Wilson and Hessen’s essay has many true and useful ideas, but the first part of their essay seems to argue against the final part. In the natural world, as they correctly point out at the beginning, selection at lower levels of organization generally wins out over selection at higher levels. Very occasionally, groups evolve mechanisms that suppress competition at lower levels and create new levels of organization. The cases are so rare that John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry counted them in 1995 as the dozen or so major transitions in evolution.
Near the beginning, they also point out that humans have proven much better at cooperation than most other kinds of organisms. Some of us argue that the reason humans cooperate so well is due to group selection on the cultural variation between groups. Cultures with strong institutions tend to outcompete ones with weaker institutions. The dark side of this process is culturally different groups often have troubled relationships with one another and cooperation among culturally different people is hard to organize. Humans have proven adept at expanding the scale of their polities to match increases in population density and increases in mobility over the last 11,000 years or so. However, it has been a slow and bitter affair, driven as much by warfare as by gentler mechanisms. For prolonged periods, the most effective military technology has been in the hands of roughneck barbarians, for example Central Asian horse archers or European naval powers, who honed their fighting skills on each other before erupting to cause chaos on the continental and global scale. The industrialized World Wars of the first half of the 20th Century were terrible episodes, and we have improved weapons of mass destruction immensely since then.
Then, at the end of the essay, Wilson and Hessen say that they have sketched a simple solution to scaling up social cooperation from the village to the global scale, using Norway as an example of how to do it. I’m an admirer of the prosperous, effective, egalitarian, and enlightened states the Scandinavians created in the 20th Century, but I don’t think that Norway illustrates a simple solution to creating the global village. After all, Norway has unique features that do not characterize most nations, much less a global village. As Wilson and Hessen note, Norway is a rather small country (about 5 million people). Norway is also a comparatively homogeneous country; 86% of the population is of Norwegian descent. Norway’s relations with the indigenous Sami minority and with its recent immigrants from such countries as Pakistan have not been without their tensions. It ended its Union with Sweden in 1905. It has stayed aloof from what is perhaps the world’s most ambitious attempt to bring the European nation-state under some sort of rational control, the European Union.
The global village would be more than 1,000 times more populous than Norway and perhaps 6,000 times more diverse (using languages as an index of cultural diversity: one strongly dominant language in Norway, about 6,000 in the rest of the world). The trials and tribulations of the EU project illustrate how hard it is to overcome the problems of scale and diversity in building just a sub-continental village. Norway, I’m tempted to say, illustrates how hard it is to make progress toward a global village, not how easy.
Our current policy dilemma is stark. We have a number of global commons issues that require urgent, coordinated global action. Nuclear arms and nuclear proliferation could lead to an unimaginable holocaust, even if only used on a limited scale. Global warming of alarming proportions seems all but inevitable. Impacts of human activities on biodiversity alarm many. Rising inequality might lead to dangerous political developments even in what we generally assume to be stable democracies. Unresolved issues of justice and respect inherited from European colonialism create deep distrust between the West and the Rest. We do not currently have global village institutions or levels of trust anywhere near a level sufficient to deal efficiently with these problems the way Norway can.
Currently, we are acting as if we’re going to let natural selection deal with these problems. Of course, we all know, or should know, that letting nature take her course regarding contemporary global commons problems is quite risky. At the individual level, reckless optimism and an inability to learn from mistakes are traits exaggerated in psychopaths. In the modernworld, they are common in practices of large organizations like nations. Even if you are skeptical about the most extreme scenarios laid out by people who may or may not be mere alarmists, they should give us pause. The future, as always, is highly uncertain. The IPCC’s successive reports on anthropogenic climate change probably represent the best that current science can do in reducing uncertainty about a potentially major global problem. But the IPCC scientists are far from reducing the uncertainty to zero. The climate science community is very worried in part because of the uncertainty. What you can’t predict should be at least as scary as what you can. But policy makers have made essentially no progress. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has resulted in the IPCC process and annual meetings with global representation, so far with alarmingly modest results in reducing carbon dioxide emissions given the risks that climate change poses. We are behaving collectively as reckless optimists ready to let natural selection decide our case.
We attempt to use science to help make rational collective decisions in order to evade natural selection, to evolve new strategies and policies without suffering the death, destruction, and misery that generally accompanies natural selection. The global village would require something like a Global Village Council to make such decisions. We do have such a council in embryonic form in the United Nations, but it lacks the power and legitimacy to trump the often psychopathic European style nation-state, which remains the dominant type of political actor on the world stage. Still, in the work of the UN on all the major global commons problems, we can see the ghostly outline of how a Global Village Council might operate.
Other kinds of organizations and situations provide models for how a strong global village might be built. Some great cities such as London, New York, Amsterdam, and Los Angeles are fairly large and culturally diverse. Few European style nation-states are pure examples of Wilsonian one people-one polity organizations and some are notably diverse. The Swiss Confederation has four official languages and 26 rather independent Cantons. The Republic of South Africa has 11 official languages. India is the second largest country in the world (1.2 billion people) and its constitution recognizes 21 official languages. It is probably the world’s most culturally diverse polity. None of these organizations is perfect, though the four cities and Switzerland approach Nordic levels of competent governance and prosperity. South Africa seemed destined for carnage until Mandela’s and de Klerk’s peace negotiations resulted in the achievement of a multi-ethnic state by statecraft, not war. India’s progress since independence is palpable despite its size, cultural diversity, and the poor initial state of its economy. Other types of large, diverse, yet functional organizations are worth mentioning, such as multi-national businesses, multi-ethnic religions, and international sports competitions. Some successful large-scale integrating institutions have no overarching organization, such as the world’s diplomatic corps and the international scientific enterprise.
Four principles seem to underlie the success of some large scale, diverse organizations. The first is status based on achievement. Technical and social competence are sources of status that culturally different people can appreciate even though other sources may dominate their lives. Competence of a high order is also required to operate large scale, diverse institutions and organizations. The leadership of international scientific enterprises is almost entirely based on achieved status (which is not to say achieved statuses in science are always or entirely acquired by excellence in scientific work).
The second is tolerance. Individuals differ from one another and people from different cultures sometimes differ rather dramatically. People tend to be strongly wedded to their cultural identities, not to mention their personalities. People belonging to dominant cultures are often surprised when others don’t want to assimilate to their obviously superior culture. This superiority is generally only obvious to the dominant culture. Recall Gandhi’s quip when asked what he thought of Western Civilization: “That would be a good idea!” In a large, diverse organization, you can’t afford to find inevitable individual and cultural differences uncomfortable.
The third principle is respect. You have to tolerate scalawags, incompetents, and culturally limited boors because such people are common in every large organization. But the real work is going to be done by people and groups who respect one another. At the level of contending nations and ethnic groups, it is a myth that distinctive cultural groups always hate one another. In the mid 1970s, Marilyn Brewer and Donald Campbell studied ingroup and outgroup attitudes among 30 East African ethnic groups. The found a great deal variation in both attitudes, including cases where individuals in two groups both had strong average positive ingroup regard but also strong positive evaluations of each other. Journalists, translators, anthropologists, cross-cultural psychologists, ecumenical religious folk, and travelers often get enough insights into other cultures to be able explain them to us in sympathetic terms. Often, getting to know another group well leads to respect. Most people find it especially hard to respect their enemies. Yet, in the long run, struggles end, and the protagonists must make peace. In the meantime, respecting your enemies is liable to make the real or metaphorical fight less brutal and end sooner. Respecting enemies makes it easier to understand them and thus to avoid some fights and win the ones you can’t avoid. The US fought four long, brutal wars after WWII against Communist and Islamicist Third World forces it disrespected. At best, it could only win stalemates in them. Military and political innovations by the insurgents and governments of poor countries in the mid 20th Century allowed them to impose sufficient costs on European powers, even in highly asymmetric contests, to bring the colonial era to an end. The US, the last superpower standing, has been the slowest to learn the lesson.
The fourth is justice. People remember past grievances for generations. In violent conflicts, both sides are often guilty of atrocities. The trials of German and Japanese war criminals after WWII provided a measure of justice to their victims and helped to further the re-integration of these nations into the world community. Efforts in that direction have continued with the establishment of the International Criminal Court. Those guilty of injustice typically build elaborate theories to justify their misbehavior. For example, former US President George Bush famously explained that Al Qaeda attacked the US on 9/11 “because they hate our freedoms.” Bin Laden’s justification for the attack, that Middle Easterners widely detested American policy in the region, seems like a more plausible explanation. Extensive polling in the Middle East certainly points to Bin Laden’s explanation. In recent decades, Truth and Reconciliation restorative justice projects have been conducted in a number of countries that have experienced bitter internal conflicts. Often, these are in situations where the parties responsible for the worst behavior retain considerable political power. They do provide a forum where apologies can be aired and the false theories used to justify atrocious behavior can be de-legitimated.
Thus, I think we know the basic principles we need to build a functional global village. In the century following WWI, many smart, hard-working people have aspired to build it, and their accomplishments are many. It has been hard, slow work and there have been terrible setbacks. Yet by historical standards, their progress is impressive. Our current problem is that new, urgent risks to the collective well-being of the global community emerged in the late 20th Century and older ones still persist. Progress in building global institutions has not kept up with demand. We need to up our game.
Darwin opined in The Descent of Man that progress in civilized times depended upon natural selection only in subordinate degree. Trumping natural selection were such things as a good education, the example of the best people, good institutions, and the force of public opinion. Let us hope it proves to be true.
Brewer, M. B., & Campbell, D. T. (1976). Ethnocentrism and Intergroup Attitudes: East African Evidence. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.
Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (2004). Darwinian evolutionary ethics: Between patriotism and sympathy. In P. Clayton & J. Schloss (Eds.), Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective (pp. 50-77). Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.