Words such as “science” and “experiment” mean different things to different people. Here is what we mean by these two words and how our organization, Prosocial World, puts them into action.

Prosocial World is scientific and experimental in its approach to consciously evolving a world that works for all. This has a positive glow for some people, implying knowledge, progress, and modernity.1 But it has a negative glow for others, implying “putting people under the microscope” with detached indifference and not necessarily in their interest. Also, for some people, science implies a disregard of other forms of wisdom.

Given this spectrum of reactions, it is important to clarify what we mean by the words “science” and “experimentation” and how Prosocial World attempts to put them into action. Just as nearly any tool can also be used as a weapon, we acknowledge that science has earned its bad reputation in many cases—especially when there is a power imbalance between scientists and those who are being studied. Fortunately, the egalitarian principles that inform all our cultural change efforts can help to prevent science and experimentation from being used as a weapon and to become a powerful tool for good.

Another aura surrounding these two words is that they require great expertise and intelligence, as if a Ph.D. is required to become a scientist and do experiments. To dispel this aura, we define science as an attempt by anyone to understand the world around them in a way that can be documented by observation and experiment. We define an experiment as a comparison of alternative hypotheses to determine which one better explains a given observation or interpretation of the world.

As stated in this down-to-earth way, science and experimentation sometimes require fancy instruments and advanced education, but they are also activities that most of us perform on a daily basis. To illustrate, we offer a parable.

The Parable of the Gardener

Let’s say that you’re a master gardener and your roses aren’t growing as well as they should. Is it the soil or insect pests? If it’s the soil, is it the pH or a nutrient imbalance? If it’s a nutrient imbalance, what is the limiting nutrient? Each question requires an experiment to find the answer and mother nature does not forgive ignorance. If the problem is a nutrient imbalance, the limiting factor is potassium, and you fail to arrive at this fact, your roses will simply suffer as a result.

How methodical would you be about conducting your experiments? That depends on the gardener, but we can all agree that a bit of method can help in arriving at the right answer. Instead of trying first one thing and then another on all of your roses, for example, you might try a potassium supplement on half of your roses and then compare the difference.

Continuing the parable, let’s say that you have discovered by trial and error that your roses thrive when you add composted banana peels to the soil. You don’t know why, but it works! Then you meet another gardener who swears by wood ash. A third gardener informs you that both work for the same reason—banana peels and wood ash are both high in potassium. We think you’ll agree that the third gardener’s knowledge provides a synthesis of your and the second gardener’s knowledge about banana peels and wood ash. 

Now let’s say that you learn of an organization that does gardening research at a larger scale than any single gardener could manage. You might be skeptical about this organization if it had its own agenda, such as selling you its particular brand of fertilizer, but this organization appears entirely prosocial in its desire to help gardeners.

Representatives of this organization are proud of their knowledge but they don’t think that they have all the answers and they are fully respectful of your own knowledge–especially when it comes to your own garden! They want to work with you, rather than tell you what to do. Through them, you can also meet, learn from, and work with many more gardeners than you could on your own.

Conscious Evolution as a Form of Gardening

The kind of conscious evolution that Prosocial World exists to promote is literally a form of gardening. Instead of growing a plant such as a rose, we assist in the growth of prosocial behaviors, defined as anything oriented toward the welfare of others and society as a whole. Prosocial behaviors can survive and thrive, but they require the right growth conditions and must compete with “weedy” behaviors that benefit some at the expense of others.

This table shows some of the conditions that promote the flourishing of prosocial behaviors. They were first “discovered” by a political scientist named Elinor Ostrom, who studied the management of common-pool resources such as forests, fields, fisheries, and groundwater.2 Prosocial behavior in this context is to manage the resource wisely for long-term sustainability. “Weedy” behavior is to take more than one’s share of the resource, resulting in the tragedy of overuse.3

In her research on common-pool resource groups around the world, Ostrom discovered that they varied in their ability to avoid the tragedy of overuse. The most successful groups implemented certain practices that Ostrom called “core design principles”. It might seem odd to say that Ostrom discovered them when they were already being practiced by at least some of the groups. These groups can be regarded as like master gardeners who had figured things out for themselves! Nevertheless, they were not necessarily able to explain the ingredients of their success and they implemented the principles in different ways, a bit like some using banana peels and others using wood ash. Even if the successful groups could explain what they were doing right, they were in limited contact with other groups and therefore had no way to share their knowledge. Ostrom’s contribution was a bit like discovering “potassium” as the common denominator and having the wherewithal to communicate with a larger number of groups.  

Ostrom was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2009 for her achievements, but this does not mean that the core design principles became common knowledge.4 While she had generalized the core design principles to a degree, they were still studied mostly in the context of common-pool resource groups. And her theoretical framework faced stiff competition from other frameworks such as neoclassical economic theory. “Weedy” species of thought do not give up their ground easily! 

Another step toward generality was achieved with an article published in 2013 titled “Generalizing the Core Design Principles for the Efficacy of Groups”, authored by Ostrom, her associate Michael Cox, and one of us (DSW).5 This article began to establish that the core design principles provide the right growth conditions for all forms of prosocial behavior. CDP1 defines the group and its purpose, CDP2-6 regulate the activities of the group and prevent “weedy” self-serving behaviors from taking over, and CDP7-8 extend the same principles to interactions among groups. The bold prediction is that all purpose-oriented groups should vary in their implementation of these principles, no matter what their specific objective or cultural tradition, with corresponding variation in performance outcomes.6

This puts Prosocial World in the same position as the gardening research organization of our parable. We want to help groups of all kinds grow prosocial behaviors. We are proud of our knowledge but also respect the knowledge of our partners and know that in some cases we are working with master gardeners in their own right! This is why we can learn from each other and also coordinate interactions among groups more than most groups are able to do on their own.   

Becoming Mindful

A difficult but important lesson to learn is that evolution doesn’t automatically make everything nice. It often results in outcomes that benefit some individuals at the expense of other individuals, some groups at the expense of other groups, or provides short-term benefits at the expense of the long view.

This is true for personal and cultural evolution, no less than for genetic evolution, and accounts for why we so often find it difficult to achieve our valued goals. We want to cultivate a loving relationship with our partners, but we also want to influence them to serve our own ends. We want to eat well and exercise, but our bodies crave fats and sugars and avoid unnecessary physical effort. We want to be team players at the office, but we also want to climb the corporate ladder. We want to prevent climate change, but we also want to drive our cars and grow our economies.

The only way for evolution to become part of the solution, as opposed to part of the problem, is for it to become more mindful. Like gardeners, we must consciously choose our targets of selection, orient variation around our targets, replicate the better practices, and repeat the cycle—again and again and again.

Mindfulness not only changes the selection conditions for behavior, but it also introduces new variations that can help broaden behavioral repertoires to be more effective. In our programs, people learn the skills to better take the perspective of others and to self-regulate their emotions in the face of the complex challenges of collaboration.

Just as groups vary in their implementation of the core design principles, they vary in their capacity to mindfully evolve their futures. Some groups have become masters at the art, others are hopelessly stuck in their ways, and most carry along somewhere in between. Wonderful examples can be found in groups as diverse as religious communities and business corporations, which have converged upon the same principles (a bit like banana peels and wood ash) but have no way to articulate the common denominators or to communicate with each other.

Prosocial World is therefore in a position to help groups mindfully evolve their futures in addition to implementing the core design principles. The need for experimentation is even greater in the case of mindful evolution because the target of selection is often systemic and requires monitoring and assessment tools that are beyond the capacity of most groups.

In both cases, we are proud of the scientific knowledge that we bring to our partnerships and our capacity for experimentation, but we also appreciate the wisdom and opportunity to learn from others. Above all, our prosocial mission—to consciously evolve a world that works for all—makes it far more likely that our research with our partners will result in good rather than harm.7


[1] The authors are the co-founders of Prosocial World.

[2] A common pool resource is a depletable resource that can be drawn upon by a group of individuals.

[3] The phrase “Tragedy of the Commons” was the title of an article by the ecologist Garrett Hardin published in Science magazine in 1968.

[4] This online essay titled “The Woman Who Saved Economics from Disaster” recounts Ostrom’s impact on economics.

[5] 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

[6] This 2020 article titled “Core Design Principles for Nurturing Organization-level Selection” illustrates some of our scientific research.

[7] For a book length account of our scientific and experimental approach, please see Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups (co-authored with Steven C. Hayes). To begin exploring collaborative potential, please email hello@prosocial.world.

Published On: July 7, 2022

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.

Paul Atkins

Paul Atkins

Paul Atkins is a researcher, speaker, and facilitator trainer. He is a Visiting Associate Professor with the Crawford School of Public Policy (Australian National University). His research has focused on interventions to reduce stress while enhancing relationships, wellbeing, perspective-taking, and cooperation in groups and organizations.  Paul is a registered organizational psychologist with a Ph.D. in Psychology from Cambridge University. He is the lead author of the recently published book Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups and co-founder and Vice President of Prosocial World, a not for profit organization focused on enhancing cooperation and trust in purpose-driven groups globally. The Prosocial process has been used to help improve group effectiveness in contexts as diverse as slowing the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone, enhancing performance in Australian government agencies, and improving cooperation in public schools.

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