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.

Clearly we’re not the first ones to wrestle with this very long-term problem.  And while the evolutionary lens is novel and may explain much, others have through observation come to similar analyses about humankind’s immense capacity for ruthlessness toward other groups.  Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the most astute observers of this phenomenon.  The title of his 1932 classic Moral Man & Immoral Society suggests that human beings tend to behave morally toward each other within small groups, but that our moral code rarely extends, at least as fully, to the societal (between-group) level.  He laments how “…group relations can never be as ethical as those which characterise individual relations.” The book is a comprehensive treatise on the subject:

As individuals, men [sic] believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.

(Disclaimer: Niebuhr is a fascinatingly complicated figure, who went from leading the pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation and running for Congress as a Socialist to advocating for some US military interventions and lending intellectual support for the Cold War.  I’m quoting Moral Man & Immoral Society throughout this article on the merits and relevancy of its content, not because of Niebuhr’s specific politics.)

So whether you explain it through evolution and group selection, or, like Niebuhr, you just observe human behavior and notice the pattern, it seems that we humans tend to struggle to extend the circle of compassion beyond our more proximate relations. And this fact sets us up to be all-to-easily manipulated to fear the bogeymen and barbarians. (The word barbarian, by the way, originated in Greece.  It meant “anyone who is not Greek.” Along similar lines, David Sloan Wilson laments in Evolution for Everyone how, “In many indigenous cultures, the word for ‘our people’ is ‘human’ and outsiders are classified as a type of animal.”)

war & civilization

George W. Bush declared after 9/11, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” and proceeded to lead the nation into two major wars (which are both still happening, by the way).

For anyone who thought rationally about it at the time, this was transparently preposterous framing.  “Okay, okay, I got it.  Anyone who says anything that I don’t like, is a… is a… a TERRORIST!!! Yeah! That’s the ticket!” Anyone who might consider disagreeing with the President’s agenda was preemptively depicted as being in league with the people who had just attacked the nation.

It worked though, because enough people weren’t thinking rationally.  Glued to our television sets, watching repeating loops of passenger jets destroying national symbols and killing thousands of our fellow citizens, most of us felt some combination of terror and outrage.  Fear is a powerful primal motivator that tends to shut down our rational faculties.  When “the group” is threatened or attacked, we instinctively band together.  And we are primed for a counter-attack from “our side.”  While this may in some senses be a perfectly rational reaction, it is not the rational part of the brain that is driving the car.

The good news here is that, in the absence of a perceived threat, most people are generally not eager for their nations to go to war.  The theory of group selection in humans may predict an evolved faculty for group against group fighting, but it would still only make sense for groups to fight with each other if there were something compelling enough to fight for.  War and fighting are costly. Head-on collisions don’t usually benefit the passengers in either vehicle, so we damn well should have evolved to avoid at least some of them.  On the other hand, it would also make evolutionary sense for human groups to have evolved to defend themselves against aggressive groups.  Moreover, extending the automobile metaphor, not all vehicles are equal in terms of size or power.  What’s to stop a monster truck from running a compact off the road?  Isn’t that, after all, kind of the whole story of agricultural civilization?

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá seem to think something along these lines. While the central thesis of their recent book Sex at Dawn is that the advent of agriculture dramatically changed human reproductive strategies and sexual behavior-seriously a must read for all you sexual libertines who want to arm your desire with a scientific theory!-they also discuss major non-sexual behavior shifts that came along with agriculture:

It makes perfect Darwinian sense to suppose that prehistoric humans would choose the path that offered the best chance of survival-even if that path required egalitarian sharing of resources rather than the self-interested hoarding of resources many contemporary Western societies insist is basic human nature.

The advent of agriculture is really a pretty recent phenomenon, in terms of the whole scope of human evolution.  There are still pre-agricultural groups among us; there were a lot more just a hundred years ago, and a lot more a hundred years before that, and so on.  Genetically, we haven’t changed a whole lot – we’re still the same species. So we’re a highly complex accumulation of genes that took millions and millions of years to evolve and then suddenly started to behave dramatically differently – just a moment ago in evolutionary time. What happened?

What agriculture changed, Ryan and Jethá argue (and they’re certainly not the first ones), was the ability to store and accumulate resources, to concentrate wealth, and to consolidate power.  This is the X factor that changed the whole equation of human social behavior, both within groups and among groups.



give us the bananas!

Now there was something substantial to fight about: storehouses and accumulated treasure, as well as control of arable land, water access, and more.  There’s evidence to suggest that the ability to systematically store food is enough by itself to radically change behavior – or at least that’s the case with some of our primate cousins.  Jane Goodall and Richard Wrangham observed that wild chimpanzees in Tanzania-which, like human forager societies, are fiercely egalitarian with food when foraging in the wild-became remarkably aggressive when humans started providing a regular supply of bananas.  Franz de Waal describes in Chimpanzee Politics how Jan van Hooff observed similar aggression in a chimpanzee colony in captivity: “Violent fights broke out at every meal because some of the apes tried to monopolize the food.  The tension began to build up long before feeding time.”

Ryan and Jethá say that the same is true of us:

Human groups tend to respond to food surplus and storage with behavior like that observed in chimps: heightened hierarchical social organization, intergroup violence, territorial perimeter defense, and Machiavellian alliances.  In other words, humans-like chimps-tend to fight when there’s something worth fighting over.  But for most of prehistory, there was no food surplus to win or lose and no home base to defend.

In yesterday’s post, I asserted that our “primal switches” are “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.” Shit gets weird when somebody’s controlling all the bananas.

But again, our genetics shouldn’t have changed significantly in such a short time. Our environment changed dramatically, but our adaptations have so far been mostly behavioral, cultural and psychological. The encouraging thing here is that underneath all the confusion of modern life-yeah, sure, we got issues, but-we should have a strong underlying preference for cooperation and pro-social behavior. Again, group selection can help explain our evolved faculty for highly cooperative behavior within our social groups. It can also explain why a faculty for aggression would be somewhere in our repertoire (as one tactic for among-group competition), but it would still make sense for groups to evolve to be wary of war and conflict; because, with all else equal in pre-agricultural life, groups that avoided costly conflict should have done better than groups that didn’t.  

So, unless I’m missing something, this helps explain what I’ve known since I was a kid – that most people I meet, under most circumstances, are not jumping at the opportunity to kill or get into a fight with others, even people outside of their group. And it would explain why, even with a lot of resources at their disposal, it is still at least somewhat of a challenge for political leaders to lead a people to war.  The warmongers have to bang on those drums for a while to get us in the rhythm.  The bad news is that they have a lot of knowledge about how to do that.

Hermann Wilhelm Göring, a notorious leading member of the Nazi party, candidly explained:

Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. …voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country. [my emphasis]

Just look at those phrases!

“tell them they are being attacked”

“lack of patriotism”

“exposing the country to danger”

These phrases aren’t just about frightening people, they’re also about framing their fear in particular group-oriented terms.  There is a dangerous enemy threatening us (the nation), and you, “Mr. Commie Internationalist,” don’t seem to care that much about us… you selfish, indulgent traitor.  You lack patriotism (identity with the group), and as such you’re as much of a threat to us as the menacing enemy.

Fear has the power to activate the most aggressive aspects of our among-group competition instincts.  Hermann Wilhelm Göring wrote a handy guide for nation states of all stripes for how to stoke fear to accomplish precisely that.

power of identity

Rosa Luxenburg understood the powerful “evil magic” of this formula well before Göring did, but she couldn’t stop it despite her best efforts.  She pleaded passionately with the unionists and the German Social Democrats to not get pulled into World War I.  This from her essay Either Or (1916):

On August 4th, 1914, official German Social Democracy, and with it the Inter-national, collapsed miserably. Everything that, during the preceding fifty years, we had preached to the people, that we had declared to be our sacred principles, that we had proclaimed countless times in speeches, in brochures, in newspapers, in leaflets – all at once all that proved to be empty clap-trap.Suddenly,  as though by evil magic, the party of the proletarian international class struggle has become a national liberal party … In other countries, socialism has fallen more or less deeply and the proud old cry, ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite! ‘ has been transformed on the battlefields into the command, ‘Proletarians of all countries, cut each other’s throats!’…

The world war has decimated the results of forty years’ work of European socialism by: devaluing the significance of the revolutionary working class as a factor of political power, destroying the prestige of socialism, breaking up the proletarian International, leading its sections into a fratricidal war against each other and chaining the desires and hopes of the masses in the most important capitalist countries to the course of imperialism… [my emphasis]

…and chained to the cognitive frame of nationalism – meaning that the nation state was the “group” with which the Germans of 1914 were pressured to cast their lot and identity. How we define our identity is how we label some pretty important folders in the filing cabinets of our brains.  Sorry for the filing cabinet metaphor – that’s not actually how brains work.  How they work is a lot more interesting.  We don’t “file” information.  We associate and cluster new information and experiences with dynamic memories-they change a little with each remembering-of old information and experiences, and with the feelings these memories evoke. Rosa Luxenberg could have almost been a lay neuroscientist with her phrase “chaining the desires and hopes of the masses … to the course of imperialism.” That is exactly how the process of cognitive frames works. We are evolutionarily and neurologically predisposed as human beings to “chain our desires and hopes” to the groups we identify with, because we evolved in a context where our survival as individuals was highly dependent on the survival and health of the group.

Thus the rallying cry of the Industrial Workers of the World: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Within the cognitive frame of class consciousness, the members of a worker’s economic class constitute the “group” with which she casts her lot and identity.  Her hopes and desires are chained to her fellow workers – including the ones on the other side of the border and on the other side of the ocean. The threat that she perceives and mobilizes with her group to overcome is the threat of a social system that concentrates into the hands of a few the wealth produced by the many; a system that turns a blind eye to the poverty, misery and degradation of her fellow human beings.

If this language seems overly glorious, naive, or outdated to you, I encourage you to think again. Perhaps it’s not the exact wording to fit our times, but we do desperately need a highly moral and moralizing progressive narrative and framework. We need to be willing to step boldly out of our resignation, to hope, and to inspire hope in others. Reinhold Niebuhr encouraged approaching social justice struggles with the tools of science, but also admonished that “cool objectivity” cannot meet the moral and emotional demands of collective mobilization:

Contending factions in a social struggle require morale; and morale is created by the right dogmas, symbols and emotionally potent oversimplifications. These are at least as necessary as the scientific spirit of tentatively. …[Industrial workers] will have to believe rather more firmly in the justice and in the probable triumph of their cause, than any impartial science would give them the right to believe, if they are to have enough energy to contest the power of the strong. They may be very scientific in projecting their social goal and in choosing the most effective instruments for its attainment, but a motive force will be required to nerve them for their task which is not easily derived from the cool objectivity of science. …The world of history, particularly man’s collective behavior, will never be conquered by reason, unless reason uses tools, and is itself driven by forces which are not rational.

Dear reader, it is nearly 3:00AM and I have stayed up too late and kept you reading too long. In another post I will return to the subject of fear, and discuss strategies for “inoculating” against fearmongering.  I’ll explore cognition and culture as extensions of the human immune system and of evolution itself. And I’ll resume this discussion of how group-oriented behavior, identity, cognitive frames, a moral and moralizing hegemonic progressive narrative, and collective action all fit together.

For tonight, I’ll sign off with this thought… We have a lot of “space” in our brains that evolved to deal with threats. The impulse to collectively mobilize to overcome a genuine common threat is not an inherently negative thing. Indeed, evolutionarily, it’s an impulse to which we owe our very survival as a species… so far.  If we are to continue to survive as a species on planet earth, we humans will have to make sure that this impulse is cognitively connected-in enough people’s brains-to the huge looming threats we face. We can’t afford to keep being duped into fearing the wrong things, and into waging wars of aggression and scapegoating immigrants and people who appear different than ourselves.  The trick is to wire our primal switches to the right lightbulbs! This is what grassroots organizing is all about: building relationships and feeding pro-social identities that are broad enough, strong enough, and instructive enough to tilt us toward investing together in our collective interest.

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 BeyondtheChoir.org 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!