All posts tagged: collective action

Evolutionary logic of collective action (series)

In this series I explore how evolutionary theory might help to explain the origins and logic of collective action, and how it might inform the thinking and strategies of progressive change agents.

This is the landing page for the series.  You can bookmark it and check back for new posts, which I’ll be linking to from this page.

  1. Humans: not just selfish
  2. War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection
  3. The Political Identity Paradox
  4. Immigration: anatomy of a progressive narrative

War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection | Evolutionary logic pt.II

“the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly”

If anyone managed to come away from Part I: Humans: not just selfish with an overly sentimental view of human nature, this post will rob you of that delusion.  Yes, we humans have a remarkably developed faculty for cooperation and group-oriented behavior, in comparison to most other species.  That’s an encouraging thing to know.  And it may even become useful, if you start to identify the conditions that tend to set us up for cooperation.  However, as Charles Darwin, David Sloan Wilson, and many others have suggested, the processes of group selection that helped us evolve to be cooperative within our groups probably also encouraged competition (to put it mildly) between groups.

Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson explain in their book, Unto Others:

…our goal … is not to paint a rosy picture of universal benevolence. Group selection does provide a setting in which helping behavior directed at members of one’s own group can evolve; however, it equally provides a context in which hurting individuals in other groups can be selectively advantageous. Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness. Group selection theory does not abandon the idea of competition that forms the core of the theory of natural selection…

And here’s Wilson again in The New Fable of the Bees: Multilevel Selection, Adaptive Societies, and the Concept of Self Interest:

[Multilevel selection theory] has the capacity to explain the behavior of individuals who demonically work to undermine their groups (within-group selection), individuals who angelically work on behalf of their groups (the bright side of among-group selection) and avenging angels who work on behalf of their groups to destroy other groups (the dark side of among-group selection). We might not like the dark sides of animal and human nature, but they exist and require a theory to explain them. …multilevel selection theory has the potential to explain the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

Why do you build me up, buttercup, just to let me down and mess me around?  Seriously though, this just underscores that the purpose of this series is to use the lens of evolutionary theory not to idealize but to examine and better understand how humans and groups work, particularly in relation to collective action – and hopefully make practical use of that understanding.

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.