Humans: not just selfish | Evolutionary logic of collective action pt.I

“not a joiner”

The other day I met up with my friend Mike at a coffee shop here in Providence, RI.  Mike is an adjunct history professor at a local community college.  Across the country, there are a lot more adjunct professors today than there were ten years ago, and there are a lot fewer tenured professors.  Adjuncts are far less costly and more expendable than regular or tenured professors; they don’t have benefits; they’re much more vulnerable; and, with few exceptions, they’re not organized into a union that can represent and advance their collective interests as adjuncts.  Over the past year, Mike has been taking a great deal of initiative in bringing other adjuncts together – to get themselves organized, so that they don’t get screwed!

You’d think that joining up would be a no-brainer.  Here you are, part of a new class of teachers in which getting screwed seems to be inherent in the design of your niche position.  And you aren’t just getting screwed right now at this stage of your teaching career; the novel trend of increasing adjunct positions and, correspondingly, decreasing tenured positions promises to screw you and your colleagues for decades to come!  If presented with the opportunity to leverage a little power in numbers for your own benefit (and the benefit of the group), why wouldn’t you take it?

Well, many folks are taking that opportunity.  Mike and other adjuncts have been making some progress.  But not without a lot of hard work, persistence, and attentive conversations.  Mike told me about some of the negative responses:

“I don’t sign petitions!”

“I’m not a joiner.”

“I don’t do groups.”

Through persistence, Mike finally got one of the foot-draggers-the person who said, “I don’t sign petitions!”-to at least make an appearance at a meet-up with other adjuncts.  At the meet-up they had snacks, they joked, and they talked informally about common experiences they shared as adjuncts.  “You could see something change in her,” Mike explained to me.  “It was like she had been thinking only about herself before, and suddenly she was looking around, thinking in a way that involved these other people in the room.

I think that Mike’s description of that one individual’s transformation says volumes about the human condition, and offers instructive clues for people who are working for pro-social change.

If you’re reading this post at or at another progressive social change-oriented website, I probably don’t need to convince you that human beings are capable of cooperative behavior.  You’re probably among those who already believe in the power and potential of human beings working together for the common good.  What may be news to you though are some of the scientific theories and accumulated evidence that support your belief.  The purpose of this series, however, isn’t just to arm you with scientific arguments that reinforce the things you already believe.  The purpose, rather, is to use the lens of evolution to examine and illuminate processes-biological, physiological, neurological, social, and cultural processes-that make cooperative behavior and collective action possible and, in some situations, predictable; so that you, dear reader, and I, and the progressive social change organizations that we are part of, can better understand, recognize and navigate the opportunities and constraints that come along with our evolution as a species.

Before we dig in, I want to note the difference between 1) wrapping up an ideology in evolutionary language and 2) using evolutionary theory as a lens through which to look at something.  I hope to do the latter, not the former.  Some progressives may hesitate to look at social change work through a scientific and especially an evolutionary lens, because our opposition has often used the language of “survival of the fittest” to rationalize and justify individual selfishness and social inequality.  Proponents of laissez faire economic policies often dress up their ideology with the language of science, evolution, naturalness, and inevitability.  Throughout history some egalitarian movements have done the same thing, sometimes going so far as to claim to be the inevitable next phase of human evolution.  While I would love to see more social justice and economic sanity in humanity’s future, I am not interested in evolutionary theory as window dressing.  The purpose of this series is to explore what evolutionary theory may have to offer us for better understanding human behavior – specifically in relation to groups and collective action.  (But yes, I certainly intend to use whatever knowledge to advance social justice causes.)

Evolution means we should expect selfishness, right?

Many evolutionary scientists have contributed to the idea that all individuals are inherently selfish (if not always consciously, at least genetically). In fact, the assumption of inherent individual selfishness nearly knocked other evolutionary theories clean out of the ring in US universities around 1960 (and this was surely a coincidence and certainly did not fit with a pattern of incursions of Cold War ideology into universities across the country).  And they really did mean all individuals – not just the human ones. From monkeys to antelope to fish all the way down to viruses and bacteria, all individual units of life are genetically programmed to survive and pass on their individual genes, so the theory goes. Altruism (behavior that benefits others at a cost to the individual) simply cannot exist, because any mutant altruistic genes that emerge would be disadvantageous to the individual carrying them. The occasional freak mutant altruist would be less fit than its “peers” and, in the competitive setting of organic life on planet earth, those altruistic genes would breed themselves out quickly.

Makes sense, right?

Hmmm… but, what about bees?

When a bee stings you, it dies.  And that teaches you not to mess with other bees.

Well, that sounds an awful lot like sacrificial behavior to me.  But it’s not like that individual bee was going to pass on its individual genes anyway.  After all, it’s the queen who gives birth to all the bees in the hive, and only a handful of drones can be the daddy.  But these facts only make the problem of bee altruism worse!  Bees aren’t just willing to die for the hive – they live their whole lives serving the hive, making it possible for the hive to reproduce – most individuals’ genes be damned!  (Sounds suspiciously like communism to me.)

Evolutionist David Sloan Wilson has played a central role in developing multilevel selection theory, which he says “explains how beehives and other adaptive animal societies evolve.” [Wilson 2004: The New Fable of Bees].  He claims that the theory, “has much to say about human societies, but it fundamentally challenges the concept of individual self-interest as we know it.”

The basic idea is that natural selection can happen on multiple levels – not just on the individual level.  Selection can happen, for example, between groups.  Here’s how Wilson introduces the idea of group selection to his students (from Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives) :

I ask [my students] to consider three imaginary experiments:

What will happen if you put a good person and an evil person together on a desert island? My students regard this as a no-brainer.  The good person will become shark food within days…

What will happen if you put a group of good people on one island and a group of evil people on another island? This is also a no-brainer.  The good group will work together to escape the island or turn it into a little paradise, while the evil group will self-destruct.

What will happen if you allow one evil person to paddle over to Virtue Island? The answer to this question is not obvious because it is a messy combination of the easy answers to the first two questions.

The message of this exercise is simple but profound.  It shows that goodness can evolve, at least when the appropriate conditions are met.  Groups of individuals who exhibit good traits are likely to survive and reproduce better than any other kind of group.  The problem with goodness is its vulnerability to subversion from within.  To the extent that natural selection is based on fitness differences within groups, the traits associated with evil are the expected outcome.  To the extent that natural selection is based on fitness differences among groups, traits associated with goodness are the expected outcome.

Wilson provides a lot of evidence to support multilevel selection theory in Evolution for Everyone, including an experiment with chickens conducted by scientist William Muir.  Muir singled out two groups of chickens for selective breeding.  In the one group he took the most productive (egg-laying) individual hens from many different cages.  He put them all together.  The other group singled out was chosen for being the most productive group.  In other words, this group didn’t have the kind of all-star talent of the individuals that had been selected to make the first group, but it had already shown itself more productive as a group than other groups.

After only a few generations, the group descending from the productive group had become even more productive.  And the group descending from productive “all-star” individuals?  Only three of the nine original hens were left, and they were scarred and featherless – and egg production had dramatically decreased.  How come?  Wilson explains that, “The most productive individuals had achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of their cagemates. Bill had selected the meanest hens in each cage and after six generations had produced a nation of psychopaths.”

To be clear, Wilson isn’t way out in left field as an evolutionist.  The idea of group selection was part of Darwin’s theory of evolution right from the start, as evidenced in this passage from The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex [1871]:

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man [sic] and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in number of well-endowed men and advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another.  There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.  At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.

(With the language of “patriotic” tribes that “have supplanted other tribes,” Darwin skirts on a theme I’ll return to in part II of this series: War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection – check back!)

While group selection took a hit during the Cold War, it has since been vindicated (though certainly there are still passionate differences of opinion).  However, other disciplines (e.g. sociology, psychology, and especially economics) that were highly influenced by the previously prevailing selfishness-centric theory have yet to appreciate the potentially huge implications of group selection and multilevel selection for human societies.

What does this have to do with progressive social change?

I’m a grassroots organizer and strategist, not an evolutionary scientist.  Why is any of this relevant to my work for social justice?  The premise of Evolution for Everyone is that we have much to learn about ourselves as human beings and human groups from evolutionary theory, particularly from multilevel selection theory.  I think that this is perhaps especially true for people involved in social change work.  People who are attempting to mobilize collective action for social change ought to be concerned with how human beings behave, why we behave as we do, and how we have evolved to behave.

The setting in which human behavior evolved was in mostly cooperative groups.  Here’s Wilson [2004: The New Fable of Bees]:

…our ancestors participated in family groups, gathering groups, hunting groups, raiding groups, and so on.  Almost everything was done in a social context; to be alone was to be in grave danger. …opportunities existed to increase the fitness of oneself relative to others in the same group, or to increase the fitness of one’s group relative to other groups. We evolved the behavioral propensities to capitalize on both options. We also evolved the propensity to limit the self-serving behaviors of our social partners, thereby concentrating natural selection at the between-group level…

Modern hunter-gatherer societies and indeed most small human groups exhibit an organization that anthropologist and primatologist Chris Boehm (1993, 1999) has called reverse dominance.  Instead of dominant individuals benefiting at the expense of subordinants within their groups, the subordinants are capable of collectively ganging up on would-be dominants. …it resulted in a form of guarded egalitarianism and a quantum jump in the capacity for collective action. Under the constant gaze of their fellows, eternally vigilant against being bossed around, our ancestors were largely constrained to behave in ways that were agreed upon by consensus. The opportunities for widening one’s own slice of the pie within the group were not entirely eliminated, but they were severely curtailed. The features that set us apart from all other species, including our capacities for culture, language, and symbolic thought (all communal activities) are increasingly being explained in terms of this shift from primarily within-group to primarily among-group selection. [my emphasis]

If multilevel selection theory is true for human beings, then people should be inclined to engage in group-benefiting behavior rather than selfish behavior, under the right conditions.  Many behavioral studies in recent years suggest, to the chagrin of rational economists, that we may even be hard-wired for cooperation – again, under the right conditions.

We need to understand what those conditions are.  Social change work is less about convincing people through rational arguments-this rarely works on its own-than about creating the conditions (and experiences) in which those arguments will resonate.  It’s about looking for the primal switches that turn on pro-social behavior.  Remember the adjunct professor who wouldn’t sign the petition when approached as an individual?  Something changed in the presence of the group.  Something primal kicked in.  Suddenly there was an intuitive logic for collective action.

Those primal switches are everywhere, and they’re being flipped about every which way all the time.  Human beings in modern society are like fish out of water.  Our primal brains (including our pro-social strategies) evolved under different conditions than the ones we now know.  It doesn’t help that the rich and powerful have employed an army of scientists who map our primal switches in order to manipulate us to buy useless crap or to wage war against our fellow human beings.

The conscientious person’s disgust at this application of scientific knowledge can easily turn into repulsion from the knowledge itself.  This, I believe, is a mistake of epic proportions.  Progressives have a responsibility to study and ethically engage on this terrain, because that’s where the war is happening – whether or not we choose to be consciously aware of it.

Consider, for example, how the public messaging of social justice campaigns might benefit from applying multilevel selection theory at the cognitive level. Understanding how central group identity is to human motivation, we may want to focus our message framing on defining the parameters, interests, and narrative of “the group”; claiming and contesting symbols that are meaningful to the group; positively projecting ourselves and our allies as protagonists who are acting benevolently and heroically in the service and interests of the group; and inoculating against our opposition (e.g. painting a picture of a malevolent opponent who seeks to destroy, undermine, subvert, or take advantage of the good will of, the group).  There you have a basic framework for campaign messaging that is informed by a theory of social evolution – which, ironically, the opponents of both evolution and of pro-social values often hit better than we do!  Later in this series I’ll dig more into the details, the ethics, and the asymmetrical nature of progressives consciously engaging on this plain of political struggle.

Understanding the ways that we are collectively minded animals can shed light on many everyday things, like why people enjoy playing and watching team sports.  It can also help to illuminate big questions and challenges that social change agents wrestle with, like how some people can so easily be led to war or to scapegoat immigrants; why oppositional political groups often become insular; why the Democratic Party repeatedly fails to tell a compelling narrative; why the union movement has taken so many hits over the past 40 years; why the labels trouble-maker, traitor, un-American and subversive have potency; and why national identities, class identities, and many other identities have such profound influences on behavior.

I’ll be zooming in on some of these big questions and challenges through this lens of evolutionary logic in future posts in this series.  I hope you’ll stay tuned!

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