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Reflections on the Evolution Institute Board Meeting (Just Concluded)

I am at the Newark Airport returning home from a two-day board meeting of the Evolution Institute (EI), the think tank that I helped to create that formulates public policy from an evolutionary perspective. The members of the board are widely dispersed so we do most of our business by email, phone, and Skype. This was a welcome opportunity to spend time together to give our organization a thorough inspection and to chart our future.

Thousands of non-profit organizations exist and they can be studied as if they are a population of organisms. Most perish within a few years and those that grow must change their structure to remain viable. The EI is seven years old, which is pretty good, but we are facing a crucial transition from a small group of founders to an institution with multiple paid staff positions and a sizeable board composed of people who were not present at the beginning. The question of whether the EI would survive if one of us got hit by a bus came up so often that “the bus test” has become our way of describing what we need to accomplish to reach our next stage of development.

Growing an institute requires a lot of thought about its mission. The founders know the mission but it must be conveyed to those who are newly joining the organization and to those who are being asked for financial support. The mission statement must be accurate but it also must be short and non-technical. Crafting a mission statement for the EI is especially demanding because the word “Evolution” is so loaded. What can be said in a few non-technical words that conveys what evolution means to us, given all the other associations that are out there?

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Then there is the question of how to grow the organization financially. In some ways we had a banner year, quadrupling our budget, but that was thanks to some grants we received for specific projects. Donors also like to fund specific projects that excite them. What’s hard to fund is the general operating budget, even though it is the goose that lays the golden eggs.

After agonizing over board member duties, mission statements, and finances, we finally had the opportunity to review our six most active projects. My co-founder, Jerry Lieberman, reported on our initiatives to improve the quality of life in urban neighborhoods and, at a much larger scale, to study Norway as a case study of cultural evolution leading to a high quality of life. Vice President Peter Turchin, who joined the EI shortly after its start, reported on his incredibly ambitious project that will create a databank of world history. As if that isn’t enough, he is also constructing a detailed timeline for American history showing an inverse relationship between social inequality and human welfare. I reported on PROSOCIAL, a practical framework for improving the efficacy of groups, and new support that we have received for our online magazine This View of Life and our communication strategy that we call the science to narrative chain.

Listening to and giving the presentations reminded me why the EI is so important and why I have devoted so much of my own time, effort, and money (all revenues from my books and speaking engagements) to it. All EI projects emanate from a single theoretical perspective, no matter what the specific policy topic. No other think tank has the theoretical unity that we do and it makes a big difference for the efficacy of the policies that we formulate.

Keep an eye on the Evolution Institute. Join our contact list, support us financially if you can, and bring us to the attention of others. The day will come when the dictum “Nothing about X makes sense except in the light of evolution” will make as much sense for X=policy as for X=biology. You can explore what that means now and help to make it common knowledge in the future.

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3 Comments

  1. You and the rest of the board are doing a great job, David! I feel very similarly about the Ancestral Health Society which Brent Pottenger and I co-founded in 2010, and which just held its fourth annual meeting at UC Berkeley (ancestryfoundation.org). We already are planning the fifth annual conference to be held next year at CU Boulder. Our mission has a lot of overlap with the EI, but with a focus more on human health and disease from the context of evolutionary (and ecological) discordance. I like to think I’ve been influenced by you not only in my passion for evolution, but for wanting to use it as a framework for making the world a better place.

    • David Sloan Wilson says:

      It’s good to hear from you Aaron! There are indeed a lot of similarities between the EI and AHS, both in their missions and probably our experience in starting and growing an organization. You’re doing a great job and we should probably explore how our two organizations can support each other.

  2. aaronblaisdell says:

    Indeed! To facilitate a dialog, you or someone from your group should consider presenting at AHS on the public policy work being done by EI.