A bold experiment in cultural evolution is about to take place in the UK. Seven international and national organizations and numerous communities will be contributing teams to a training course on how to achieve positive change from an evolutionary and complex systems perspective.
These organizations and communities are already working toward positive change in their own ways—sometimes very successfully—and frequently use words such as “evolve” and “adapt” in the vernacular. Yet, those who use these words seldom think about consulting the actual science of change—evolutionary science–along with a scientific understanding of the complex systems that need to evolve.
This is because evolutionary science was largely confined to the study of genetic evolution for most of the 20th century, ceding the study of personal and cultural change to other disciplines. These disciplines became sophisticated bodies of knowledge, but largely without reference to evolutionary science or each other. The result is a “knowledge archipelago” –many islands of thought with little communication among islands—which has become a major limiting factor in accomplishing positive change. Even successful change methods are confined to their respective islands and unknown beyond their borders.
This started to change during the closing decades of the 20th century as scientists across disciplines went back to basics by defining evolution as any process that includes the three ingredients of variation, selection, and replication, which includes but goes far beyond genetic evolution. Other evolutionary processes include epigenetics (changes in gene expression rather than gene frequency), forms of social learning found in many species, and forms of symbolic thought that are distinctively human. Also, evolutionary processes can take place within a single organism during its lifetime (e.g., the selection of antibodies by the immune system) in addition to trans-generationally. In short, in its general form, evolutionary science provides a unifying framework for studying all of the fast-paced changes swirling around us and within us, transcending the boundaries of the knowledge archipelago. That is the theme of my recent book This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution and the sizable literature that it draws upon.
With advances in basic science come new practical applications. A key insight is that evolution doesn’t make everything nice. It frequently results in outcomes that benefit me but not you, us but not them, or short-term welfare at the expense of the long view. Unless we learn how to align fast-paced evolutionary processes with our positive long-term societal goals, then evolution will contribute to the problem rather than the solution.
Another key insight is that the one constant of the human ancestral environment was to be a member of small cooperative groups. Our brains and bodies evolved against this background, which makes a solitary existence pathological. In some ways, we know this—the UK has even established a Ministry of Loneliness—but it is a radical departure from the intellectual tradition of individualism that has dominated economic, social scientific, and political thought for the last half-century. This illustrates how various islands of the knowledge archipelago, no matter how sophisticated, can require rethinking at an elementary level to become consistent with evolutionary science.
Using evolutionary science as a practical toolkit is the theme of my other recent book, Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups, coauthored with Paul Atkins and Steven C. Hayes. Drawing upon multiple islands of the knowledge archipelago, including mindfulness-based training techniques and the Nobel prize-winning work of the political scientist Elinor Ostrom, Prosocial can help any group become more prosocial internally and work with other groups to establish prosociality at larger social scales such as a town, city, multi-group organization, and ultimately the whole earth.
This methodology is being implemented worldwide and proving its versatility across cultures and contexts (see the magazine section of Prosocial’s website for examples). What’s new about the UK project is the scale at which it is being considered for implementation, thanks to a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) “Rebuilding Macroeconomics” program. Here are the organizations that will be contributing teams to a 10-session Prosocial online training course that begins on February 26, in alphabetical order.
The Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS), an international society “dedicated to the alleviation of human suffering and the advancement of human well-being through research and practice grounded in contextual behavioral science.” With nearly 9000 members worldwide, ACBS has been a major vehicle for the cultural spread of Prosocial and looks forward to being part of the UK project.
The Banking Standards Board (BSB), a private-sector body established in 2015 in the UK to promote good practices among banks and building societies, funded by subscriptions from the institutions themselves. The BSB will “provide challenge, support, and scrutiny for firms committed to rebuilding the sector’s reputation, and will provide impartial and objective assessments of the industry’s progress.”
C40, A London-based network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change. “C40 supports cities to collaborate effectively, share knowledge and drive meaningful measurable and sustainable action on climate change.”
Circle Economy (CE), a Netherlands-based international organization dedicated to “empowering a global community of businesses, cities, and governments to accelerate the transition to the circular economy through practical and scalable insights and solutions that address humanity’s greatest challenges.”
Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL), a network dedicated to translating the ideas of Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Economics” approach into action. DEAL “is a new organization working with innovative cities, community groups, businesses, and teachers worldwide to co-create and spread brilliant tools and resources that turn the ideas of Doughnut Economics into practice.”
The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). The RSA has been at the forefront of social change for over 260 years. “Through our ideas, research and a 30,000 strong Fellowship we are a global community of proactive problem solvers, sharing powerful ideas, carrying out cutting-edge research and building networks and opportunities for people to collaborate, influence and demonstrate practical solutions to realize change.”
The Transition Network (TN). A movement of communities coming together to reimagine and rebuild our world. “Transition is a movement that has been growing since 2005. It is about communities stepping up to address the big challenges they face by starting local. By coming together, they are able to crowd-source solutions. They seek to nurture a caring culture, one focused on supporting each other, both as groups and wider communities.”
In addition to these UK national organizations and international organizations with UK representation, the following communities within the UK will contribute teams to the online training course: Birmingham, Bristol, Dumfries, Leeds, and Northumbria.
In addition to myself, the instructors of the course will be Paul W.B. Atkins, Prosocial’s Chief Trainer, and James Dyke, an Earth Systems Scientist at the University of Exeter who is featured in the documentary film about climate change The Race is On.
The fact that these organizations and communities are coming together to learn and contribute to a common set of science-based methods is noteworthy in its own right. If they then set about implementing the methods with their combined capacities, it is not an exaggeration to say that it could change the course of cultural evolution in the UK and serve as a model for other nations.
Since this project is designed to scale, individuals, communities, and organizations in the UK and worldwide who are not directly involved can get a head start by reading This View of Life (for the big picture) and Prosocial (for the practical method) and begin thinking about managing their own evolution. The ideas are simple, intuitive (at least in retrospect), and need not be expensive to implement. Groups work with trained facilitators and facilitator training similar to the UK course is available online.
Prosocial is inherently about equity and co-production–what we decide to do for our common good—starting at the scale of small groups and then applying the same principles at multiple levels. The sooner these principles are learned and applied, the sooner evolution can contribute to sustainability goals rather than being part of the problem. The UK course can result in a quantum jump in becoming wise managers of evolutionary processes.