One of the hardest lessons to learn about evolution is that it doesn’t make everything nice. It often results in outcomes that benefit some individuals at the expense of other individuals, some groups at the expense of other groups, or short-term benefits that are detrimental to everyone over the long term.

It’s not as if evolution never results in outcomes that we would regard as benign and sustainable in human terms. It’s just that the appropriate selection pressures are required. Otherwise, evolution takes us where we don’t want to go.

These generalities apply to human cultural evolution in addition to genetic evolution. When we survey everything that seems wrong in modern life, we frequently encounter beliefs, behaviors, and institutions that are adaptive in the evolutionary sense of the word, but pathological in terms of our normative goals. Self-preservation is a good thing—until it leads to self-dealing. Helping family is a good thing—until it leads to nepotism. Helping friends is a good thing—until it leads to cronyism. Nations growing their economies is a good thing—until it leads to overheating the earth.

Another type of pathology, called evolutionary mismatch, is maladaptive in every sense of the word. Organisms are shaped by selection pressures that took place in the past. If the current environment becomes different from past environments, then previous adaptations can become pathological in every way. A famous example is the behavior of baby sea turtles when they hatch on beaches and must quickly make their way to the sea. Evolution has equipped them with an attraction to light, a reliable cue, because since for time immemorial the sea has reflected more light than the inland. Until the construction of beach houses and streetlights. The baby sea turtles are “tricked” by their new environment to head inland and evolution has not equipped them with any kind of learning process to recover from their mistakes. Only subsequent genetic evolution (which in this case is unlikely to take place before the turtle populations go extinct) or a human intervention can solve the problem.

When you consider how much our current environments have deviated from our ancestral environments with respect to our genetic evolution, then we are more like the sea turtles than we might like to admit. True, many features of our modern environments are cultural adaptations that improve our survival and reproduction, but even cultural evolution takes time—decades and even centuries—and can fail to keep pace with rapid environmental change. It is arguable that every human cultural tradition on earth is mismatched to our current environment, which is changing at a much faster pace than at any other time in human history.

The fact that evolutionary selection pressures so often result in social pathologies might be hard to accept, but once faced squarely it can lead to an optimistic point of view. After all, we are social constructivists (to employ an old term) or niche constructivists (to employ a newer term) par excellence. Armed with enough knowledge, we can make evolutionary selection pressures the solution rather than the problem by aligning them with our normative goals. This already happens to a degree, accounting for what seems right in modern life, and we can potentially cause it to happen at a larger scale and faster pace than ever before. So let’s embrace the concept of social pathologies as a product of cultural evolution so that we can overcome them.

Between-group conflict is one such pathology that is already widely recognized. Along with most other social species, we are adapted to cooperate primarily within our social groups in competition with other groups. Between-group competition need not take a violent form. Just as drought-resistant plants “outcompete” drought-susceptible plants in the desert without the plants interacting at all, cooperative human groups can “outcompete” internally fractious human groups just by working better, without direct between-group interactions.  That said, between-group competition often did take violent forms throughout human history, first at the scale of small groups and tribes, then at increasingly larger scales with the advent of agriculture, leading to the megasocieties of today. Recent books that explain the pathology of between-group conflict from an evolutionary perspective include Peter Turchin’s Ultrasociety: How Ten Thousand Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth by Richard Wrangham’s The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Goodness and Violence in Human Evolution

But between-group conflict is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to pathological outcomes of cultural evolution. How about the pathologies associated with the food industry, Big Pharma, economic inequality, the fossil fuel industry, the tobacco industry, the arms industry, and the epidemic of fake news? These are disrupting large-scale cooperative society from within, like a cancer. If they can first be understood and then addressed from an evolutionary perspective, along with between-group conflict, then that would be an accomplishment of the first rank.

That is the ambitious objective of Anthony Biglan in this series of TVOL essays, along with his new book Rebooting Capitalism: Forging a Society that Works For Everyone. Tony is uniquely qualified to succeed in this quest. I met him over ten years ago, when I was just starting to get involved in practical change efforts from an evolutionary perspective, as I recount in my 2011 book The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time. I discovered that Tony and his colleagues were already doing this kind of work, although not explicitly from an evolutionary perspective. At the time he was President of the Society for Prevention Research, an academic discipline that I had not previously heard of. It was dedicated to accomplishing positive cultural change in the real world, at scales ranging from individuals to large populations. Tony himself had been influential in the fight to curb tobacco use, so he knew a thing or two about combatting social pathologies.

Prevention Science drew upon a number of disciplines such as behaviorism, pragmatism, and public health, developed by major thinkers such as B.F. Skinner, Williams James, and John Dewey. A key phrase is “selection by consequences”, which Skinner used to describe the outcome of all variation-selection-replication processes, whether genetic evolution, the contingencies of reinforcement in individuals, or multi-generational cultural evolution. Skinner and the other pioneers were influenced by evolution, but there was almost no connection between the modern field of Prevention Science and modern evolutionary science. Tony and I started to address this problem, bringing in two of his close associates, Steven C. Hayes and Dennis Embry. Steve is a clinical psychologist and founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, which is pronounced as one word (the T can also stand for “Training”). Dennis is a scientific entrepreneur who is currently marketing a classroom behavior management program called the Good Behavior Game around the world. Like Tony, Steve and Dennis were expert at accomplishing positive change in real-world settings and were themselves appreciative of evolutionary science, but the constellation of disciplines that they represented were largely isolated from evolutionary science and even from each other. A huge task of integration lay before us.

Our first major accomplishment was a target article in the academic journal Behavioral and Brain Science titled “Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change” which was published along with about two dozen commentaries in 2014. In 2015, Tony published The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World, with a foreword by Steve and afterword by myself. In 2018, Steve and I published an edited volume titled Evolution and Contextual Behavioral Science: An Integrated Framework for Understanding, Predicting, and Influencing Human Behavior, with a foreword by Tony. In 2019, I published my sole-authored This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution and Steve published his sole-authored The Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Towards What Matters. With our colleague Paul W.B. Atkins, we also published Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups.

In addition to these books and our BBS article, projects carried out by the Evolution Institute and much of the online content published on TVOL concern social pathologies and their solutions from an evolutionary perspective (see links at the end of this introduction). I mention these accomplishments, not to boast, but to emphasize that “becoming wise managers of evolutionary processes” is not some vague aspiration for the future. It is already taking place to a degree in the present and can explain positive change efforts in the past, even when they were not conceptualized in explicitly evolutionary terms. However, the value of theoretical integration and unification cannot be overemphasized.

Against this background, TVOL is proud to publish a series of essays by Tony diagnosing seven social pathologies that are eating away at large-scale cooperative society like a cancer, to accompany his most recent book Rebooting Capitalism: Forging a Society that Works for Everyone. The world can become a better place for everyone, including future generations, but only if we align evolutionary selection pressures with our normative goals.

Tony’s analysis is compassionate in addition to insightful. The problem is not bad people but misaligned selection pressures. As he puts it in his essay on Free Market Ideology, “It is tempting to make the proponents of these views out to be unvarnished villains. But life is not that simple and I am convinced that the common tendency in public discussion to vilify and attack does not advance the goal of creating a more nurturing society.”

Systemic social problems require systemic solutions. Evolution will take place whether we want it to or not. Our challenge and opportunity is to align evolutionary processes to achieve our positive societal goals.

Read the Full “Cultural Evolution of Social Pathologies” Series by Anthony Biglan:

1. Introduction by David Sloan Wilson

2. How Cigarette Marketing Killed 20 Million People

3. The Right to Sell Arms

4. How and Why the Food Industry Makes Americans Sick

5. Big Pharma and the Death of Americans

6. How Free-Market Ideology Resulted in the Great Recession

7. The Fossil Fuel Industry: The Greatest Threat to Human Wellbeing

8. The Crisis of Capitalism

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Published On: February 27, 2020

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .

Anthony Biglan

Anthony Biglan

Dr. Biglan is an award-winning leader of worldwide efforts to evolve more nurturing societies. His book, The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World, earned him the Scientific Translation Award from the Society for the Advancement of Behavioral Analysis for increasing public understanding of the power of behavioral science. In Rebooting Capitalism, he takes the next step by describing how behavioral science can help reform our political and economic system so that it works for everyone.

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