. Culture was beyond the pale for our evolutionary biology colleagues and evolution was beyond the pale for our social science colleagues. Their 1985 book Culture and the Evolutionary Process and 2006 book Not By Genes Alone became classics.

Other landmarks included The Symbolic Species (1999) by Terrence Deacon and Evolution in Four Dimensions (2006) by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb. Deacon brilliantly showed how the capacity for symbolic thought could be distinctively human and yet how it could evolve by genetic evolution from a chimp-like ancestor, becoming its own cultural stream of inheritance. Jablonka and Lamb delineated four streams of inheritance–genetic, epigenetic, forms of social learning found in many species, and forms of symbolic thought that are distinctively human—and how they co-evolve with each other. Even religion, which for many people is the polar opposite of evolution, became the object of evolutionary inquiry at the turn of the twenty-first century, including my own Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society.

Fast-forwarding to the present, there is a vibrant and rapidly growing community of evolutionary thinkers who, like Darwin, include all aspects of humanity in their study of “this view of life.” Two students of Rob and Pete, Joseph Henrich and Richard McElreath, are Chair of Harvard University’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, respectively. An entire genre of books is available to the general public, includes Joe’s excellent The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (2015) and The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Peculiarly Prosperous (2020).

Yet, this enlightened community is still a tiny, evolving fraction of the worldwide academic community and is still barely reflected in college education. When it comes to practical applications, 99% of policy experts would be dumbfounded by the statement “nothing about policy makes sense except in the light of evolution.” As with the synthesis of biological knowledge during the twentieth century, what historians will call fast looking back upon the 21st century is slow for the people who live it—and far, far too slow to solve the problems that require our immediate attention.

Multilevel Selection and the Long Shadow of Individualism

There is one class of behaviors that Darwin could not explain with his theory of natural selection—at least not at first. Prosocial behaviors, which are oriented toward the welfare of others and one’s group as a whole, are inherently vulnerable to more self-oriented behaviors. If natural selection is all about some individuals surviving and reproducing better than others, then how can helping others survive and reproduce at one’s own expense evolve?

Darwin was eventually able to answer his own question, although it took him a while, which can be seen by the changes he made in successive editions of his books.8 Prosocial behaviors can be favored by a process of competition among groups in a multi-group population, even if they are disfavored by competition among individuals within groups. As Ed Wilson and I summed it up in our 2007 article titled “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology” — “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”9 

Yet, as everyone familiar with the topic knows, the idea of selection at the level of groups was rejected by most evolutionary biologists during the last half of the 20th century in favor of the view that all adaptations are for the good of individuals and their selfish genes.

How do we explain this pendulum swing of opinion, from Darwin to Dawkins and back again to what Ed and I were trying to establish in 2007?

The best way to answer this question is by calling attention to a larger pendulum swing of opinion known as Individualism. This is a commitment to regarding the individual person as the fundamental unit of analysis and that all things social must be understood in terms of the motives and actions of individuals. Like all intellectual traditions, Individualism has long roots, with major figures that included Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter at the turn of the twentieth century,10 but it became so dominant during the second half of the twentieth century that many people couldn’t imagine anything else, like the proverbial water that fish can’t see. Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spoke for her times when she quipped in 1987 that there is no such thing as society; only individuals and families.

Thus, at the same time that economists were trying to explain everything in terms of rational individuals maximizing their utilities, evolutionary theorists were trying to explain everything in terms of well-adapted individuals maximizing the fitness of their genes. There was an aura of excitement about the similarity between economic and evolutionary theory, as if some great generality was being achieved, when in fact it was merely a convergence upon the intellectual tradition of Individualism.

Individualism has delivered some insights but has also proven its limitations across the board—in economics, the social sciences, evolutionary biology, and everyday life. It turns out that large-scale biological and human systems can’t be understood entirely of the motives and actions of individual organisms. Multiple levels of functional organization exist and must be recognized, especially if our purpose is to evolve higher levels of functional organization that does not currently exist. The revival of MLS theory in evolutionary thought needs to be seen as part of a larger trend of going beyond the intellectual tradition of Individualism in all its forms.

On the Need to Catalyze Positive Cultural Evolution

I have traced the lineage of Prosocial World to its Darwinian roots to make the following major points.

1) Evolutionary theory has a transcendent quality, by which I mean its ability to integrate existing disciplinary knowledge and inform the search for new knowledge for all aspects of living systems. This transcendent quality was clear to Darwin from the beginning and is represented by his phrase “this view of life”.

2) The explanatory power of evolutionary thinking has required decades to unfold and still is not complete. It is still a work in progress within the biological sciences, even more a work in progress for the academic study of humanity, and has barely even started for real-world change efforts.

3) Widespread knowledge and application of evolutionary theory—what I call completing the Darwinian revolution in my 2019 book This View of Life, must be catalyzed to solve the problems of our age.

The concept of catalysis is familiar in chemistry and needs to become familiar in the study of the application of cultural evolution. A chemical catalyst is a substance that, when added in small amounts, increases the rate of a chemical reaction without being used up in the process. Crudely speaking, the way a catalytic molecule works is by holding other molecules in an orientation that binds them to each other, after which it is released to repeat the process.

In principle, the rate of cultural evolution can be catalyzed in the same way as a chemical reaction. The cultural catalytic agent would hold other agents in an orientation that binds them to each other, after which it is released to repeat the process.

In a sense, this is just another way of describing what we already know and takes place all around us. We already know that rates of cultural evolution are highly variable and can be very fast—such as the onset of the Internet Age, Big Data, and the gig economy. And what would the average workshop be but the bringing together of people who might not otherwise interact, in hope that they will do something together after the workshop is over?

Nevertheless, never underestimate the power of metaphorical transfer. Thinking more explicitly about cultural catalysis can help to accomplish in years what otherwise would require decades or not take place at all. And make no mistake—evolution, whether genetic or cultural, fast or slow, doesn’t make everything nice. It frequently results in outcomes that benefit me but not you, us but not them, or our short-term welfare at the expense of future generations. As we experiment with cultural catalysis, we need to make it fast and benign rather than fast and pathological for the common good. See the TVOL series of essays titled “The Cultural Evolution of Social Pathologies” for examples of what happens when cultural evolution is not managed toward prosocial ends.

My own efforts at cultural catalysis began with a campus-wide evolutionary studies program and real-world change efforts in my hometown of Binghamton, took a quantum jump with the Evolution Institute, and now are taking another quantum jump with Prosocial World. A brief description of the immediate ancestors of PW will bring us to the present.

EvoS

The vibrant community united by “this view of life” that I described earlier is diffused across hundreds of colleges and universities worldwide. At any particular institution of higher education, there is a concentration of evolutionary scientists in the biology-oriented departments and a sprinkling in the human-oriented departments, feeling lonely among their own colleagues, without any mechanisms for reaching out across departments. Transdisciplinary efforts of all sorts must struggle against the silos of the departments, based on divisions of knowledge that date back to the nineteenth century. The situation for college students is even worse. Only biology students get systematic training in evolution, which is confined to genetic evolution. For the rest of the student body, their exposure to evolution will depend upon their exposure to the lonely professors who incorporate evolution into their courses. At this rate, it will truly take the rest of the century for the Darwinian revolution to become complete in academia and higher education.

EvoS (for Evolutionary Studies) was an attempt to catalyze this process on a college campus so that it takes place in years rather than decades. Details are provided elsewhere but it’s easy to imagine ways to facilitate cross-departmental interactions through a campus-wide seminar series that also brings in a flow of external speakers, providing incentives in the form of start-up grants, teaching an “Evolution for Everyone” course to non-majors, creating a multi-course curriculum for undergraduates that could be easily taken in parallel with their majors, and so on.

Directing EvoS was hard work but richly rewarding, especially to see how students thrived when introduced to evolutionary thinking early in their college careers, no matter what their majors. Seeing everything through an evolutionary lens became second nature for them. I remember Debra Lieberman, now a professor of psychology at the University of Miami and author of the 2018 book Objection: Disgust, Morality and the Law, fuming in my office as a college sophomore at all of her other professors who just didn’t get it. Justin Garcia, now Executive Director of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and co-author of Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior, authored and co-authored 16 peer-review articles in multiple topic areas before receiving his PhD. Jonathan Gottschall, whose decision to write his Ph.D. thesis on Homer from an evolutionary perspective was anathema to his English Department professors, found a happier home in EvoS and went on to write the best-seller The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (2013). And Guru Madhavan, now Senior Director of Programs and senior scholar at the National Academy of Engineering, author of Applied Minds:  How Engineers Think, and Chair of the board of PW, singularly credits EvoS with broadening his horizons as a systems engineer.  

Then EvoS began to spread to other colleges and universities. A sister program at SUNY New Paltz was started by the evolutionary psychologist Glenn Geher and together we received NSF funding to create a consortium of EvoS programs, whose most recent output is Darwin’s Roadmap to the Curriculum: Evolutionary Studies in Higher Education (2019). Looking back on the 18-year history of EvoS, I regard our catalytic efforts as good but not nearly good enough. More is required to catalyze evolutionary thinking in higher education and everywhere else, which is part of the mission of PW.  

The Binghamton Neighborhood Project

Once EvoS was established at Binghamton University, I began to develop the concept of using the city of Binghamton as a field site for research on basic and applied cultural evolution. After all, evolutionary inquiry begins by studying organisms in relation to their environments. Laboratory research follows upon field research and must be informed by it to ask the most relevant questions. This means that we should be studying people from all walks of life, as they go about their daily lives. Not only would this be cutting-edge basic scientific research, but it would also be most relevant to improving the quality of life in partnership with the people we were studying. Fundamental and applied research could take place in parallel rather than sequentially.

It turned out that this model, which was business as usual for an evolutionary biologist, was somewhat new for the human-related sciences. The bulk of psychological research takes place in the laboratory without any reference to the context of a person’s life. The most field-oriented social sciences, such as sociology and cultural anthropology, are also the most phobic about evolution. And the applied behavioral sciences are often siloed into separate departments such as human development, social work, and education, where basic scientific research doesn’t take place at all.

My first project in Binghamton was to study individual differences in prosociality, the class of behaviors that Darwin had to invent group selection to explain. An orientation to helping others and one’s group as a whole can be regarded as a social strategy that competes against more self-oriented strategies. The competition need not be genetic; it can also be cultural or based on what behaviorally flexible individuals choose to do, consciously or unconsciously,  at any particular moment. Either way, prosociality can succeed in a Darwinian world whenever high-Pros (as we started to call them) can interact with each other and avoid the depredations of low-Pros.

This required measuring the correlation between the prosociality of the individual and the prosociality of the individual’s social environment, such as the amount of support that they get from family, neighborhood, church, school, and extracurricular activities. We measured these in Binghamton’s youth in a survey given through the public school system (subsequent studies validated the results in youth and adults using non-survey methods) and found a whopping correlation of 0.7.11 In plain English, the youth in Binghamton who were most prone to give to others were statistically also most likely to get from others. Moreover, even though not all forms of social support are located close to a student’s home, there was a large spatial component to the correlation. In other words, plotting the residential locations of the students resulted in a map of Binghamton with steep “hills” inhabited by high-Pros separated by deep “valleys” inhabited by low-Pros.

The school superintendent and our other city partners were mesmerized by this and other maps that we showed them from our data. They knew the city of Binghamton better than I ever would, but the maps were revealing a hidden topography that was new to them. Even better, we had a theory that explained why prosociality as a social strategy might thrive under some conditions and perish under others. Providing the right growth conditions for prosociality could potentially turn those valleys into hills.

Another project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, involved studying all of the religious congregations in the city as part of a multi-group cultural ecosystem. Even though Binghamton is a small city, it is home to over 100 religious congregations. Some are growing, others shrinking, others have gone extinct, and still others are being invented de novo. Two worldwide religions, the Church of Latter-Day Saints and Seventh-day Adventism, originated in upstate New York, not far from Binghamton, in the 19th century. In addition to different denominations, there is a spectrum from conservative to progressive within each denomination. One United Methodist Church had more in common with the Universalist Unitarian Church than another United Methodist Church only ten miles away. Individuals left some congregations to join others or enter the ranks of the unchurched. One basic scientific output of this project was a major review article titled “The Nature of Religious Diversity: A Cultural Ecosystem Approach.”12 Another was an article titled “Sacred Text as Cultural Genome: An Inheritance Mechanism and Method for Studying Cultural Evolution.”13 The same research was informing how religious congregations were serving—or failing to serve—their members and the wider Binghamton community. You might think that my evolutionary perspective would pose a barrier to interacting with pastors and their congregations, but it was possible to overlook that difference when the community was identified as the common denominator. This is what it means for basic and applied scientific research to take place in parallel rather than sequentially.

The Evolution Institute

My experience with EvoS led to the 2007 publication of Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. Shortly afterward, I was emailed by Jerry Lieberman, who introduced himself as president of the Humanists of Florida Association. He wanted to start a science-based think tank and was persuaded by my book that it should be evolution-based. Would I like to become involved? For me, the opportunity to expand upon what I was doing in Binghamton was so appealing that I jumped in with both feet.

My idea for the EI was to address any and all policy areas from an evolutionary perspective. We realized that this would be difficult for many people to grasp, so we decided to begin with the topic of early childhood education as a proof of concept. In the sprawling field of early childhood education, it was possible to identify about a dozen experts, all highly regarded, who had begun to adopt an evolutionary perspective. We gathered them for a workshop, initiating a focus that continues to this day, including our own charter school in the Tampa area, where Jerry resides. Another output is the 2016 edited volume Evolutionary Perspectives on Childhood Development and Education.

One participant of the first workshop, Bruce Ellis, was so impressed that he helped us organize a second workshop on risky adolescent behavior.14 Jerry and I chose quality of life as a new topic area, which led us to study Norway as a case study of cultural evolution at the national scale leading to a high quality of life. One output of that project is the 2018 volume Sustainable Modernity: The Nordic Model and Beyond, edited by our Norwegian partners Nina Witoszek and Atle Midttun.

Economics became a focus when Bernard Winograd, our first major benefactor, and COO of the Prudential Corporation’s US operations, asked what evolution might have to say about the 2008 financial crisis. Over a weekend, I wrote a proposal to NSF’s National Evolutionary Synthesis Center to organize a conference titled “The Nature of Regulation: How Evolutionary Theory Can Inform the Regulation of Large-scale Human Social Interactions”. The proposal was accepted and organizing the conference was the start of my own economic education. One output is the 2016 edited volume Complexity and Evolution: Toward a New Synthesis for Economics. As part of my new foray into economics, I met Elinor Ostrom shortly before she was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2009 and initiated a collaboration that became foundational for my own real-world change efforts.15

During the same period, I started interacting with leaders of a cluster of applied academic disciplines called Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS), defined as “the study of behavior in the context of everyday life, with an emphasis on prediction and influence in addition to understanding”. Pioneers associated with CBS include William James, John Dewey, and B.F. Skinner. They were directly inspired by Darwin and B.F. Skinner’s 1981 article in Science magazine titled “Selection by Consequences”16 was an eloquent articulation of the idea that genetic evolution, the open-ended capacity for individual behavioral change, and trans-generational cultural change all had something in common. Yet, despite its evolutionary roots, CBS had become detached from modern evolutionary science and the Skinnerian tradition had perversely been excluded from the self-described field of evolutionary psychology, as I relate in a 2018 TVOL article titled “Evolutionary Psychology and the Standard Social Science Model: Regaining the Middle Ground”.  

I mention the diversity of focus areas spawned by the EI to illustrate, once again, the transcendent power of evolutionary thinking. What I was doing through the EI was little different than throughout my scientific career, dancing from one topic to another, not as a dilettante but in a way that leads to peer-review publications, the gold standard of academic accomplishment. In this case, however, the topics were oriented toward making a difference in the real world and my capacity was enlarged by the organization that I helped to build with Jerry and many others.

Not every EI project met with success. Nobody bats 1000, in baseball or any other endeavor. Also, I learned that even a successful project can be disrupted by factors beyond our control.

My biggest disappointment in that regard was the Regents Academy, a school for at-risk high school students in Binghamton that I was advising.17 It was my first opportunity to apply Ostrom’s Core Design Principles, was a spectacular success and was documented with a randomized control trial, the gold standard of assessment in applied research. Nevertheless, it was still terminated after a few years under a different school leadership.

I call this “the paradox of programs that work but don’t survive or spread”, and anyone who tries their hand at real-world change will know what I mean. Even if you are lucky or clever enough to create a program that works, it is vulnerable to disruption by the next school superintendent, the next mayor, or the next dean. This speaks to the need to manage cultural evolution even higher up the scale of social organization, which is an even more challenging proposition. The bottom line, in evolutionary language, is that managing positive cultural evolution is seldom a stroll up an adaptive peak. More often, it requires navigating a rugged adaptive landscape with peaks separated by valleys.

As the Evolution Institute hit its stride, my efforts became concentrated on two major projects. The first was the online magazine This View of Life, which I saw as a way to do for a worldwide audience what EvoS was doing for higher education. The second was Prosocial, a practical method for helping groups manage their cultural evolution, becoming more internally cooperative, more adaptable to change, and better able to act as prosocial agents in between-group interactions. This project would not be possible without my CBS collaborators, in particular Paul Atkins and Steven C. Hayes. What we have constructed together can be implemented by any group, anywhere in the world, no matter what its specific objective, as described in our 2019 book Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups.

TVOL and Prosocial are the two projects that have spun off to become Prosocial World.

Why A New Organization?

Despite all that has been accomplished by the EI, the same evolutionary perspective that makes it so distinctive is a liability in other respects. Most nonprofit organizations have a single topical focus, such as Habitat for Humanity, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or Doctors Without Borders. An organization capable of addressing anything and everything sounds strange and unfocused to those who have not already acquired an evolutionary perspective. Many of our potential supporters have a primary interest in one of our topic areas, such as education, and are confused by our other topic areas and our emphasis on evolution as the fountainhead for everything we do. Most non-profits judiciously develop a few projects and declare that their plates are full. My insatiable appetite for starting new projects through TVOL and Prosocial may seem like bad practice. For me, it is good practice informed by examples from nature such as slime molds, fungal hyphae, plant roots, and ant colonies, which put out feelers in all directions and then invest in the most promising of the alternatives. Therefore, the timing was prudent to amicably spin my projects off from the EI to form PW. I remain on the board of the EI and we expect to collaborate on projects as a shared interest.

As an independent, nonprofit organization, PW is able to define its ambitions in a full-throated way. Our aim is to accomplish rapid positive multilevel cultural change worldwide.18 Taking these key terms in order:

Rapid: Rates of positive cultural change can be catalyzed, similar to rates of chemical change. We aim to accomplish in years what otherwise might require decades or not at all.

Positive: Cultural change takes place whether we want it to or not, but often it results in problems rather than solutions. We aim to align the forces of cultural change with prosocial goals.

Multilevel: Positive change must be global, with the welfare of the whole earth system in mind. It must also be local, with the welfare of individuals working together in small groups in mind, since this is the most natural and fulfilling scale of human social interactions. And the local and global scales must be connected by intermediate levels of social organizations, such as institutions, businesses, and governments.

Cultural: Everyone uses this word in the vernacular, but PW treats cultural change explicitly and innately as an evolutionary process, similar in its fundamentals to the process of genetic evolution. This enables us to apply insights from the social, behavioral, and evolutionary sciences to solve the problems of our age.

As PW develops, we intend to integrate TVOL and Prosocial into a single learning-to-action framework. TVOL can function as a free university for the exploration of any topic area through print articles, podcasts, courses, and online events. Current examples include the series “Evolution, Complexity, and the Third Way of Entrepreneurship,” “Advice to an Aspiring Economist,” and “Evolutionary Science and Sociology.” Unlike most content on the Internet, TVOL content has the same kind of authority, accountability, and longevity as the academic literature. TVOL content, unlike most of the academic literature, is accessible to a far larger and transdisciplinary audience free of charge.

The learning that takes place on TVOL will be oriented toward action. What can we do together, not only as individuals but by forming into appropriately structured groups? A distinctive feature of PW, especially against the background of Individualism, is its emphasis on the typically small, functionally oriented group as a fundamental unit of human social organization, needed for both individual thriving and efficacious action at larger scales. Any group of people who need to work together to achieve common goals can benefit from PW’s coaching methods.

Readers who are unfamiliar with our practical method of working with groups might be surprised by what we have already accomplished as a project within the EI and are in a position to expand upon it as part of PW. We have trained over 500 facilitators from 34 nations (and growing), have developed a training system that can be taken to scale, and are working with groups in contexts as diverse as education, health, business, regenerative agriculture, and spirituality.

PW welcomes the support and participation of anyone who wishes to become involved in achieving rapid positive multilevel cultural change. Please register here if you wish to receive information on engagement opportunities.  We hope that you will join us on this journey to evolve our future.

References:

[1] A book-length account is provided in my book The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time.

[2] TVOL was cofounded with Robert Kadar, who was my graduate student at the time. Robert went on to found Evonomics.com, which has been catalytic force in changing economic thought.

[3] For a fascinating history of this period, see The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, by William Provine. It’s an easier read than the title suggests!

[4] Tinbergen, N. (1963). On aims and methods of ethology. Zeitschrift Für Tierpsychologie, 20, 410–433.

[5] Visit the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis website for more: https://extendedevolutionarysynthesis.com.

[6] https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/12/06/specials/wilson-naturalist.html

[7] See also Hodgson, G. M. (2004). Social Darwinism in Anglophone Academic Journals: A Contribution to the History of the Term. Journal of Historical Sociology, 17, 428–454.

[8] See Chapter 2 of Elliott Sober’s Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards?, which is titled “Darwin and Group Selection”.

[9] Wilson, D. S., & Wilson, E. O. (2007). Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology. Quarterly Review of Biology, 82, 327–348.

[10] For more, see Hodgson, G. M. (2007). Meanings of methodological individualism. Journal of Economic Methodology, 14(2), 211–226. https://doi.org/10.1080/13501780701394094

[11] Wilson, D. S., O’Brien, D. T., & Sesma, A. (2009). Human prosociality from an evolutionary perspective: variation and correlations at a city-wide scale. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30(3), 190–200. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.12.002

[12] Wilson, D. S., Hartberg, Y., MacDonald, I., Lanman, J. A., & Whitehouse, H. (2016). The nature of religious diversity: a cultural ecosystem approach. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1–20.

[13] Hartberg, Y. M., & Wilson, D. S. (2016). Sacred text as cultural genome: an inheritance mechanism and method for studying cultural evolution. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2016.1195766

[14] This workshop led to a major review article: Ellis, B. J., Del Giudice, M., Dishion, T. J., Figueredo, A. J., Gray, P., Griskevicius, V., … Wilson, D. S. (2012). The evolutionary basis of risky adolescent behavior: implications for science, policy, and practice. Developmental Psychology, 48(3), 598–623. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026220

[15] 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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2012.12.010

[16] Skinner, B. F. (1981). Selection by Consequences. Science, 213, 501–504.

[17] Wilson, D. S., Kauffman, R. A., & Purdy, M. S. (2011). A Program for At-risk High School Students Informed by Evolutionary Science. PLoS ONE, 6(11), e27826. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0027826

[18] PW’s business plan is available upon request by emailing me at David.Wilson@Prosocial.World.

Published On: February 12, 2021

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .

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