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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

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.

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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!

Read more of the interview with David Sloan Wilson at the Guardian


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