Table of Contents
– Introduction: Science in a Spiritual Key, by David Sloan Wilson and Kurt Johnson
– Synopsis of Does Altruism Exist? Culture Genes and the Welfare of Others, by David Sloan Wilson
– Commentary 1: The Sacred and the Secular Can Unite on Altruism, by Kurt Johnson
– Commentary 2: When It Comes to Climate Change, Altruism Better Exist, By Richard Clugston
– Commentary 3: The Wolves of Wall Street and Superorganisms: How Social Justice Should Mimic Our Cells, by Barbara Marx Hubbard, Zachary Stein, and Marc Gafni
– Commentary 4: “Does Altruism Exist?” Wrong Question; Right Answer, by David Korten
– Commentary 5: Insects Model their Societies on Altruism. We need to become Planetary Altruists, by Rev. Mac Legerton
– Commentary 6: Altruism Comes with Age, by Kevin Brabazon
– Commentary 7: Altruism’s Path and the Rebirth of Spirituality, by Doug King and Mike Morrell
– Commentary 8: Altruism and Integral Spirituality, by Ken Wilber
– Discussion Questions about Does Altruism Exist?
– Reply to Commentaries on Does Altruism Exist?: Integrating Science and Spirituality through Action, by David Sloan Wilson
Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others (hereafter DAE), uses modern evolutionary theory as a “navigational guide” to answer a question that has been posed for centuries. It also offers a “post-resolution” account of multilevel selection theory, which has been controversial among evolutionary theorists for over half a century. This roundtable provides a discussion of DAE by commentators who have diverse backgrounds but share two things in common: 1) They are thoroughly accepting and informed about science; and 2) they are each in their own way “spiritual”.
The very concept of blending science and spirituality is likely to ring alarm bells in the minds of many people. Whatever spirituality is, it lives next door to religion. Religion and spirituality can be studied with the tools of science, but that’s not the same thing as being religious and/or spiritual. People who call themselves spiritual but not religious are likely to be suspected by some of being self-indulgent New Agers who will believe anything and have questionable taste in music and art to boot. The same people might also sometimes regard scientists as boring, narrow minded, and clueless about the questions most worth asking about life.
The story of how we started to work together and organize this roundtable might help to explain how science and spirituality can be blended, like a two-part harmony. Both of us have our PhD’s in evolutionary biology. DSW specializes on the evolution of social behavior and KJ specializes on insect systematics and biogeography, including the Blues, a group of butterflies that was also studied by the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, causing KJ to become a biographer of Nabokov as a scientist in addition to his own career as a scientist (go here and here for more).
Both of us have a strong interest in religion and spirituality. DSW studies them as a scientist, in academic articles and books such as Darwin’s Cathedral and The Neighborhood Project, which includes one chapter (“We are Now Entering the Noosphere”) on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and another (“Body and Soul”) on how words such as “soul” and “spirit” can be understood from a purely naturalistic perspective . KJ became a Christian monk between obtaining his Masters and PhD degrees and now helps to lead a worldwide movement called Interspirituality, as he recounts in his book with David Robert Ord titled The Coming Interspiritual Age (hereafter CIA). Thus, one might say that DSW studies spirituality while KJ lives it in a way that he regards as fully compatible with being a scientist.
We met in the spring of 2015 thanks to one of DSW’s research projects funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which studies religion and spirituality in the context of everyday life in Binghamton New York. A pastor named Wilfredo Baez approached DSW with the idea of organizing a symposium on Interspirituality featuring KJ as the main speaker. The event was held in the First Congregational Church on the corner of Main and Oak streets, whose pastor, Arthur Suggs, had become enthusiastically involved. The audience included mostly residents of the city with only a sprinkling of academic types. Binghamton is like Everytown, USA and most of the people sitting in the pews looked like regular churchgoers. They had become disillusioned with the Christian religious experience, however, and were animated by the concept of Interspirituality.
What is Interspirituality? KJ was able to explain it in very simple terms. He said that all major religious traditions converge on a common awareness that everything is interconnected. When this awareness is taken seriously, certain ethical conclusions follow. Namely, it becomes difficult to defend parts of the system against other parts of the system. Reflecting and acting on this basis allows people to transcend their particular religious and spiritual traditions (what KJ called “first-tier consciousness”) and find common ground (what KJ called “second-tier consciousness”). This is true for people who devote their whole lives to contemplation, such as His Holiness the Dali Lama (e.g., his book titled Beyond Religion: Ethics for the Whole World) and Brother Wayne Teasdale, who was one of KJ’s spiritual mentors. Judging from the people attending the Binghamton event, it could also be true for residents of Everytown, USA.
Listening to KJ caused DSW to have a 2 + 2 = 4 moment, an epiphany that immediately seemed obvious in retrospect. Religious traditions were not alone in reaching the conclusion that everything is interconnected. They were joined by scientific traditions such as physics, complex systems thinking, and ecology. No wonder that scientists from these traditions had a way of developing their own forms of spirituality, such as the creed of “Deep Ecology” developed by the Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Naess. Second-tier consciousness was truly a place where religion, spirituality, and science could meet on common ground.
Our first encounter is captured as an interview that DSW conducted with KJ at the end of the Binghamton symposium, which was published in the Evolution Institute’s online magazine This View of Life. Afterward, we dove into each other’s work. KJ read DAE and could immediately appreciate its import for the Interspiritual movement. As he recounts in his contribution to the roundtable, Interspiritualists have already embraced evolutionary and ecological concepts, especially of the holistic variety. Their appreciation is reflected in book titles such as Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution by Ken Wilber and Birth 2012 and Beyond: Humanity’s Great Shift to the Age of Conscious Evolution by Barbara Marx Hubbard. However, their holistic view of evolution ran counter to the main narrative in scientific thought that evolution is all about selfishness. The “post-resolution” account that KJ encountered in DAE was a far cry from what he had learned as a graduate student. Group selection was now accepted as a strong evolutionary force (especially for human evolution), altruism could be explained at face value as a product of group selection, the concepts of “organism” and “society” had merged, and planetary altruism required consciously selecting policies with the welfare of the planet in mind. For the Interspiritualist, the new scientific account reported in DAE was like sailing with the wind rather than against it.
DSW read CIA and was added as a speaker to an event in Colorado titled From Self-Care to Earth-Care, which also included Ken Wilber. KJ was especially eager to get DSW together with Wilber, whose books on what Wilber called Integral Spirituality have been translated into over 30 languages. When DSW began familiarizing himself with Wilber’s writing, he was pleased to discover that although Wilber might be guilty of being an extreme generalist, he was thoroughly committed to methodological naturalism and was not tempted by the excesses of New Age beliefs or post-modernism. Health issues prevented Wilber from personally attending the event but he met privately with the other participants and prepared a lengthy video that was shown at the event and is available online. An excerpt is included in this roundtable. DSW has written about the event and its aftermath in a series of essays titled “My Spiritual Journey” on the Evolution Institute’s Social Evolution Forum.
This roundtable, which is the first of three, features diverse thought leaders. Some specifically identify with the Interspiritual movement, while others are better characterized as engaged in discussions of evolutionary consciousness, social change from moral and ethical perspectives, and in meeting major global challenges at the level of politics and policy. Some of them know each other through mutual participation in international forums and committees, particularly those of the United Nations non-governmental agency community. The second and third roundtable forums will be published in other outlets so they can collectively reach the broadest and most diverse audience.
We end our introduction with an observation about the tone of the commentaries. The word “spirit” is derived from the Latin “spiritus”, which means “breath” and is also the root of “inspire”. Spiritual prose is designed to inspire, to appeal to the heart in addition to the mind and above all to move the reader to act, since spiritual experience is empty if it doesn’t lead to practice. This kind of prose might seem odd and even inappropriate to some readers who are accustomed to more value-neutral scientific prose, but it is part of what it means to sing science in a spiritual key. What makes it spiritual is its inspirational quality. What makes it compatible with science is its commitment to methodological naturalism. It is indeed possible to be spiritual and scientific at the same time.
Synopsis of Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others
The following synopsis of DAE will provide useful background for the commentaries.
Introduction: Altruism and Evolution. The question “Does Altruism Exist?” might seem like a silly topic for a book but the claim that it does not exist has a long history in philosophical, political, economic, and biological thought. Add to this that the word “altruism” did not exist until coined by the humanist philosopher Auguste Comte in 1851 and we have a question that takes into deep intellectual waters. In this book I use evolutionary theory as a navigational guide. The question of whether altruistic traits (defined in terms of action) can evolve has been controversial among evolutionary theorists in the past but has been largely resolved. This book offers a “post-resolution” account.
Chapter 1: Groups that Work. Two meanings of altruism need to be distinguished, which refer to: 1) how people act and; 2) the thoughts and feelings that cause people to act. These two meanings exist in a one-to-many relationship; any given action can be motivated by more than one set of thoughts and feelings and our preference for one set over another is based primarily on the actions that they produce. Altruism defined in terms of action is closely related to group-level functional organization, which requires members of groups to perform services for each other. We can therefore begin with the question “Do functionally organized groups exist?”, which is simpler to answer than “Does altruism exist?”. The answer is “yes” for both human and nonhuman species. At least some of the time, social groups are so functionally organized that they invite comparison to single organisms.
Chapter 2: How Altruism Evolves. The following premises are so basic that they are unlikely to be wrong: 1) Natural selection is based on relative fitness; 2) Traits that are “for the good of the group” seldom maximize relative fitness within groups; 3) A process of between-group selection is therefore required to explain the evolution of functionally organized groups. As E.O. Wilson and I put it in a 2009 article, Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary. In a multi-tier hierarchy of units (Multilevel Selection Theory), the general rule is adaptation at any given level requires a process of selection at that level and tends to be undermined by selection at lower levels. These statements are true not only for the highly self-sacrificial traits typically associated with altruism, but also for most of the coordination mechanisms required for groups to function as adaptive units. The balance between levels of selection is not static but can itself evolve. A major evolutionary transition—from groups of organisms to groups as organisms—takes place when mechanisms evolve that suppress disruptive forms of selection within groups, causing between-group selection to become the primary evolutionary force.
Chapter 3: Equivalence. The controversy over group selection was resolved, not because one side “won” but because all theories of social evolution (e.g., MLS theory, Inclusive Fitness Theory, Evolutionary Game Theory, and Selfish Gene Theory) were shown to rely upon the same three premises listed in Chapter 2. They offer different perspectives on the same causal processes, rather than invoking different causal processes. Arguing one against the others is like someone who knows only one language arguing that other languages are wrong. The concept of Equivalence—theoretical frameworks that deserve to coexist by virtue of offering different perspectives—should be part of the basic training of scientists, along with the concept of paradigms that replace each other and the process of hypothesis formation and testing that takes place within each paradigm and equivalent framework. The amount of time and effort saved avoiding pointless controversy would be colossal.
Chapter 4: From Nonhumans to Humans. Answering the question “Does Altruism Exist?” requires a consideration of humans per se in addition to the evolutionary forces that apply to all species. Our starting point is the concept of major evolutionary transitions described in Chapter 2. In most primate species, members of groups cooperate to a degree but are also each other’s main rivals. Our ancestors became evolution’s newest major transition through the ability to suppress disruptive self-serving behaviors within groups, so that between-group selection became the dominant evolutionary force. Teamwork is the signature adaptation of our species. Teamwork includes physical cooperation such as hunting, gathering, childcare, defense against predators, and offence and defense against other human groups. Teamwork also includes mental cooperation, including maintaining an inventory of symbols with shared meaning and transmitting large amounts of learned information across generations. Cultural evolution is a multi-level process, no less than genetic evolution, leading to the mega-societies of today. The concept of human society as like a single organism has a venerable history as a metaphor, but now it stands on a stronger scientific foundation than ever before.
Chapter 5: Psychological Altruism. The previous chapters were required to make sense of altruism defined in terms of action. The distinction between proximate and ultimate causation in evolutionary theory can make sense of altruism defined in terms of thoughts and feelings. Ultimate causation refers to the environmental forces that act upon heritable variation, winnowing certain traits from many other traits that could have existed. Proximate causation refers to the mechanistic basis of any given trait that evolves. Human thoughts and feelings are proximate mechanisms, resulting in actions that are winnowed by natural selection. Proximate and ultimate causation stand in a many-to-one relationship. Just as there are many ways to skin a cat, any given altruistic act can be caused by more than one set of thoughts and feelings. It is important to know the motives of a social partner to predict how he or she will behave in the future, but insofar as two sets of motives result in the same suite of behaviors over the long term, there is no reason to prefer one over the other, any more than we care much whether a person who owes us money pays by cash or check. Proximate mechanisms that cause people to behave altruistically, defined in terms of action, need not qualify as altruistic, defined in terms of motives. Part of taking cultural evolution seriously means that the same altruistic actions might have different psychological motivations in different cultures. The fate of any given psychological mechanism that leads to altruistic action depends critically on the environment, including the human-constructed environment.
Chapter 6: Altruism and Religion. The secular utility of religion, as Emile Durkheim put it, has been debated ever since religion became the subject of scholarly debate, but the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective has established its secular utility better than ever before. In other words, most enduring religions do an impressive job fostering altruism, defined in terms of action, among members of religious communities. Surprisingly, however, altruism defined in terms of thoughts and feelings is foreign to the imagination of most religions. Instead, religious narratives tend to portray normative behaviors as good for everyone and deviant behaviors as bad for everyone. This portrayal is more motivating and leads to more decisive action than puzzling what to do when a behavior is good for self and bad for others or good for others or bad for self. This begins to explain why the word altruism didn’t exist until it was coined by the humanist philosopher Auguste Comte in 1851, as a way to portray his “Religion of Humanity” as morally superior to the Christian doctrine of original sin and salvation through Christ.
Chapter 7: Altruism and Economics. The concept of the invisible hand in economics, which posits that a society can function well without anyone having the welfare of the society in mind, poses one of the strongest challenges to the question of whether altruism does or should exist (e.g, whether it should be replaced by a price system that relies on self-interest and does a better job of organizing large-scale society). The idea that the unregulated pursuit of self-interest robustly benefits the common good is absurd from a multilevel evolutionary perspective. Nevertheless, nature offers outstanding examples of the invisible hand in the form of societies that function well because they are units of selection (e.g., multicellular organisms or social insect colonies) without their members having the welfare of the society in mind (e.g, cells and social insects, which don’t even have minds in the human sense of the word). When applied to human societies, this view of the invisible hand leads to the robust conclusion that policies must be formulated with the welfare of the society in mind, even if the proximate mechanisms that are selected do not require having the welfare of society in mind.
Chapter 8: Altruism in Everyday Life. The broad conception of altruism mapped out in this book can also be called “prosociality”—any attitude, behavior, or institution oriented toward the welfare of others and society as a whole. Abstract arguments about the invisible hand in economics can be brought down to earth by considering individual differences in prosociality in real-world environments such as city neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. Converging lines of evidence suggest that prosociality is a master variable for human welfare. Being surrounded by highly prosocial people results in multiple assets. Being surrounded by people who are low in prosociality results in multiple deficits. Highly prosocial people are vulnerable to exploitation by people low in prosociality, however, and most people are conditional in their expression of prosociality. In other words, the basic dynamic of multilevel selection plays itself out in everyday life, with the conditional expression of behaviors occupying a role that is roughly analogous to genetic evolution. Hence, the same social environments that would result in the genetic evolution of prosociality also result in the expression of prosociality among behaviorally flexible people. Knowing this is profoundly useful for public policy formulation.
Chapter 9: Pathological Altruism. It is common to think that selfishness comes in good and bad forms but that only good can come from altruism. As soon as we begin thinking about altruism as a social strategy that can evolve under some circumstances but not others, then it becomes obvious that altruism, too, can have pathological consequences. Counseling someone to be altruistic when they live in a social environment that does not favor altruism is like declawing an alley cat. It is the alley (i.e., the social environment) that needs to be changed. Altruistic thoughts and feelings can result in pathological outcomes when evaluated in terms of actions, such as negative codependency. Then we have the basic dynamic of multilevel selection, which causes altruism expressed within lower-level units to become disruptive for higher-level units (e.g., terrorism). These pathologies remind us that altruism is worth wanting only to the extent that it leads to prosocial outcomes at a planetary scale.
Chapter 10: Planetary Altruism. Altruism exists—in the form of traits that evolve by virtue of benefitting whole groups, as a criterion that people use to select their behaviors and public policies, and as a broad family of thoughts and feelings that cause people to agree with a statement such as “I think it is important to help other people.” Yet, this book has been critical of some ways that altruism is traditionally studied. Philosophical discussions and psychological research often place too much emphasis on defining altruism in terms of proximate mechanisms (thoughts and feelings) when a more fully rounded approach is needed that includes proximate causation, ultimate causation, and their many-to-one relationship. Philosophers rely excessively on their own intuition, as if what they regard as altruistic is likely to be culturally universal, whereas cultural variation in proximate mechanisms is expected from an evolutionary perspective. The more fully rounded conception of altruism outlined in this book is needed to solve the problems of modern existence, which require functional organization at the planetary scale. Key insights are that the design principles required for group-level functional organization are scale-independent and that policies that benefit the planet must be selected with the welfare of the planet in mind. In our role as policy selectors, we must become planetary altruists.
The Sacred and the Secular Can Unite on Altruism
By Kurt Johnson
As a person with professional training and lifelong career activity in both evolutionary biology and comparative religion (including the contexts of “contemplative life” and what is often today called “sacred activism”) I want to recount here what got me VERY excited about the main idea in Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes and the Welfare of Others (hereafter “DAE”)- and what, to me, comprise its broad and truly historic implications. After all, we are not dealing here with just a “new book” but a paradigm shift in evolutionary biology itself.
When I first completed a detailed reading and markup of DAE, from both my professional biological and comparative religion backgrounds, I said to myself– “finally, after decades of sacred activists and social progressives feeling their social idealism was doomed to be an upstream battle against a hostile, unkind, and even cruel evolutionary process, here is a view of evolution, claiming to be the new mainstream, that paints a very different picture– one of the evolutionary process preferring structures that serve the well being of the whole and not just the desires of this or that powerful individual or self interest group”. What a difference from the reductionist extremes of “random-neutral”, “who knows where it’s going?”, “there’s nothing we can do” or even “control and power is the only way” (as with old-time Marxist-Leninism, National Socialism or even modern corporate plutocracy)!
Further, I heard the book proclaiming that the development of such holistically serving cultural structures is “in our hands”, as a consequence of the conscious choice associated with humanity’s uniquely sentient process of cultural evolution. In a way, this had Teilhard de Chardin’s “noosphere” written all over it.
Further, I saw an explanation of why our world is now full of dysfunctional organizational principles when it could be one filled with functional organization principles– if WE took our creative role in the cultural evolution process. Most of my humanist friends had thought we had arrived at today’s current dysfunctions somehow by accident—e.g. “we did the best be could”, “what went wrong?” etc.
For me, on the largest face, this evolutionary altruist view signaled a potential joining of hopes and dreams of both sacred and secular activists alike– no matter that one saw a world driven by “divine providence” (or cosmic self-organization) while the other envisioned just random processes of innovation and natural selection. In the new evolutionary view, as David Sloan Wilson says, both camps could—perhaps– be “simply positive” and, further, share a “simply positive” emergent world.
After all, this evolutionary process selects directly on actions, not their proximal cause narratives. These narratives–always a cause of conflict—might, in a truly intelligent Homo sapiens, become quite secondary. And this, I saw, was also the message of “Interspirituality”, an evolutionary emergence in religion and spirituality which also holds that religious narratives can become secondary to spiritual solidarity around basic shared values, ethics, and ideals at the heart of all the world’s “Wisdom Traditions”. I elaborated this view in my book with David Ord, The Coming Interspiritual Age, which speculates on how religions’ similar spiritualism, ethics and value foundations might become part of the world’s “solutions”, and not either just irrelevant or an ongoing part of world’s divisive problems.
Further, wasn’t this view what had always been the “great ethical manifold” of founding Humanists such as Felix Adler (see, for example, An Ethical Philosophy of Life )? They also believed that ethical and values-related actions could be held in common among people of entirely different religious narratives.
This, to me, made DAE quite revolutionary– just as revolutionary as what I was hearing at comparative religion conferences where religions were saying “to heck with catastrophic end-of-the-world scenarios”, what about constructive “beginning-of-a-new-world scenarios?”– and noting that the latter, if true, were here now, and “in our hands” as well.”.
Evolution in DAE painted a very different picture than what the public seems to have assumed is a “mainstream” science view. I remembered that when doing my evolutionary biology doctorate in the late 70’s “group selection” and “altruism” were out (as was continental drift, and the bird-dinosaur relationship—both no brainers today) and the “selfish gene” and “social Darwinism” were in. My thinking then, as a younger graduate student, was that the orthodox view was so counterintuitive. So, it was gratifying to read, in DAE, the track by which, finally, group- and multi-level- selection, and all their implications, were now the consensus view.
I was also excited because I am a big “utilizer” of integral theory and integral vision (from the work of Ken Wilber, Don Beck, and others). Their vision, that all (and very different) kinds of conversations can, must, and need to be on the table globally today– from the best of most subjective to the best of most objective—to me is just common sense. When I heard the co-discover of DNA, Dr. James Watson, say (on TV’s “Charlie Rose”) that understanding consciousness was the next great discovery of humankind but that the world’s spiritual traditions had absolutely nothing to contribute to that conversation, I agreed with Wilber that this was, unfortunately and tragically, the “gold standard of ignorance” from an otherwise brilliant man. It also demonstrated how dramatically “silo-ed” our planet’s worldviews are, precisely at a time when they need to be moving into a convergent conversation.
However, David Sloan Wilson was advising much the same as Wilber– that divergent worldviews are all “senses of meaning”, over time create “lineages of meaning”, and that all these ways of knowing have a certain “equivalence” in working out, and working through, a global conversation where all the aspects of who we are as humans are “on the table” for discernment of our world future and direction.
In July 2015, Wilber and Wilson joined me, and colleagues, at a “From Self Care to Earth Care” conference in Denver, Colorado. A video of Wilber’s presentation is now available on YouTube and, as of this writing, has over 12,000 views. Wilber emphasized that nearly 70% of world religions are “stuck” at the “magic/mythic/literalist” level (or “style”) of religion—the one based on the general rubric of “I am right and you are wrong” (and, in the conflicts we see in the name of religion, often “dead wrong”). As Wilber pointed out, the ongoing inherent violence within how religion is most often practiced by Homo sapiens is a global tragedy. It is particularly tragic because the more highly evolved practices of religious spirituality actually often embody the qualities of love, kindness, mutuality, nurturing—yes, altruism—taught by the founders of near all of these historic traditions. We must, he said, pay profound attention to the cultural evolution needed to rectify this imbalance. That is, we must address how the practice of religion can cease to be one of the major problems for the world’s future, and become part of the solution. This view is also at the heart of the message of DAE.
Further, at the global cultural level, the problems of the “spirituality/ reductionist” divide requires serious attention. Today, we have very well-meaning people believing, on the one hand, that subjective/ spiritual experience is an important part of the makeup of human beings (“wired into us” some even say) and that this dimension must be figured into the collective skillsets of how human beings move forward in the future. Meantime, others believe spiritual/ subjective experience is nothing more than pre-rational superstition, a part of our past, which must be abandoned in favor of our intellectual and technical skills. Subjective experience, whatever it is, shouldn’t be taken seriously, other than perhaps the phenomenon of “falling in love” (again, whatever that is).
This divide is a real, and huge, problem at the global level. Certainly if you talk to a well-meaning, well- and conventionally-educated, yet fully ethical, mainland Chinese citizen, the modern materialist view stands out, as does the antipathy toward that “vendor of old-time superstition” The Dalai Lama. Never mind, or never mention, all the political prisoners in Chinese jails or The Dalai Lama saying, “the problem with the Chinese government is simply that they don’t understand kindness”.
There can be no doubt that the world is at a divide regarding the kind of future it may have. As David Sloan Wilson warns, if we don’t take seriously our sentient role in our own cultural evolution, and select the kinds of structures that promote global welfare, evolution might just take us somewhere we don’t want to go, like global political or economic dictatorship.
So, as well, Does Altruism Exist?, along with being a harbinger of hope, is also a great “warning shot across the bow” for modernity and post-modernity as well, which is entirely another conversation—but one I hope will also occur.
When It Comes to Climate Change, Altruism Better Exist.
By Richard Clugston
David Sloan Wilson defines altruism as a concern for others as an end in itself. Even Adam Smith recognized this in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (he would be horrified to learn how his other book, The Wealth of Nations, is misunderstood today). Smith wrote: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it.”
The contribution of Does Altruism Exist? is critical. Seeing group selection as foundational, along with individual (reproductive) selection is a kind of dialectic that drives us to both individuate and integrate– that makes us become fully individual and fully collective. Indeed, if we, you and I, are products of incredible cooperation between many entities on many levels, ultimately producing the great gift of evolution—our consciousness—it is tragic we are so sadly preoccupied with so many trivial considerations.
As Ken Wilber says in his comments on Wilson’s work, the arrow of time shoots toward an ever differentiating and integrating identity, which he summarizes as “growing up” (about learning and “knowing about” as humanity continues to mature) and “waking up” (that more enigmatic element in “gut” and heart that also fundamentally underpins the maturing process of humankind). It is an important synchronicity that Wilson’s work—pointing to the actual mechanisms of cultural evolution– is getting major attention just at the time when Wilber is differentiating these complementary aspects of human development.
At face it is not an easy process, nor one in which it is easy to remain optimistic. Life’s preponderance of suffering, for so many— “red in tooth and claw”, or “Auschwitz factor”– certainly clouds our appreciation of the altruistic, collaborative element. But the contributions of both of these men are asking us to take a look at the whole package.
Overall, across the underlying eco-system or “biosphere”, there appear to be three basic relationships between organisms in nature: predation, commensalism, and symbiosis. In ecology, commensalism is a class of relationships between two organisms where organism benefits from the other without affecting it. This is in contrast with mutualism (symbiosis) in which both organisms benefit from each other, amensalism, where one is harmed while the other is unaffected, and parasitism, predation, and competition, where one benefits while the other is harmed.
In the sentient realm where Homo sapiens makes conscious choices (call it, if you like, Teilhard’s “noosphere”), we then see the challenge of the design characteristics or principles fundamental to creating collaborative social systems that protect and nurture the commons. In this realm arises “the Hope” (echoing that classic title of Andrew Harvey’s foundational book on sacred activism) that we can evolve into something better-our great work.
This requires a paradigm shift to an ecological/ evolutionary orientation to life, a new sensibility of Earth as alive, and a restructuring of institutions accordingly (particularly economics). Many have been pointing to the need for a new worldview that moves us out of the mechanism, reductionism, anthropocentrism, utilitarianism of modernity, toward post-secular societies.
Earth systems scientists and cosmologists, nature poets and mystics, religious leaders and ethicists are converging on an understanding of Earth as a vulnerable, interconnected and interdependent living system. We humans are a part of nature and dependent on the vitality of ecological systems for our well-being. Increasingly, scientists and practitioners of diverse spiritual traditions are awakening to Earth as a community of subjects, which deserve our respect and care, especially in an age many now call the Anthropocene.
This is a convergence of new and old, scientific and spiritual understandings of who we are in the Earth community, and how we create mutually enhancing human-earth relationships. Contributions include evolutionary and complex-systems worldviews and new cosmologies, to phrase only a few, Mary Evelyn Tucker’s “The Journey of the Universe”, Albert Schweitzer’s “Reverence for Life”, Rachel Carson’s “Sense of Wonder,” the native American connection to “all my relations”, Arne Naess’ “Deep Ecology”, Thomas Berry’s “Communion of Subjects”, Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”, The Earth Charter, and the affirmations of compassionate religious traditions based on new “unity consciousness”– universal Christologies, seeing all beings as Buddhas, and a Coming Interspiritual Age.
And into this arena steps evolutionary science with its declaration that “Group-” and “Multi-Level-“ Selection are real and select for processes and structures that serve the whole, and not just self-interest groups. We have David Sloan Wilson describing the nuances of the more “interior” aspects of what propels cultural evolution, within the larger patterns of material evolutions just as Ken Wilber declares that evolution is progressing in all of his “four quadrants” that is, reality as understood and experienced in all of first-, second- and third-Person– and third Person plural.
According to Peter Brown, “an overarching paradigm in this new and emerging understanding is an evolutionary and complex systems theory worldview (ECSWV) —greatly enriched by developments in thermodynamics, genetics, systems theory, physics etc, especially since WWII. In this framework biological evolution is a special case, which occurs within the context of an evolutionary universe… The most fundamental truth in environmental science is that everything is connected to everything else, or that all activities in biological reality, including human activities, are embedded in, and interactive with the whole of the ecosphere ” .
What does this understanding of our group, altruistic, interconnection with all life, our awakening to the soul of things, imply for how we live our lives, organize our communities and workplaces, revise our economic and social policies at all levels of government?
Drawing on David Sloan Wilson and Elinor Ostrom’s work, it implies that we would identify with and care for the commons, e.g. the atmosphere, oceans, all “common pool resources,” by conducting our group policy and practice making according to the design principles.
In the 70-year journey of the United Nations, the most recent negotiations over the new (Post-2015) UN Development Agenda actually are manifesting such a concern for the interconnected and fragile biosphere we are part of. And the negotiations (between 193 nation states and other stakeholders) are also, remarkably, manifesting most if not all of the design principles.
As environmental and social deterioration has accompanied rapid economic growth, even the most established governments are recognizing the fact that “transformative change is needed”, and “business as usual is not an option”
They recognize we must redefine what development is for. Development– both economic and personal– and more broadly evolution, is not primarily about short-term dominance and economic gain (thereby owning, consuming and controlling ever more goods and services)-the selfish gene. Rather it is about building those conditions and capacities necessary for full human development for all in a flourishing Earth community. To paraphrase The Earth Charter, after basic needs are met, development should be about being more, not having more. Real transformative change will require the reorientation of development goals to support psychological and spiritual growth and sustainable living. It will encourage those with more than they need to give to those who lack the basic necessities for life.
In September 2015, world governments have adopted new, universal sustainable development goals that incorporate the unfinished business of the MDGs into a broader framework. SDGs are to be the guides (a sort of dashboard) for this transformative change. They are intended as a set of “action- oriented, concise and easy to communicate goals that could help drive the implementation of sustainable development.” The 13 UN Intergovernmental Open Working Group (OWG) meetings led to the completion of the Zero Draft of the SDGs in July 2014. Then, various UN offices and civil society organizations analyzed these 17 goals and 169 targets and made recommendations for their improvement.
This extensive process (including the monthly intergovernmental negotiation sessions so far preparing for the Fall Post 15 Summit) has been remarkable in terms of the consensus for seeking transformative change guided by an integrated triple bottom line and determination to place the resultant new understanding of sustainable development at the center of national and international development, starting with United Nations’ own agencies. In the monthly intergovernmental negotiations, governmental representatives have repeatedly affirmed the need for transformative change guided by a new framework for development that would eliminate poverty, promote the breadth of human rights, ensure equitable and inclusive economic growth-all within planetary boundaries. (UN Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, Sustainable development Goals Report, 2014 and other sources)
In concluding my comments, I want to point to Pope Francis’ recent challenge. His Encyclical (Laudato Si’) is a rallying point for ensuring that people understand the magnitude of the challenge facing us and for embracing the moral imperative to reorient our hearts and minds as well as our economic and social policies, to create a world that works for all. He terms this integral ecology, which “integrates questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Laudato Si’ challenges us to make three major shifts:
- From narrow anthropocentrism to integral ecology, centered on the common good, and the interconnectedness and dignity of all life.
- Toward a just and equitable social order, emphasizing a new bottom line for development that replaces economic growth and short term gain (GDP) with fuller measures of personal and planetary well being
- Toward a true global collaboration-a social movement, that is not about conversion but convergence grounded in shared global ethics. 
The New Paradigm Is Old Hat
Heterodox evolutionary discourse has long entertained the emergence of what Wilson calls superorganisms. These are emergent phenomena that functionally integrate lower-order organisms as parts, lessening within group selection pressure, making the many into one, and thus fostering the evolution of a new organismic totality. Over the years this idea led many to suggest the (inevitable?) emergence of some kind of new evolutionary event—a superorganism of humans. Wilson is interested to argue that, now, with new evidence, we finally really know that, for example, cooperation can have an impact on evolution via group selection, even as it seems counterintuitive to cooperate at the level of individual selection. Moreover, the dynamic systems and evo-devo researchers have been on to something: emergence often works via symbioses and “cooperation,” especially at the cellular and ecosystem levels. This provides a new and better platform for understanding human ethical and moral action in evolutionary terms.
We strongly support these directions and expansions in mainstream evolutionary science. We would only like to note here that heterodox evolutionists have already spilled a lot of ink about the role of morality, self-consciousness, and group-consciousness as a factor in evolution. This tradition has spent more time looking into the implications of evolutionary thinking for the self-understanding of the species, and less time working with models of mechanisms and exteriorities. So the question of whether altruism exists has not been as important as questions about the many forms of selfless behavior, as well as the higher levels of moral development individuals can attain while “becoming a part of something larger than themselves.”
In particular, the focus has been on this question: What would it really mean for our humanity if we become swept up into a superorganism, as if becoming cells organized for the benefit of some larger organelle? This is a profoundly important ethical question, and it tends to evoke, when asked, a religious or spiritual state of mind.
Some us who have been actively asking such questions have also sought to refine the phenomenology of moral consciousness associated with evolutionary emergence in human groups. The key focus is how to strike a balance between what Wilson calls (unfortunately) “selfishness” and “altruism.” We call them autonomy and communion. Too much of either and any group is pathological. Too much communion and you get a kind of totalitarianism or coercive fascism. Too much autonomy and you get narcissists and rouges, lawlessness and violence (like the wolves of Wall Street Wilson laments). These are the kind of phenomena studied in the field of conscious evolution, where the evolution of human consciousness itself is taken as both object and subject.
The First Age of Conscious Evolution Everything we know about evolution suggests that it is basically inevitable that evolution on Earth will again shift to a higher level (that is, if it continues at all, which is a big “if”). This shift will not only be of physical systems, exteriors, but also of interiors, of consciousness. And this evolutionary leap will take the form of a crisis. It is this crisis that we are in the midst of right now. This crisis is not only to do with the geohistory of technology and the limits of the biosphere; it is also a crisis of self-understanding. Consciousness and self-understanding are not epiphenomenal—they are not merely supervening or reacting to a more basic bio-technological base—human consciousness and self-understanding are driving the global crisis at all levels.
Wilson’s book is one that says, in so many words: it is conscious evolution from here on out: we are able to know and do too much to pretend otherwise: we must consciously orchestrate the future of the planet and the biosphere (We may be putting words in his mouth). We agree wholeheartedly! Our generation is in an unprecedented position to take responsibility for participating in profoundly generative and destructive evolutionary crises. The question is: can we understand our crises in cosmic context, as opportunities for the emergence of the unprecedented, and as invitations into a higher form of life? Can we merge and unify as fundamentally just and ethical unity or federation of all humanity in a time of crisis?
Issues of Identity: The Emergence of Unique Self and Unique Self Symphony To make a long story short: heterodox evolutionists and evolutionary phenomenologists have long been concerned with the role of self-consciousness as a factor in evolution. They have found that the key concept needed to foster ethical group synergy and emergence is that of uniqueness. (We have written extensively on the distinctions between uniqueness and separateness in other contexts and fully elaborated the ontology of Unique Self, which has over the last fifteen years re-defined the relationship between eastern and western notions of enlightenment. These are in effect two models of identity that are united in the higher integral embrace of Unique Self). It is one of the few keystone concepts that can bridge the gap between interiors and exteriors, science and ethics, matter and sprit, autonomy and communion. A sense of the inviolability and value of each individual’s Unique Self is the feeling of a healthy group. When a group comes together in such a way where no one’s unique self is diminished, but all are, in fact, leveraged, there emerges a Unique Self Symphony. This requires all the members to hold the group in mind, to envision their part in the self-organizing and self-orchestrating social reality to which they consent to participate. This a just form of emergent superorganisms because it requires that we care about everyone’s story. It has the perspective of social justice—the omni-considerate view from everywhere—at its core and leverages the benefits of justice to promote further harmoniums evolutionary emergence.
A self-conscious Unique Self Symphony is the feeling of being ethically integrated into a larger totality; having a sense of social justice is having a sense (very literally) for the presence or absence of harmonious social integration. The felt integrity of one’s unique self is the core of an evolutionary phenomenology of moral consciousness, especially when a group is in the midst of dynamic autocatalytic closure. To fit into the evolutionary puzzle or story (why is it always a struggle?), the shape required by each individual is unique. Other forms of superorganic closure require violence and will ultimately be undone, unseated not because they are physically unsustainable (although they likely would be), but because they are unbearable for human identity formation and moral development.
This is a great wake up call for humanity. While we have been morally guided by all great traditions to love one another, now we find that pragmatically, if we do not learn to join together in collaboration and concretion—in Unique Self Symphonies—we will become one of the many extinct species.
“Does Altruism Exist?” Wrong Question; Right Answer
By David Korten
In Does Altruism Exist? David Sloan Wilson accomplishes the unlikely. He addresses the wrong question to arrive at a brilliant breakthrough conclusion essential to the human future.
Though Wilson is too polite to say so, evolutionary biology for far too long has focused on the competitive side of evolutionary processes to the exclusion of the ultimately far more essential and central cooperative dimension. Thus, it has played to an ideological bias of those who would have us believe that unbridled competition for individual financial advantage is the key to human progress. This, to put it bluntly, is the ideology of the psychopath. Our acceptance of this ideological mantra as the foundational premise around which we have organized the global economy, goes a long way toward explaining why we find ourselves on a path to self-extinction.
Wilson is among those taking a deeper look at the data to observe that life is ultimately a primarily cooperative enterprise involving countless interdependent species that together self-organize through processes we barely understand to create and maintain the conditions on which they individually and mutually depend. The very fact that this dimension of life is so self-evident and pervasive perhaps helps to explain why we rarely take note of it. We see the competitive side more clearly, because it stands out so starkly against the background of cooperation.
By stepping back to observe and describe the deeper truth, Wilson makes a crucial, and long overdue contribution to our understanding of life. His work has sweeping implications for every aspect of the organization of human societies.
Life began with the simplest of microscopic cells. Life made its first great advance when these simple cells learned to create more complex and capable cells by interpenetrating one another to join their separate abilities in a single cell. These more complex cells than learned to join and reproduce to create ever more complex and capable multi-celled organisms. Science is only beginning to recognize the nature and implications of the processes involved. These are extraordinary examples of evolutionary advances achieved through learning to cooperate.
Our own bodies are a highly advanced example. We are each the product of tens of trillions of individual living, active, decision making cells, self-reproducing through extraordinarily complex and ultimately intelligent processes to create a human superorganism with capabilities far beyond those of any of the individual of which it is comprised.
The cells of an individual human body may go rogue and engage in a deadly competition with the rest of the body’s cells to maximize their individual consumption and reproduction without regard to the consequences for the community of cells that birthed them. We call the rogue cells a cancer tumor. Unless the rogue cells are removed, the near certain consequence is the death of body, which also assures the death of the cancer. The competitive strategy of the cancer cell provides a momentary advantage while assuring death in the slightly longer term. Our relationship to Earth has become much like that of the cancer cell to the body that birthed and nurtured it.
The success of the body as a collective enterprise of the tens of trillions of cells, depends as well on the coordinated cooperative activities of addition tens of trillions of “independent” microorganisms that perform a multitude of supporting functions, including breaking down the feed we eat into a form the body can digest. The body also supports them. It is appropriate thereby to think of our own body, not as a single organism so much as a self-organizing cooperative community of organisms. The many complex and interconnected processes by which these many trillions of individual living organisms engage in cooperative self-organization take place entirely beyond our sight and therefore beyond our awareness.
On July 1, 2015, I experienced a stroke. A blood clot lodged in a small artery and cut off blood flow to a small section of my brain responsible for certain vision functions. The brain cells immediately began organizing to create other pathways to get blood to these cells and to compensate for the visual impairment. The healing process continues as I write this commentary on Does Altruism Exist?
It would be ridiculous to describe the response from the undamaged cells as an act of altruism. Rather they naturally do what responsible members of any self-organizing community do—mobilize to address any threat to the integrity and wellbeing of the community.
This is the larger reality behind Wilson’s recognition that the very concept of altruism is the product of a ridiculously simplistic individualistic frame of understanding that views service to another as an act of self-sacrifice. There are countless situations in which the interests of the whole and those of its individual members are so interdependent that attempts to distinguish between service to self and service to others are pointless.
This is the essential nugget of Wilson’s conclusion. In the end, he leads us to recognize that the title of his book frames a meaningless question that itself reveals the primitive state of human understanding of one of the most basic aspects of life. He points to possibilities for the organization of human society that go far beyond our current simplistic assumption that our only choice is between a capitalist system based on extreme individualism and a socialist system based on extreme collectivism. In a healthy living system, there is no distinction between the well-being of the individual and that of the community.
In a living community, the health and well-being of its individual members ultimately depends on the health of the community that creates and maintains the conditions essential to the existence of the individual. The basic concept is familiar to the members of traditional tribal communities.
It falls to those of our time to develop appropriate organizational mechanisms for managing relations between self-organizing local communities in ways that serve the needs of the local community while scaling to the global level to maintain the health and vitality of the whole. No amount of money will substitute for the health of Earth. The money serving, profit seeking global corporation has no evident role in a healthy living system.
The key appears to be, as Wilson spells out in his final chapter, to learn to organize on a global scale as a coherent system of self-organizing, self-governing local communities rich in personal interaction and mutual caring. Investment in community building at various levels is essential. The legendary wholly self-reliant individual popularized by Western culture is a fiction—and always has been.
We humans will survive and prosper only to the extent we begin to think and act in terms of living systems and in which people organize in integral partnership with the rest of nature as placed based cooperative communities in which humans and other organisms work together to maintain the conditions of their common existence. This is why a society organized around placeless global corporations concerned primarily or exclusively with maximizing short-term financial gain can never secure sustainable livelihoods for all of humanity.
Wilson’s work is an essential contribution to moving beyond the simplistic ideological fallacy that serves to legitimate an economic system now in a near terminal state of self-destruction.
Insects Model their Societies on Altruism. We need to become planetary altruists.
By Rev. Mac Legerton
“Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others” by Dr. David Sloan Wilson is a groundbreaking book on the presence and function of altruism in nature, evolution, and the processes of adaptation and social organization. Although a very short book of 149 pages, it is an intense and concentrated read. Recognizing this, Dr. Wilson consistently reviews the progression of the concepts and distinctions that he makes as the reader travels through it. Most significant to me, are the implications of the question, Does Altruism Exist? for social and planetary action. As a grassroots social action practitioner, it is highly unusual to have a book come forward that frames, describes, and validates social action from the perspective of nature and science. Social action is typically framed and argued from the viewpoints of partisan politics, moral responsibility, and religion. So, this is an important book and, in commenting about it I think it is most useful for me to review the major points of the book that stand out for me from perspective of social action.
The basic point of the book is that, not only is altruism a vital part of human nature, but it is also the organizing principle of effective and functional human development and social and planetary action. Dr. Wilson documents and celebrates that natural selection in the evolutionary experience and advancement of humanity is based on the adaptive capacity of humans to act for the welfare of others (and other groups) without benefit to oneself (or one’s group) and even when there is the possibility of loss to oneself or one’s group.
Dr. Wilson demonstrates that this view of altruism and its place in human evolution is neither naïve hope nor idealism. Rather, it is the essential mark and sign of adaptive and functional organization within the human species. He states: “Teamwork is the signature adaptation of our species” (p. 73). From the origin of life to single and multi-celled organisms, from eusocial insect colonies to human social groups, Wilson asserts: “the very concepts of ‘organism’ and ‘society’ have merged” (p. 71). Wilson describes group-level functional organization in this statement: “Improving the welfare of others (the goal of altruism) requires working together to achieve common goals” (p. 71).
Group-level functional organization requires certain circumstances and features to exist. Wilson highlights the eight core principles based on research by Nobel Prize Winner Elinor Ostrom that are required for groups to effectively manage their resources and affairs (pp. 11-13). These are: strong group identity and understanding of purpose; proportional equivalence between benefits and cost; collective-choice arrangements; monitoring; graduated sanctions; conflict resolution mechanisms; minimal recognition of rights to organize; and for groups that are a part of larger social systems, appropriate coordination among relevant groups (pp. 65-66). This is a novel development because usually activism is in the position of having to work “upstream and against” prevailing realities of organizational processes and structures—in efforts to try to achieve some semblance of the characteristics described by Ostrom. Here we are told that these standards for processes and organizational structures should be fundamental in the first place.
In taking this position, Dr. Wilson challenges the widespread notion that human selfishness and greed are the keys to the drive to survive and that the individual human is the premier performance of the evolutionary process. He reflects: “The use of evolution to justify social inequality and ruthless competition stigmatized the study of evolution in relation to human affairs for decades following World War II.…those who adopt a ‘greed is good’ perspective believe that we should remove all restrictions on lower-level self-interest. Regulation becomes a dirty word, which is why it is crucial to resist worldviews that depart from factual reality, whether religious or secular, and adopt a perspective based on the best of our scientific knowledge – which means one that is rooted in evolutionary theory” (pp 146, 148).
Dr. Wilson does not stop at describing a theory of the role of altruism as an organizing principle for action among organisms and human groups in the evolutionary process. He also implements his evolutionary theory and commitment to altruism in social practice. An activist himself, he is President of the Evolution Institute that works with communities, community organizations, and institutions to develop research and social action programs that improve the quality and understanding of human community and systems of service. He states: “Understanding how groups become functionally organized is a prerequisite for making the world a better place” (p. 143). He goes on to say: “We are at a point in history when the great problem of human life is to accomplish functional organization at a larger scale than ever” (p. 146”). Further, this position is his starting place for organizing what he hopes will become a widely established “Prosocial Network” promoting this vision and experimenting with the models that might serve it.
In reflecting deeply on social problem-solving and strategies, Dr. Wilson highlights the work of Elinor Ostrom and the focus on small groups as “units of functional organization”. He states: “They are often best qualified to regulate themselves and adapt to their local environments…. From an evolutionary perspective, we can say that large-scale human society needs to be multi-cellular. The more we participate in small groups that are appropriately structured, the happier we will be, the more our group efforts will succeed, and the more we will contribute to the welfare of society at larger scales” (p. 147).
Dr. Wilson clearly understands the challenges faced among human groups and societies as we function as organisms with the capacity to improve or harm one another and the environments in which we live. In his own life, he models and balances theory and practice, action and reflection. Further, as a scholar who has studied religions and written about them from a scientific and sociological perspective, he understands that a great hope for the future is a worldview—and Altruism appears to offer one—wherein both secular and sacred activists can work, hand in hand, in what he calls being “pro-social”. That would also be an historical development and his book provides a foundation and practice to do so that is grounded in an integral framework. It is fitting that the last words of Does Altruism Exist? will also be the last words of this commentary article: “…multilevel selection theory makes it crystal clear that if we want the world to become a better place, we must choose policies with the welfare of the whole world in mind. As far as our selection criteria are concerned, we must become planetary altruists” (p. 149).
Altruism Comes with Age
By Kevin Brabazon
David Sloan Wilson’s book summarizing the altruistic paradigm shift in evolutionary science opens many doors regarding the cultural implications of altruism and its role in cultural evolution. My own interest involves altruistic adaptation in older adults, often called “generativity”, and its relation to our understanding authentic human “wisdom”. If the views advanced by Wilson, and the many other proponents he summarizes, become dominant science, perhaps “wisdom’s” importance in cultural evolution can be understood in important new ways.
“Aging” and intergenerational studies provide a rich resource of altruism-driven adaptation in older adults. It is assumed by a growing number of researchers that demands for child care in nomadic hunting and gathering societies prompted an adaptive change in older adults to meet that need. This appears to include older male adaptation as well as female, as suggested by Marsel Heisel’s studies1which indicate that older males are inclined to take on more domestic roles when they become grandparents, even in patriarchal societies where gender roles are generally highly differentiated. Louis Harris and Associates2 in a study for the Commonwealth Fund confirm that in the USA older men are only slightly less likely to volunteer with grandchildren than older women. There is evidence in the form of intelligence often associated with age [wisdom] and the ego development model offered by Erik Erikson, as well as neuronal changes that occur in elders.
Wisdom is an interesting study in itself. It appears to be a distinctive form of intelligence that is common in elders and which is described in the following ways. It is a synthesis of affect and logic, in which affect refers to the experience of emotion or feeling. The feeling is implicitly benevolent, centering on the empathetically understood needs of the intended recipient(s). Logic refers to knowledge-based rationality in which the knowledge is based largely on experience or application of information acquired through education into a variety of contexts. The development of the knowledge base is accomplished through reflection and – to a greater or lesser degree based upon the individual – integration with a larger world-view. Much of the integration is a result of the life review3. Baltes4,5 and collaborators refer to five criteria for wisdom related knowledge as lifespan contextualization; expert knowledge about fundamental life matters; rich factual and procedural knowledge; recognition and management of uncertainty; and relativism.
The developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, defines eight stages of ego development. In the seventh [adult] stage he describes the dominant theme as “generativity”. The term “generativity” was coined by Erikson in 1950 to denote “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.” In describing the older adult eighth and last stage, he refers to the dominant theme as “ego integrity” but also indicates it is characterized by a return to generativity. That is, even though there is no longer the physical imperative of child bearing and raising, there is a motivational and affective inclination towards generativity, which seems to extend beyond immediate family and even social group, to include “out group” members. Examples of this show up in one of the oldest types of intergenerational activity, i.e. mentoring.
Mentoring of younger people by older people is a time-honored practice which involves the “passing on” of various types of knowledge including skills, values, traditions, social intelligence, and social capital. It commonly occurs within the same social group, such as family, community and business, but it also cuts across ethnic, socio-economic and national boundaries. Jack Welch – the legendary CEO of General Electric – is a strong advocate of mentoring and 6 or 7 of his mentees are now CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. At the other end of the spectrum, Boys and Girls Clubs in the USA set up mentoring relationships between successful men and women and at-risk youth. Older Americans are represented in a higher proportion than their numbers in the general population would suggest. And this is true for volunteer activities in general – elders are often participating in larger numbers than would be expected.
Is there evidence to indicate this is a true evolution or adaptation in a biological sense rather than an evolving of culture with an accompanying socialization of elders? The answer is “yes”, though there is more to come on this question. Modern neuroscience opens up this narrative with some important discoveries that begin by dispelling some of the pernicious myths and stereotypes that have dogged older adults for years.
First, older brains can and do create new brain cells, and particularly the axons that connect them together. In principal, new ideas and learning are possible and in particular, new ways of connecting ideas and thoughts are available. The importance of the growth of new axons cannot be overstated since the integration of past memories through the reminiscence process [Robert Butler] is key for ego integration [Erikson] and the development of crystallized intelligence. Crystallized intelligence – based on life experience and its integration into a life view – is a key component of older adult intelligence, and is contrasted with fluid intelligence – a synaptic-driven, quick-acting intelligence dominant in younger people which peaks around 25 and declines gradually after that. Crystallized intelligence gives older adults a competitive advantage over younger people in certain types of tasks they can accomplish more quickly, though it is used in practice more often for symbiotic, generative types of activity [or unfortunately forgotten and neglected in societies that have forgotten the value of elders].
The function of axons that are key in re-connecting older or forgotten memories is enhanced by the addition of myelin in increasing quantities through the mid-fifties. Myelin is a fatty substance that improves conductivity between brain cells. Its addition through mature years suggests that there is adapted value in elders being able to speed up the connection between thoughts and memories, an important ingredient in crystallized intelligence, which in turn is an important ingredient in wisdom.
One of the most important discoveries in the argument of an adapted brain that supports a unique intelligence in elders, which contains the generative, altruistic component, occurred at Duke University in 1999. Researchers discovered an adapted brain function that was totally unexpected, and initially thought to be the function of an abnormal brain: older adults tend to use both hemispheres of the brain for the same task, whereas younger people tend to use only one. The left hemisphere is used for the logical, mathematical tasks and the right hemisphere for the creative, intuitive tasks. The fact that both hemispheres are used by elders is evidence of a key characteristic of wisdom: it is rational but includes affect. Wise advice or behavior includes not only rational analysis filtered through the powerful tool of crystallized intelligence but also the concern and caring [generativity] for how it applies and may be best used by the individual. This clearly has an altruistic context.
There is more neuroscience and neuroplasticity in this narrative but in the interest of brevity will be left for a future, expanded discussion. I suspect that the doorways opened regarding the study of “wisdom”– and its relationship to cultural evolution– are only one of many frontiers triggered by the shift in evolutionary science summarized in David Sloan Wilson’s book. If so, the book may help trigger the very cultural shift it predicts.
David Sloan Wilson’s career has been a gift to both biology and spirituality. In biology, his track record has been clear: demonstrating that cooperation on a group-selection level is as crucial a determining factor – if not more so – than competition as a driver in human evolution.
Unpacking this, Wilson’s body of work shows how groups of people are motivated to make decisions that benefit the group, with groups making decisions benefitting the collective being more resilient and generative than groups where it’s everyone for themselves – precisely the social Darwinist “survival of the fittest” model that is often the publicly-held caricature of evolution’s meaning and import in our society.
Religious and spiritual leaders have long held an interest in Wilson’s work, given the seeming resonance between The Golden Rule so many faith-paths hold as ideal and his observation of group-beneficial behavior. As a result, the science-and-religion Templeton Foundation has commissioned Wilson to continue work initiated under their auspices by theologians Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton a decade ago. The results of this latest foray into the world of evolution, altruism, and spirituality are published in Wilson’s latest book, Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others.
The questions seem straightforward enough:
- What is altruism?
- Is altruism alone enough to be a driver to human and ecological flourishing?
- Do our historic religions provide a reliable basis for altruism at the level of ideals and behavior?
This brief interaction is no replacement for reading Wilson’s concise book, but the answers in short seem to be:
- “Intentional action intended ultimately for the welfare of others that entails at least the possibility of either no benefit or loss to the actor.”
- Almost, but not quite.
The above definition was created by religious scholar William Scott Green as part of the Neuser-Chilton study, echoing the ideals of the coiner of the term altruism, French educational philosopher Augustus Comte in 1851.
Humans, it seems, have adapted to function well in group-seeking and group-promoting behavior where the circle of common-good empathy expands to the boundaries of the group – but no further. Giving a nod to developmental stage-models like those of Don Beck (in Spiral Dynamics) or Jeremy Rifkin (as outlined in The Empathic Civilization), the human story can be seen as one where we have, slowly but surely, expanded our circles of empathy and belonging from individual to family to tribe to nation to religion. Growing, trans-national, Axial Age religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and later Islam) represented a positive leap forward in empathetic group-selection on-behalf-of action as they created an “Us” that was ever-more-expansive, swelling beyond the emerging nationalistic consciousness that preceded them.
Thus Wilson says, “Most enduring religions promote altruism expressed among members of the religious community, defined in terms of action. In other words, religions cause people to behave for the good of the group and to avoid self-serving behaviors at the expense of other members of their group.”
But the difficulty in naming this pure altruism according to Green’s definition, Wilson points out, is that there’s always an “Us” that is self-interestedly served and a “Them” that’s excluded. The purportedly altruistic actions that religion inspires are always beneficial to the in-group. Being a realist, Wilson accepts this as a pragmatic given and seeks to solidify and expand in-group belonging and group-level pro-social decision-making. That said, he longs for an altruism that can be inspired at the level of thoughts and feelings, and on behalf of all. If religion can facilitate this, Wilson would be all for it. But if it can’t? What next?
Altruism beyond Religion
Presence International is a 40-year-old nonprofit that seeks to tell a better sacred Story than those articulated by religion, a Story full of love and motivational power that aids the common good of our planet and humanity. We work with what is commonly named the “Judeo-Christian” Scriptures, or the Bible – arguably one of the most potent source-texts of Western culture and civilization, for good and ill.
When we read this Story, we certainly see elements within it that can attach itself to the dominant religious consciousness present at the time it was written. For instance, Jesus’ observation “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” is an observation borne out of his hearers’ stage of empathetic development: Laying down one’s life for friends was the upper-threshold of self-sacrifice they could consider.
We also see that Jesus encouraged them to go a step beyond this, though, in teaching “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? …Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This idea – of practicing indiscriminate benevolence toward those deemed in the community and out, the well-behaved and ill-behaved – was as revolutionary then as it is now. And in the Narrative, Jesus embodies this in a sacrificial death on-behalf-of humanity. In the collective memory of this action, it isn’t seen as beneficial to Jesus, himself:
“Let what was seen in Christ Jesus be seen also in you –
Though his state was that of God,
yet he did not claim equality with God
something he should cling to.
Rather, he emptied himself,
and assuming the state of a slave,
he was born in human likeness.
He being known as one of us,
Humbled himself obedient unto death
Even death on a cross.”
While beliefs about the meaning of Jesus’ death differ among those claiming him as their inspiration, early in the Narrative we see a general understanding that his death was used by God as a move toward relationship and reconciliation between divinity and humanity for the common good, even “while we were God’s enemies.” It was enemy-love practiced on a cosmic level.
Now: the question is: Have those seeking to follow the way of Jesus embodied this sacrificial intent and action for the Out-group – for enemies? We accept Neusner, Chilton, and Wilson’s analysis that all too often, religion has not. But if altruism is the evolutionary pull that ultimately decides which groups survive, we see the rise of the religiously unaffiliated – sometimes called the spiritual-but-not-religious or The Nones – to be prophetic, and to be expected given our reading of this sacred Story as one which includes religion but ultimately points beyond it toward humanity’s future.
The seeds of this paradigm shift from religious in-grouping to ubiquitous spirituality itself can be found all the way back in the first century C.E., in this same Narrative. What Jesus initiated, his followers saw themselves as carrying out as his very embodiment – the “Body of Christ.” They lived and loved, dined and died, with an understanding of doing so “on behalf of” not only themselves, but all humanity. They saw themselves as fulfilling this function, not for all time, but within a relatively-limited apocalyptic time-frame. Apocalypse means revealing, and the picture they saw being revealed was an inclusive one:
“Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death… When [the Father] has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.”
For reasons too extensive to fully engage in this brief engagement, we see the Narrative’s built-in eschatological timeframe to be that of a single generation, as its hearers understood them –40 years. This early “Body of Christ” understood their group-beneficial benevolent behavior to have a wider frame of reference –being a blessing to all humanity and revealing a Spirit that transcends any one narrative, save that of universal human belonging.
Does Altruism Exist? calls us to work together across multiple disciplines – scientific, political, entrepreneurial, and social – to discover an on-the-ground empathy greater than our fears. We believe that spirituality is the connective story and presence that energizes all of these endeavors. In the momentum of evolutionary growth, religion is seen as a necessary, stage-appropriate development that once moved us forward, but is now holding us back. As more of us wake up to the self-transcending elements in our own sacred stories, we at Presence want to affirm our capacities for greater love, justice, benevolence and true altruism, on behalf of the sacred connections of the Divine, ourselves, each other and our planet.
Altruism and Integral Spirituality
By Ken Wilber
Note: These reflections are transcribed from a video that Ken Wilber prepared to be shown at an event titled “From Self Care to Earth Care” held in Boulder Colorado on July 18, 2015. To facilitate understanding of Wilber’s comments, we provide the following background on the “Integral Map” – or four-quadrant model—of Integral Theory.”
Wilber argues that manifest reality is composed of four domains, and that each domain, or “quadrant”, has its own truth-standard, or test for validity:
- “Interior individual/1st person”: the subjective world, the individual subjective sphere;
- “Interior collective/2nd person”: the intersubjective space, the cultural background;
- “Exterior individual/3rd person”: the objective state of affairs;
- “Exterior collective/3rd person”: the functional fit, “how entities fit together in a system”.
Wilber’s comments on Does Altruism Exist? begin at app. 1:20 hour of the video.
“These are four dimensions of the same occasion, which is why they are so intimately interwoven, and this includes their evolution. Scientific materialism, which believes only in the exterior views of an objective “It”, and a systems “Its”, and not the interior views of “I” or a “We”, thinks that evolution occurs only in those exterior objective quadrants with a chance mutation in the individual exterior dimension giving and advantage in the fight for survival and that mutation is selected for by a collective exterior environment, through natural selection.
For the orthodox view the interiors, or symbolic meaning and cultural factors, are not really involved views are not really directly involved in evolution. It is more simply exterior material/ random chance/ survival evolution. But this is an odd view, if you think about it. And David Sloan Wilson certainly has thought about it and as he points out, that in addition to orthodox forms, that mental symbolic forms and cultural forms are also inherently involved in evolution. In other words, evolution occurs in all four quadrants, as Integral Meta-theory maintains.
Now I am not claiming that Dr. Wilson agrees with all the details of the integral view but there are unmistakable compatibilities, especially in the types of phenomena that are passed forward, the same kinds of phenomena that are passed forward in evolution. In other words it is not just fitness in the lower right quadrant but fitness in all four quadrants that determines what is carried forward and what rendered extinct.
Now, think about it– from the Big Bang where there were only something like quarks and strings, all the way to Shakespeare’s poetry, the whole movement, according to the orthodox view is nothing but only a colossal accident coupled with a more successful way to get laid [laughs]. But clearly, the very existence of so many of evolution’s higher levels shows the universe is not winding down, the universe is winding up.
Randomness is exactly what the universe is overcoming, as Ilya Prigogene would put it, it is producing order out of chaos at every turn. And this is the central point. This means all four quadrants, not just in the exterior objective quadrants. This all-pervading drive of self-organizing can be called many things— “eros”, “spirit in action”, “the love that moves the sun and other stars” or, as Eric Jansch put it, evolution is self-organization through self-transcendence. [1:25 hr]
More sophisticated evolutionists like David Sloan Wilson have better ideas about the domains in which evolution is operating. Wilson, joining us at this same conference, points out the standard requirements of Darwinian evolution [Wilber then recounts basic principles of standard Darwinian evolution and continues] but then Wilson points out that these processes must apply not to just genetic evolution but also apply to epigenetics and to social evolution, by which he also means cultural evolution and symbolic thought—in other words, all four quadrants.
More important even then whether evolution is rather primarily agentic, or altruistic, is– in my opinion– that the fact that it is occurring in all these domains, all four quadrants. And agentic and altruistic evolution is occurring in all these domains—all four quadrants. This is a monumental shift—truly profound.
Now, if I can focus on my version of the mechanism for this. It is an elaboration of Whitehead’s view of ongoing experience, which he called “prehension” and I call “tetraprehension”—that it is going on in all four quadrants. “Tetraprehension”, or a prehension simultaneously occurring in all four quadrants. Prehension was the term Whitehead used to mean proto-awareness or proto-feeling that’s present in all phenomena, in all phenomena all the way down to quarks and strings and atoms.
Each moment arises as a subject of experience, a drop of awareness and, as it comes to be, it is aware of, or prehends, the previous moment.
This previous moment, which was itself a subject, is thus made an object of the newly arising subject. The new subject feels the previous moment, thus including or enfolding it. It has its own makeup but then it also adds its own bit of novelty, or newness, to the previous moment. This newness is a creative movement, or a movement of “eros”, or whatever term one prefers.
When the phenomenon is very simple, say a quark or a proton, the amount of newness is very small, so it appears almost as if it is a kind of strict determinism or strict causality is at work, and much of the physical realm appears this way. [1:28 hr]
A good astronomer can tell you where Jupiter will be a thousand years from now, barring accidents, but a good biologist can’t tell you where a dog will be a minute from now. The dog, being more complex and with more awareness brings more newness and more novelty to the moment and thus its actions are very hard to predict. It has more freedom. And so, as a new subject comes to be, and prehends the previous subject as object, it adds a bit of newness and creativity and this shows up in the degree of freedom that it has. [1:30 hr]
So, each moment “transcends and includes” its predecessor if it is to be passed on. The “include” part is the prehension of the past which is where the present moment prehends the previous moment — and actually embraces it, or enfolds it, which is how the past has an influence on the present. That’s causality. The past is actually included in and taken up in the present, so of course it’s affecting it.
But that influence is not a strict determinism because the present also transcends the past, transcends its inheritance, transcends its causality (to some degree) by adding its own newness or novelty, or creativity, or novelty. Whitehead suggested three universal ultimates— “the One”, “the Many”, and “The Creative Advance into Novelty”. And that creative advance– that makes order of chaos, that eros— is an inherent aspect of existence itself. It is crucial for evolution.
The orthodox scientific view is that newness comes from a mere chance, random mutation in genetic material, that is, it’s nothing but an accident and the universe is winding down. But as we have seen, the universe is winding up. And, this inherent creative advance into novelty is why. It’s built into the universe itself; it’s not an accident slamming into it. It is an inherent part of it.
Now, as a new subject comes into being and transcends and includes the previous subject, making it an object, that new subject has to match with existing realities in all four quadrants. Remember, the four quadrants are the actual realities that the new phenomenon is met with.
So, in the exterior collective — or social and environmental quadrant– the new subject has to survive, has to fit in with its environment, in a way that allows it to move forward. If it doesn’t fit in with its environment it will cease to exist; it will go extinct.
So there has to some kind of functional fit, and conventional natural selection is simply just one of those forms. So it is important, but the same thing is happening in the interior quadrants as well.
As a new cultural phenomenon comes into being, a new intersubjectivity making the previous moment an inner objectivity, it too has to fit with its various surroundings, has to fit its cultural surroundings. If it does it will survive. If it has exceptional new qualities that help its existence flourish, then that cultural phenomena will become even more widespread. This is a selection process just like natural selection in the exterior collective but this is a selection happening in the interior collective–happening with cultural learning. And likewise with the interior of the individual, or what David Sloan Wilson calls “symbolic meaning systems”.
If a mental phenomenon comes into being and it smoothly fits with its interior surroundings, it will move forward, while also adding its own degree of novelty, or creativity or newness. It this phenomenon had qualities that allow it to not just exist but to flourish, then its influence in the mind will increase. If these are pallid, this influence will be minor. If it doesn’t fit at all, it will be rendered extinct almost immediately.
But in all cases, a phenomenon in any of the four quadrants must transcend and include the new subject – must include the previous subject– by prehending it, by enfolding it, by feeling it and making it an object. But it must also transcend the old subject by adding a degree of novelty, newness, or creativity and this happens in all four quadrants.
In this way, evolution, or “eros”, or “spirit in action”, continues to build more and more order out of more and more chaos and drives the universe from dust to deity—that is, the awakening in all four quadrants to ever more inclusive realities.
The fact that this happened in all four quadrants means it will also happen in the “I” dimension and in the “We” dimension”. Development in the “I” dimension drives an individual’s identity to an ever and ever greater embrace– from an ego-centric identity of only “I”, to a group identity of an ethnocentric “Us”, to a world-centric “all of us”. A cultural “We” dimension drives increasing unity of ethical awareness, goodness and altruism: from pre-conventional, to conventional, to post-conventional, to integral; from clan to tribe, to empire, to international nation state, to global commons.
This is also true of the movement “Interspirituality”. Interspirituality is not something that could have occurred 2000 years ago. The “We” dimension had not yet grown to global dimensions and thus could not embrace all of the world’s religions the way awareness can do so today. The interspiritual and integral movements, as David Sloan Wilson has pointed out, are fully compatible with a saner view of evolution. This view of evolution also allows for evolution to occur, and in my view even if sexual reproduction is not present. After the Big Bang, for example, where there only quarks and early atoms available and these phenomena had very little creativity, and thus they were inherited or determined by their succeeding moments. They included them easily but only minisculely transcended them.
The universe appeared as a nearly, but not really, deterministic mechanistic process; but over the millennia, atoms continued moving forward and transcending and including and, at some point, the cumulative transcendence led to atoms coming together to form molecules, as significant creativity, a major transcendence and more higher unity. So, molecules transcended and included atoms, which transcended and included quarks. Numerous millennia later, a group of very large molecules were hanging out together and suddenly a higher form of self-organization, a cell walled, formed around them and a living cell emerged, a staggering leap of creativity, of self organization, or eros in action.
And that cell transcended and included the previous molecules as it began its life of evolutionary unfolding to yet higher unities. Only considerably down the road did all of this evolutionary unfolding bring sex into the scene and then, fitting with the previous four quadrants meant there was also a struggle for survival. And so, in some cases, a more standard Darwinian evolution began to operative alongside with evolution still occurring in the other quadrants, including mental and cultural.
But even today sexual reproduction is not necessary for evolution to occur. From Einstein to Hawken brilliant mental phenomenon are passed forward, flourishing in their symbolic and cultural environments and this extraordinary transcend and include continued bringing creativity into the cosmos as higher and higher more and more whole, and more and more unified, more and move loving and moral and caring entities emerge and evolve in this universe. Once a particular phenomenon emerges it, tends to remain in existence precisely because it is often carried forward as an ingredient in the next higher phenomenon. Thus, organisms transcend and include cells, cells transcend and include molecules, which transcend and include atoms, which transcend include quarks.
The same is true of the stages of Consciousness in the process of growing up. Magic transcends and includes Archaic, Mythic transcends and includes Magic, Rational transcends and includes Mythic, and so on.
Likewise with states. As Robert Kegan summarizes human development: “ I know of no better way to describe development than that the subject of one stage becomes the object of the subject of the next stage.” In other words the identical “transcend and include”, or prehension, that we saw operating at the very early level of evolution. This extraordinary universe is a creating fountain of ever increasing wholeness. As we noted, Whitehead said there are there ultimates: the One, the Many and the Creative Advance into Novelty. That creative advance, that eros, that self-organization, that spirit in action, is what has brought us to this integral age now starting to unfold globally, and to the new movements of interspirituality, to increasing capacity for altruism, and love, and care and concern.
Every major study of love has shown that it expands and increases with every major level of development from selfish “me only”, to small love to large group love, to love of all groups or love of all humanity, to love of all beings. In other words, evolution and love go hand in hand, an example of spirit in action if ever there was one.
In Darwin’s major book on the function of evolution in humans, The Descent of Man, the index has only two references to “survival of the fittest”. It has 92 references to “moral sensitivity” and 95 references to “love”; and, he felt these were actually the higher drives to selection in human evolution, not survival of the fittest. Or, the way integral meta-theory would put it, survival is indeed central to evolution but survival is different in every quadrant. Love and moral sensitivity are survival processes in the collective interior. The more we love the more we flourish, the more morally sensitive we are the wider our own circle of identity, going from an isolated individual “me” to a group of humans,(an “us”), to all humans (or “all of us”), and from there to all sentient beings and then the universe itself en toto—a supreme identity with the ground of all being.
This is where evolution is taking us, driven by the self-organizing unity, that eros, that spirit in action, the love that moves the sun and other stars. Looking out at that extraordinarily complex, beautiful, wondrous universe out there, how could we ever doubt it?
Discussion Questions about Does Altruism Exist?
Commentary authors were invited to respond to three questions in addition to their open-ended commentaries.
1. Global pundits often note multiple factors, and manifold emergent developments across many fields, appearing today to be bringing the world into a new conversation toward transformative change that “works for all.” How, for you, is the new “altruism discussion” in evolutionary biology one of these convergent points for important, new, and urgent international discussion?
Doug King and Mike Morrell: Absolutely. Waking up to the ‘web of life’ that connects us all is crucial if humanity is going to grow from our collective adolescence to a mature humanity. Adolescence is often by design self-involved and self-oriented – and rightly so. We’re consuming a lot of resources as we grow and develop; there’s no use condemning ourselves for being the collective age we’re at.
That said, Wilson’s understanding of altruism as truly others-focused is what happens on the other side of deeply-felt connection: An orientation on the level of ideas and action toward acting on behalf of others, even if this involves a loss to ourselves.
Kurt Johnson: There is no doubt to me– since Does Altruism Exist? is not simply a new book but describes a major paradigm shift in science– that the altruism/ group selection/ multi-level selection discussion cannot be left out of any global discussion of transformative change. This appears true even if such discussions may include opinion from vastly different cultural perspectives and also across the spiritual/ reductionist divide that is also so prevalent and divisive today.
Rev. Mac Legerton: Dr. Wilson emphasizes that human groups, societies, and humanity as a species have the capacity to effectively function as an “organism” that places the welfare of the whole at the core of its practice and policies. He provides insights into the processes, patterns, and principles that we need to adapt and adopt in order to implement effective planetary action. He ends his book by saying: “As far as our selection criteria are concerned, we must become planetary altruists” (p. 149).
Barbara Marx Hubbard: I think the important question is what the relation is between altruism at the strictly biological level and at the human level. A further question is how this is discussed in scientific language on the one hand, and more subjective or even spiritual language on the other. Can we say that the billions of years of nature have been selecting toward greater complexity, consciousness and freedom? Does nature select for what cooperates, toward greater “love” in the sense of allurement, particles joining to co-create more intelligent life from quarks on to us? How does one name or describe the “force” that activates this tendency?
David Korten: The “new” altruism discussion is an important contribution to the growing acceptance within science of three observable truths that many scientists acknowledge in their personal lives, but generally feel compelled to deny in their professional lives.
- Life involves conscious intelligence and cannot be explained or understood in purely mechanistic terms.
- Life exists only in community and depends on the community’s ability to cooperate in creating and maintaining the conditions essential to the existence of life—including the lives of all the community’s individual members. The most advanced expression of this cooperation is found in superorganisms that function as of a single mind to create capacities far beyond those of any of the superorganism’s individual members. The human body is one of the most advanced examples of a superorganism comprised of tens of trillions of individual living/decision making cells acting as if of one mind.
- Individualistic competition plays a role in life’s evolutionary processes. Far more critical to the evolutionary process, however, is life’s inherent drive to learn, create, and cooperate.
Richard Clugston: For me at least, that phrase “a world that works for all” originated in United Nations discussions over the last years as the UN’s new development agenda (the Sustainable Development Goals) and all the work toward the Paris World Climate Summit has unfolded. With near unanimity, global delegates have agreed that “business as usual is not an option and real transformative change is necessary”, a quotation I often use in public presentations. Many have also acknowledged that on a global campus like the UN, it is much easier to have this unanimity than elsewhere. Thus, many delegates say “how do I sell this at home?” Part of that process—the “selling”– is the global discussion process, and that is certainly served by Roundtables such as this.
2. How do you think institutions and organizations should increasingly exhibit Elinor Ostrom’s “Design Principles” as they pursue this transformative change?
Doug King and Mike Morrell: As we continue to align our spirituality and governance ideals to loving what is rather than fighting against it, principles like Ostrom’s design principles seem increasingly self-evident. Local communities crafted with intentionality, mutual respect, bottom-up group modifications, and clearly understood consequences for violating shared agreements is both necessary and desired. This vision matches Presence’s own understanding of our ancient prophetic texts containing symbolic language unveiling the spiritual significant of everyday events. From this vantage point, we see the New Jerusalem envisioned by conventional religion as a future hope, only to be realized after a cataclysmic, futuristic end-time scenario. In our understanding of the Story, the New Jerusalem is instead a here-and-now reality, a city descending “from heaven” to right here on earth. It can be seen as the archetypal permaculture community whose borders are nowhere and whose center is everywhere: a place where the divine and human co-create our path together.
Kurt Johnson: I think David’s book has further triggered this conversation. Thus future attention to Ostrom’s principles is inevitable. The fact is, as David’s book implies, it has been the prevalence of self-interest politics and economics, that has stalled widespread attention to Ostrom’s work.
Rev. Mac Legerton: Institutions and organizations need to learn how to act together in a more coordinated way on the local, regional, state, national, and international levels.
We need more horizontal and vertical coordination to garner our collective influence for transformative change.
Barbara Marx Hubbard: Where this becomes important is in answering a larger question. If altruism and social group synergy are both natural and difficult for humanity, yet vital to the future of human life on Earth, what can we learn from how nature does it so we can do it better? Ostrom’s “Principles” appear key to unlocking this question.
David Korten: Ostrom sought to identify the cultural and structural characteristics of human organizations that facilitate human group function in co-productive partnership with the rest of nature to enhance Earth’s ability to sustain life. Further advancing this line of inquiry and its application to the organization of human societies may be the most important work of our time. David Sloan Wilson’s work is an essential contribution.
Richard Clugston: Certainly, alongside the point of “Altruism” itself, it is Ostrom’s “Design Principles” that stood out to me in the book. As I have said, the United Nations development community, as it has heightened its call for real transformative change, not only looks to understanding what is dysfunctional in current global systems but wants to know about new models that might address this. It is likely that most are simply not aware of Ostrom’s important contribution. Future discussion of her “Design Principles” will be very important, especially as specifically applicable to particulars of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their 169 Targets.
3. If we may use these terms, many commentators worldwide suggest we are trying to move humanity from just “intellectual intelligence” toward a “heart intelligence”, and, that together these might more effectively serve the collective human future. Can you comment on that in light of your reading of Does Altruism Exist?
Doug King and Mike Morrell: It seems that the latest research, popularized by groups such as the Heart Math Institute, really does bare out: we not only contain multiple forms of intelligence, but they seem to be localized, quite literally, in different parts of the body. Intuition, intelligence, and guidance in “the heart” and “the gut” are more than quaint metaphors, they’re embodied ways of understanding that trauma and insight are stored in our very DNA. Guided by the twin flames of evolutionary biology and on-behalf-of-all spirituality, we at Presence hope we can recover somatic experiencing and thinking through our planet’s most pressing challenges not only with a keen brain-based intellect, but with heart and guts. It’s high time to move past our collective failure of nerve and move together into the beautiful world our hearts know is possible.
Kurt Johnson: We have to be honest that it’s been hard for terms like “heart intelligence” to gain traction in the global conversation because so much of the current intellectual paradigm is dominated by the idea that detachment (or even acting or being “separate”) has some kind of over-riding value. Of course, detachment has an important methodological role—as in science. But, as has been pointed out in many UN discussions, it is the massive implosion, and failure, of the materialist/ consumerist, exploitive aspects of world culture that seems to have finally woken people up to the importance of this other sensitivity, and that it is paramount.
Rev. Mac Legerton: While Dr. Wilson’s book is highly theoretical with multiple concepts and insights, there is an underlying current and care for our human capacity to utilize our distinctive gifts garnered through our evolution and meet the challenges we face from our local communities to our planet and to our survival as a species. Altruism is rooted in the heart of our evolutionary core. Dr. Wilson understands that “teamwork is the signature adaptation of our species” and that we have the evolutionary provisions that we need, including our knowledge, creativity, and altruism, to meet the challenges and solve the problems that confront us.
Barbara Marx Hubbard: I’ve recently written a book The Evolutionary Testament of Co-Creation. In the introduction, I said, “This is the last trump of this phase of evolution. We cannot continue to fight, pollute, overpopulate and destroy our environment because we remain trapped in the illusion of separation. We’re already being changes by our new capacities, as well as our new crises. We will either evolve toward a higher level of love and creativity, or we will self-destruct.” As stated in my essay herein, Wilson’s book is one that says it is conscious evolution from here on out. We must consciously orchestrate the future of the planet and the biosphere.
David Korten: Some of the most joyful moments we humans experience come when we enter into a flow state in which our own boundaries dissolve and we experience ourselves functioning as contributors to something larger than ourselves. The flow state experience is not born of the intellect and the cold mental calculation of personal gains and losses. It is born of the heart and our innate desire to be part of and contribute to something larger than ourselves. Examples include high performing musical ensembles, sports teams, and work groups.
We observe in the unfolding of the universe a continuing process of competition/differentiation and cooperation/integration by which life advances to every greater complexity, beauty, awareness, and possibility. It is an expression of life’s deeply inborn drive to create, cooperate, and evolve.
Western science has tended to focus on the competition/differentiation dimension of creation to the neglect of the cooperation/integration dimension. This was a standard accepted frame of Western science. When operating at the elemental level of this pure competition/differentiation analytic frame it is relevant to ask whether an individual act of cooperation is motivated by self-interest or altruism. This frame was sufficient to produce impressive advances in human understanding.
This limited level of inquiry, however, remains dangerously partial. Our future—perhaps our survival—depends on joining our knowledge of the processes of competition/differentiation with an advanced understanding of the role and processes of cooperation/integration in the creative evolution of the cosmos.
Richard Clugston: Any of us who are people of conscience welcome discussion where the more human, indeed more humane and personal, aspects of this wider discussion can be included. Many at the UN point out that only this year has the Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, issued an official statement using the word “spiritual” and casting the landscape of these deep ethics and values issues in that manner. Interestingly, this has paralleled a new interest in – and several new books about– the founding Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold’s vision, which to a great degree was cast also in those terms.
Reply to Commentaries on Does Altruism Exist?: Integrating Science and Spirituality Through Action
By David Sloan Wilson
I am grateful to the commentators for their reflections on Does Altruism Exist? (DAE), and special thanks to Kurt Johnson for organizing the roundtable. I share the general sentiment that something historic is in progress at the intersection of science and spirituality. The scientific study of evolution is catching up with a spiritual vision of evolution that was perhaps first fully articulated by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) in The Phenomenon of Man.
The history of Teilhard and his work provides a lens through which to view current developments (I recommend an episode of the National Public Radio show On Being devoted to this topic). He was a Jesuit priest and world-renown paleontologist whose work was both permitted and suppressed by the Catholic Church. The Phenomenon of Man was published posthumously and was praised as scientifically authoritative by none other than Theodosius Dobzhansky, the geneticist known for his pronouncement “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. Dobzhansky was himself a big thinker about evolution in relation to human affairs, as book titles such as Mankind Evolving (1962) attests. Over the decades, The Phenomenon of Man was largely forgotten as a work of science but remained widely read for its spiritual quality. When I read it in 2009, I was amazed by its current scientific relevance. Teilhard had anticipated many of the developments in evolutionary thought that I summarize in DAE.
Some of the commentators (such as Hubbard and Stein) therefore have a point when they say, in essence, “What took you scientists so long?” They have been developing Teilhard’s concept of the noosphere and conscious evolution for a long time—but that’s not to say that they have everything right. Mainstream evolutionary science might be playing catch-up in some respects, but it also refines Teilhard’s vision in new ways in other respects. That’s why the current intersection of science and spirituality explored in this roundtable is so exciting and qualifies as a genuinely new synthesis.
Two motifs that are common in the evolutionary spirituality literature concern long-term progress and stages of development (Clugston, Hubbard and Stein, King and Morrell, Wilber). Teilhard portrayed human cultural evolution as having a direction toward a single global consciousness that he called the Omega Point. Many authors have outlined stages of development in which the higher stages are normatively preferable to the lower stages. As one example, Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development begins with an entirely egocentric stage and ends with a stage driven by universal ethical principles. It is easy to see why these motifs should loom large in spiritual narratives because they provide a cosmology of sorts and motivate people to travel a path toward more spiritually enlightened states. They are somewhat problematic from a scientific evolutionary perspective, however. The kind of progress most easily explained by evolutionary theory is adaptation to the immediate environment. It’s not obvious how this kind of progress, which is extremely local, results in macro-evolutionary trends such as increases in complexity, human-like consciousness, the scale of cooperation, or universal ethical principles replacing more egoistic principles.
Multilevel Selection (MLS) theory, which is the centerpiece of DAE, provides a spiritual narrative that is more compatible with modern evolutionary science (Korten, King and Morrell). In this narrative, the spiritually enlightened state can evolve by a Darwinian process, but only under special conditions. The challenge, or quest, is therefore to create the appropriate conditions for evolution to take us where we want to go. The only way to arrive at the Omega Point is to steer toward it. I personally find this more motivating, as well as more scientifically accurate, compared to narratives that invoke macro-evolutionary trends or stages of development that are supposed to take place over historical epochs. It provides a more immediate call to action, along with the tools for getting the job done.
Brabazon’s interesting commentary on wisdom and human cultural evolution is a case in point. He is right that gene-culture co-evolution casts old age in a new light. The elongated human life cycle evolved in part to accommodate the amount of learned information that must be transmitted across generations and elders arguably play an important role in cultural evolution long after their biological reproductive careers have come to an end. However, this does not mean that age inevitably results in wisdom, much less the sort of wisdom that embraces universal ethical principles. The annals of history are replete with elders who counseled destructive self-serving behaviors at various lower levels of a multi-tier social hierarchy. Unless spiritually enlightened actions can survive in a Darwinian world, counseling them counts for little.
Two other major concepts featured in DAE, equivalence (Chapter 3) and the distinction between proximate and ultimate causation (Chapter 5), also relate to evolutionary spirituality in important ways. Just as scientific theoretical frameworks can offer different perspectives on the same causal processes and different proximate mechanisms can lead to the same functional outcomes, different cultural traditions can lead people to a common awareness of interconnectedness and the ethical conclusions that follow. Indeed, this is the essence of the concept of Interspirituality (Johnson).
Understanding the many-to-one relationship between proximate and ultimate causation can help to achieve a balancing act between tolerance for different worldviews and the need to act in concert to solve the problems of modern human existence. Imagine that someone owes you money and offers to pay by either cash or check. You might have a mild preference for payment method, but your main concern is to be paid. By the same token, in our social interactions with people, we shouldn’t (and typically don’t) care much about exactly what motivates them to behave in a responsible fashion, as long as they do behave in a responsible fashion. The concept of Interspirituality embraces the same many-to-one relationship for different cultural traditions. It doesn’t matter how you arrive at an awareness that everything is interconnected. You might be a Buddhist, a Christian, an eco-philosopher, or a scientist who doesn’t regard yourself as spiritual in any way at all. What’s important is for everyone to act in concert based on their common awareness. Tolerance of diversity on the plane of thoughts and feelings is combined with decisiveness on the plane of action.
This is what Wilber correctly infers when he says that evolution takes place on all four quadrants of the schematic that he calls the Kosmos in his worldview of Integral Spirituality. The left side of the Kosmos is the subjective sphere of the individual mind (top half) and its communal expression (the bottom half). The right side of the Kosmos is the objective sphere that exists apart from how we think and feel about it, which scientific knowledge attempts to apprehend. There are different truth criteria for the left and right halves of the Kosmos. Multiple truths can coexist on the left half more than the right half, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes on the left half. Every subjective worldview that exists on the left half results in a suite of actions that takes place on the right half. The right half is unforgiving, so subjective worldviews that lead to unsustainable actions go extinct. In other words, the subjective worldviews on the left half are selected based on their consequences on the right half. This is a very satisfying connection between an influential “New Age” spiritual worldview and modern evolutionary science, as Wilber appreciates in his commentary excerpted from his video address.
In my “cash vs. check” thought experiment, there is little reason to prefer one payment method over another. The same is not true for cultural traditions. People brought up within one tradition might be so attached that they can only function within that tradition and no other can substitute. This path dependency makes it especially important to be tolerant of diversity on the left side of the Kosmos, while working toward a decisive plan of action on the right side. Perhaps this is why the Interspiritual movement is so active in the arena of multi-national organizations such as the United Nations (Brabazon, Johnson, King and Morrell).
I was recently able to observe this combination of tolerance and decisiveness at a miniature scale in an Ecovillage named Dancing Rabbit located in rural Missouri. A condition for membership is to sign an “Ecological Covenant” that requires adherence to environmentally sustainable actions and social practices that do not harm others. For anyone who abides by the covenant, however, any spiritual belief (e.g., Paganism, Conventional Religion, Atheism), sexual orientation, or living arrangement is tolerated and intolerance of these forms of diversity would be strongly condemned. This combination of unity on the plane of action and tolerance of diversity on the plane of the worldviews that motivate action results in a high level of individual wellbeing (self care), a strong sense of community (group care), and commitment to an environmentally sustainable lifestyle (earth care) that individuals would find very difficult to achieve on their own (go here for more).
This example illustrates other fruitful intersections between evolutionary science and evolutionary spirituality: the concept of society as an organism (Korten, Legerton, Hubbard and Stein), small groups as a fundamental unit of human social organization (Legerton), and the need to scale up from small groups to large-scale society (Clugston, Korten, King and Morrell). These have always been central to religious and spiritual traditions, including Teilhard’s vision of evolutionary spirituality, but they have been marginalized by reductionistic worldviews in evolutionary biology, the social sciences, and economics during the last half-century (Johnson, Korten). It would be hard to overstate the significance of modern evolutionary science affirming, rather than appearing to deny, the holistic worldview that the commentators have been championing all along.
Looking forward, I hope that this roundtable and the two others that are being organized will lead to plans of action (Korten, Legerton). I am especially eager to facilitate the creation of small groups that function as healthy “cells” in a larger scale “multi-cellular” society. Anyone can become involved in this project, no matter where they live or their religious, spiritual, or scientific background. I have helped to develop PROSOCIAL, an internet platform for improving the efficacy of groups based on Elinor Ostrom’s core design principles, to coordinate an effort to “evolve the future” and “steer toward the Omega Point”. I expect the project to be scientifically and spiritually fulfilling in equal measure.
 Brown et al. 2011, p. 11
 Secretary General’s Interagency Task Force Report, 2012
 United Nations Secretary-General’s UN System Task Team, “Realizing the Future We Want for All: Report to the Secretary General”:
– Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Global Action (Final draft of the outcome document for the UN Summit to adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda)
– Earth Charter Commission, 2000, the Earth Charter Preamble, San Jose, Costa Rica, Earth Charter International
– Bosselmann K., Brown P. and Mackey B. (2011) Enabling a Flourishing Earth: Challenges for the Green Economy, Opportunities for Global Governance. Stakeholder Forum;
 For more on this tradition of evolutionary meta-theory see Stein (2015) “Beyond Nature and Humanity: On The emergence and Meaning of MetaTheories.”
 See Conscious Evolution, Barbara Marx Hubbard, 1996.
 See Journal of Integral Theory and Practice (6:1), which is dedicated to Unique Self Theory. See also Gafni’s Uniue Self, 2012. For the first book length treatments of Unique Self Symphony, see: Stein & Gafni, Towards a Politics of Evolutionary Love (Forthcoming); Gafni and Hubbard, Becoming the New Human and the New Society (Forthcoming).
 1. Heisel, Marsel A. (1993) Socio-Economic Development and Gender Relations in Late Life: Views from Turkey and Egypt, Budapest, Hungary: paper presented to the International Congress of Gerontology
- Louis Harris and Associates (1992) The Nation’s Great Overlooked Resource: the Contributions of Americans 55+, New York: The Commonwealth Fund
- Butler, Robert (1963) The Life Review: An interpretation of reminiscence in the aged, Psychiatry, Vol 26
- Baltes, P. (1993) Aging Mind: potential and limits, Gerontologist, Vol. 33, No. 5
- Baltes, P., Staudinger, U., and Maerker, A. (1995) People Nominated as Wise: a comparative study of wisdom-related knowledge, Psychology and Aging, Vol. 10, No. 2
 Wilson, David Sloan. Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. (New Haven, 2015) Pg. 82.
 Ibid, pg. 79.
 John 15:13, New International Version.
 Philippians 2:5-8, Christian Community Bible translation from the Philippines, as cited in Cynthia Bourgeault‘s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening.
 Romans 5:10, New International Version.
 I Corinthians 15:20-28, New International Version.
 For an in-depth biblical, theological, and historical exploration of a limited time-frame apocalyptic frame, see Max King’s The Spirit of Prophecy (1971, 2003), or this series on the Presence blog: http://www.presence.tv/category/eschatology-101
 Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of Everything, 2nd edition. p. 96–109