Back to basics with social theory

Sensemaking / Back to basics with social theory

Our economy is built on competition – but, really, we are collaborators. Anna Simpson interviews evolutionary scientist David Sloan Wilson.

By Anna Simpson / 17 May 2017

This interview was originally published by Green Futures magazine in January 2012.


Business leaders often use the 'survival of the fittest' to justify a competitive approach. How do you respond?

Competition isn't a bad thing, necessarily. In a sense, evolution is always competition. But the idea that society can function on the basis of unregulated competition – what's sometimes called market fundamentalism – is mistaken.

What's the theoretical foundation for this view that economic self-interest automatically results in the common good? It's the invisible hand – Adam Smith's concept – reified by neo-classical economics, and there's now a great big edifice which supports it! But it's not consilient with what we now know about our species.

Over the last few decades in evolutionary biology, what you could call a 'science of cooperation' has developed. We can now specify in some detail what it takes for a group to work well together. One thing that's very encouraging for people in cooperative movements is that small face-to-face groups have emerged as a natural human unit. Until about 15,000 years ago, small groups were the only human social environment. As Toqueville said, "The village or township is the only association which is so perfectly natural that … it seems to constitute itself." We have developed a set of instincts, which we think of as our moral psychology, and which cause us to function very well in small groups – as long as certain conditions are met.

In the US, people are talking about a second enlightenment. We've learnt a lot since the first one, and so it's time to rethink social theory. We need to go back to basics.

What are these conditions – the key ingredients for collaboration?

They were set out by Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009. First of all, the group needs a strong identity, a common purpose. Then, the costs and benefits must be proportional, so it cannot be the case that some do the work and others get the benefits! Third is consensus decision-making, because no one likes to be told what to do. The question is, "Do I succeed at your expense, or do we succeed?" Then the process must be monitored, and conflict resolution must be fair and fast. The final points are to do with the place of the group in the wider social context: it needs some autonomy, and the same conditions must be applied to its relationships with other groups. It's a pretty detailed blueprint!

How great a challenge do you think it will be to move the businesses and markets that dominate the economy today towards a collaborative model?

I think it's perfectly feasible, because so much depends on just the way we see things. Another message of evolution is that we're a very cultural species. The way we behave is not just a matter of our genes. For the most part, it's a matter of our theories and our ideologies, and the way we see the world. So, if you have a certain set of ideas that causes you to see the world a certain way, then this governs how you behave. Our current narrative emphasises individual self-interest. If we can adopt a different narrative, then all of a sudden there'll be new possibilities, new solutions that we can trial. We can be much more scientific about managing this process of cultural evolution. Let's think about what could actually improve our quality of life. Let's implement it. And then let's assess it.

Certainly, much of today's culture is based around personal achievement, personal ownership, self-expression… Would you argue that we need to move away from the 'cult' of the individual, in art, in politics, in music?

Yes. Let's just focus on the phrase, 'the cult of the individual'. 'Cult' means this is something we believe in, that we worship. There's a wonderful article, published in the Atlantic Magazine some years ago, called 'The Market as God'. It's by Harvey Cox, a religious scholar who started to read the Wall Street Journal, and found that he felt right at home – because the way in which it talks about the economy and the market is just like the way in which people talk about God! Cox spells it out. So, we have to realise that the way we think about individuals is a kind of cult. And we need to question it: we need to come up with another cult if you like – one that is more constructive and more consistent with the way that we really are.

How have we strayed so far from "the way we really are"?

It's instinctive to create a group, but we don't automatically take on all those ingredients for success. The world is full of groups that lack those ingredients. Look at a typical high school situation: there's no strong sense of group identity; no consensus decision-making.

So is there a role for leadership, to help groups cultivate these qualities?

There's a great book on leadership from an evolutionary perspective, by Mark van Vugt, called 'Naturally Selected'. He says that there are two concepts of leadership. On one hand, you have a primate dominance leader: a bully – someone who intimidates everyone else and takes all the stuff. When societies have that kind of dominance they don't function well. Then there's a more responsible form of leadership: the leader as a steward, who functions in a coordinating capacity.

The best kind of leadership is one where the leader is held accountable, and there's some bottom up control. But if the group is extremely small, you don't need a leader – and this was a huge surprise for anthropologists! During the age of exploration you'd go and see a tribe and say, "Take me to your leader!" – but there was no leader, because these were egalitarian societies.

How important is it to have women in leadership roles?

Equality and equal opportunity are essential. But there's a real tendency to essentialise our differences all the time. Yes, there are differences biologically, but it's amazing how wrong we've been about the aptitudes of people – especially women. We need to be most impressed by our cultural flexibility. I don't think it's true that women would have a different approach to leadership necessarily. But if we want to have more of an emphasis on cooperation, then we must strive for the greater involvement of all who are marginalised.

David Sloan Wilson is a distinguished professor of Biological Sciences and Anthropology at Binghamton University. Anna Simpson is Curator, Futures Centre.

This article has been republished from The Guardian Sustainable Business Network.

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