Over the last several weeks, we have featured an essay and an interview related to the Evolution Institute’s ongoing Norway Project. The first was a paper David Sloan Wilson co-authored with his Norwegian, biologist colleague, Dag Hessen: “A Blueprint for the Global Village.” The second was my interview with Jerry Lieberman, leader of the Norway Project and Quality of Life initiative, regarding the relevance of politics to EI’s interest in Norway. For newcomers, these are archived on the “Culture” page.

Because EI’s primary mission, as stated in its bylaws, is “to utilize evolutionary theory as a scientific basis in conducting research for societal improvements and the benefit of human welfare,” research naturally migrated toward Quality of Life considerations, and Norway led the world in UN Human Development Index (HDI) matrices for five years in a row.

In an attempt to best understand what kind of cultural ethos and innovations led to this remarkable standing, Jerry and I read extensively – even spending time in the library of the University of Washington, which houses a significant Scandinavian library – before planning and organizing the workshop with Norwegian academics last October. Norway’s developing cultural ethos, following its emergence as a nation in 1905, crafted public policy and its approach to wealth, resources, and business – leading to the foundation of a social democracy (as a response to the Great Depression) and creations of the Norway Pension Fund that guarantees the well-being of its citizens for years to come, and a world-class public education system that aims for inclusiveness across all possible divides – including its prison population.

The purpose of EI’s workshop last October was to establish a dialogue: (a) identifying what we, from the United States, could share with concerned Norwegians about the pitfalls of hyper-capitalism and globalization, and (b) learning from Norwegians the ingredients of their success and contemplating whether such a “recipe” is transportable.


Before further exploring Norway’s cultural ethos, let’s summarize what evolution and politics have to do with Norway’s success and EI’s interest in Norway’s success:

According to David Sloan Wilson, in materials prepared for the October workshop, “Genetic evolution has endowed us with a capacity for open-ended change that is an evolutionary process in its own right; cultural evolution enabled our ancestors to inhabit the entire planet and occupy hundreds of ecological niches.” He regards human history as a process of multilevel cultural evolution, resulting in the emergence of societies that function better than other societies as corporate units, with the same cultural evolutionary forces that led to our current social organizations operating today. What we have learned from evolution is that modern nations vary in their social organization. These distinctions make a difference in how well they function as corporate units, and their differences are heavily influenced by historical contingencies and local circumstances. However, their differences can also be based on the presence or absence of fundamental design principles that are required for any social group to function well as a unit. These principles can be evaluated for any given nation, and deficiencies can be remedied. Norway is exemplary in achieving an expansive ability to actualize group cooperation within and between groups.

Jerry Lieberman reiterates, in his recent interview, that EI is interested in theory and practice that deals with improving the human condition using an evolutionary perspective and adds, “As one moves more towards the application side, politics enters into the conversation because the United States is where we are headquartered, and this nation is very much headed in the direction of greater and greater inequality.” Additionally, a significant portion of the population rejects evolutionary theory and denies climate change is occurring. Absent science to demonstrate the hazards of climate change from a health – physical and mental – and ecological standpoint, the consequences can be quite dire. So politics is a means to influence policy, and policy needs to be well developed with good science, with evolution an integral part. Norway provides a good example of an advanced democracy where there still remains a great deal of trust in government and relatively less inequality than in most other economically and technologically developed nations. “Politics, then, is my interest, and it serves a very important purpose in the application and policy development area.”

Norway’s Cultural Ethos

Within this context, let’s consider the concept of culture and Norway’s cultural ethos. According to anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “Culture is the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” Cultural artifacts reveal our social reality, showing what we as a society believe and care about, and they shape our social reality, offering a view of life that colors our perceptions. Benjamin Whorf’s scholarship was among the first to explore how words, as cultural artifacts, have this capacity. Three Norwegian words seem central in this regard: dugnad, Likeverd, and Jante
In terms of the stories Norwegians tell themselves about themselves, one of EI’s Norwegian colleagues, Nina Witoszek, researches memes. She writes:

In my studies of the semiotics of Norwegian culture, I have borrowed Richard Dawkins’ concept of memes, i.e. aggregate forms of cultural expression such as myths, symbols, rites of massage, models of cultural heroes, etc. But I disagree with Dawkins’ rather simplistic understanding of the term as “a replicator and a unit of transmission which, by analogy with genes leaps from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” While I agree that like genes, memes put constraints on human thinking, behavior, and even health, I argue that they are not mechanically reproduced but constantly redesigned and creatively elaborated by diverse cultural agents. I also insist that memes become a fruitful concept when they are understood as units of social memory, i.e. durable creations of human imagination which, once conceived, do not atrophy but start influencing positive – or negative – selves of a culture and endow them with meaning. Memes are thus value-charged images, stories, rites, behavioral patterns, as well as visual and musical motifs that are transmitted from generation to generation, and which define a culture’s ways of knowing, its beliefs and aspirations, the level of social trust and collaboration, the degree of compassionate behavior, communication patterns, etc. 

Nina and Evelin Linder extensively explore the roles of deeply ingrained words such as Dugnad, Likeverd, and Jante in Norwegian culture. For purposes here, I’ll offer my understanding of the words in terms of their origin and present connotations.

Dugnad, with origins in the 13 and 14th centuries, signified community volunteerism – akin to “barn-raisings” in colonial America but broader in scope. Present-day connotations range from organizational events such as “Adopt a Road” and fundraising such as through the United Way (popular in the United States) to a broader meaning of social cooperation – as in working for the common good.

Likeverd, loosely translated as human equality/dignity, has its roots in Christianity and the pietistic, Lutheran Hans Nielsen Hauge movement in 19th century Norway. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 reinforced the power of this trope.

Results from a Google search indicate Jantelov, or the Law of Jante, may have always existed in Scandinavian countries; however, the governing principles of the Jante mindset were first verbalized by novelist Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 book, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. Jante itself is a fictional town that Sandemose based on his hometown, where

[…] the pattern of group behavior within Scandinavian communities eschews overt self-promotion and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate. Beyond that, it has engendered in Scandinavian society a sense of humility and a respect for moderation that has profoundly affected the way people operate financially, where it’s better to limit risk and certainly not to focus openly on personal gain, both of which are, by contrast, mainstays of the American way of life. http://www.ibtimes.com/law-jante-how-swedish-cultural-principle-drives-ikea-ericsson-volvo-beat-financial-crisis-1397589

Political Awareness of Norway’s Cultural Ethos

While in Norway several months ago, David Sloan Wilson, Jerry Lieberman, and I had opportunity to meet with politicians, think tank organizers, leaders of labor organizations, historians, and an author. Reflections of conversations with them can be organized around these concepts of Dugnad, Likeverd, and Jante.

Although we didn’t witness a Dugnad in the traditional sense – but would have if we’d been there last month during the clean-up before Norwegian National Day – we found evidence of its significance as people reached out to one another to come together for the “common good.” Fortunately for Norwegian democracy, there are 24 political parties that can participate in determining the common good; presently only 8 parties fill 169 legislative seats. Because no one party can easily gain a majority of these seats, parties frequently cooperate to form coalition governments.

Such had been the case immediately prior to our October trip to Norway, when the Conservative Party coalition, including the Progress, Liberal, and Christian Democratic parties defeated the Labor Party coalition, which included the Socialist Left and Centre parties. Political issues regarding the common good included privatization, immigration, lowering taxes, and proper use of the Sovereign oil fund.

By the time of our March trip, Agenda was being created to organize as a moderate/central left and values based alternative. Targei Skirbekk, interim CEO, said: “Our initial focus will be on the economy, welfare, and climate/energy – we’ll figure out which debates we wish to start and which to stay out of. We’re going for 50.1% of the vote because labor alone can’t obtain this anymore – we need farmers and centrists from the Labor Party who trust us and can get others to trust us.”

Additionally, three left-leaning think tanks – Campaign for the Welfare State, Manifest Analyse, and an unnamed religious labor group – had agreed to share office space and challenge what they regard as an assault to the Welfare State. Asbjørn Wahl, Director of Campaign for the Welfare State and renowned author of Rise and Fall of the Welfare State, told us: “All three groups will meet next week and figure how to cooperate. Small groups now are moving in and working together.”

Bernt Aardale and Knut Kjeldstadli provided representative anecdotes closely linked to Likeverd – the importance of equality, human rights, and dignity. Bernt, a political scientist at the University of Oslo and election researcher, told the story of how, when, and why welfare was extended to everyone. The egalitarian society Norway built through the Labor party during the 1920s began to break down in the 1950s, “and in 1952 a compromise was reached: What started as welfare for the needy was later open to everyone, so all had a stake.”

He also commented when considering the Labor coalition’s loss in the last election, “Labor tried to centralize its campaign, but was unsuccessful as a party because the locals in remote areas felt excluded.”

Knut, a University of Oslo history professor, studied immigration between 1900 and 2000 looking at oil, geological wealth, and more importantly, relative balances between social classes since 18th century alliances and compromises. He concludes: “Things were/are better with an equal distribution of wealth – not rungs of varied wealth and experience.”

He asks, “How can we develop the kind of nation we need/want to be within the grips of a global capitalistic hegemony”? And he explains that Norway’s economy has been based on (a) a compressed wage structure with ceilings kept low for most skilled workers and (b) a tradition of protection, where anxiety is decreased and workers are not subservient. Future challenges include addressing social issues based on cultural differences, and achieving solidarity and discipline in the labor movement; i.e. accepting diversity while insisting on unity.

Bernt also demonstrated the Jante mindset in Norway. He has seen a move to the right since the early 2000s: open to a free market and privatization. He said, “The test will be in the fabric of the Nordic system: Will there be a barrier to the right – counter forces swinging back?”

And he tells this story: During this conservative time, a billionaire in the North was given fishing rights – now some of these fish are processed in China. There’d been a strong social democracy through the 1970s and 80s – before 90s oil money created billionaires. “At first there was admiration for the nouveau riche; however in the last 10 to 20 years, a negative attitude – representative of equality – emerged. Society has changed but values haven’t.”

Helge Ryggvik, a University of Oslo oil historian at the Technology, Innovation, and Culture Center, told us about the days-before demonstration at Parliament: Those in northern fishing-related industries were upset with the liberalization of fishing rights since the late 80s that created monopolies. The common refrain was, “I accepted this deal. I was taken.”

Hegemony’s Assault on Norway’s Cultural Ethos

Bård Vegar Solhjell, a member of Parliament representing the Socialist Left Party, and Jonas Gahr Støre, a member of Parliament who will later this month lead the Labor Party, expressed their concern to us regarding eroding trust in Norway. Their joint ambition is to create a proposal for Parliamentary attention to the importance of trust – I would add, particularly since words such as Dugnad, Likeverd, and Jante rely upon trust for the sense of community fostering the high quality of life that Norway takes pride in.

Helge, the oil historian, provides his explanation of Norway’s assault from what Knut termed “a global capitalistic hegemony”: He laments the country Liberals believe in – with social democracy as its core, as a result of ruralism, the best of Christianity, and the struggles and compromises of the 1930s that created local collectives. During WWII, Norway and the United States became allies and continued working together through the 60s with the UN, UNICEF, and U.S. Cold War military complex in Norway. However, the United States wanted to control the union when oil was processed in the 60s: Philips vs. the Seamen’s Union.

From 1978 – 1986, militant strike workers built on regulations and systems such as Health and Safety Act. However, Statoil adopted all of the United States’ managerial attitudes: (a) Private owners, not state owners, control development and direction; (b) state has a steering committee, but the CEO leads; (c) management and wage systems are becoming more and more anti-collective; (d) erosion continued during the early 2000s with the Compass Group, antiunion approach in the North Sea; (e) with regard to safety, unions had taken a “hierarchy of needs” approach, where technology adapts to workers and not vice versa (people have to develop as human beings; (f) it’s the responsibility of managers to have a safe workplace, but American steelworkers had a Skinnerian approach that people have to behave in such a way that they won’t get hurt; and (g) American managers view workers as important but take a top-down, carrot and stick approach; Norwegian managers view safety differently with the right to represent the collective.

Bernt also talked of Norwegians’ sympathy and interest in the United States, yet a wariness exists – they feel vulnerable to the language of “Americanizing” and “modernizing,” because of political campaigns led by conservative parties, influenced by the United Kingdom, in the late 1980s.

And of course, pressures are rising from the European Union, even though Norway is not a member. Reminiscent of turn-of-the 20th century imperialism, English-speaking Christian missionaries are descending upon Norway’s secular and Lutheran population to accompany the capitalistic, hegemonic assault. At out hotel, we saw them at a breakfast training session.


Jerry Lieberman and David Sloan Wilson, as officers of the Evolution Institute, continue conversations with academics and politicians we met in October and March. Concrete plans have been agreed upon to convene at the University of Oslo this September to finalize the direction we will take to preserve and strengthen the Norwegian Model, for everyone’s benefit, to improve the human condition.

Nina, Research Director at the Centre for Development and the Environment and our workshop and research colleague, envisions:

Today a strong Norwegian “peace-and-nature” meme – signifying naturalness, equality, justice, and cooperation – continues to nurture the ethical and political predispositions of Norwegian culture. It is a legacy with which people identify, which they personify, and which personifies them. Its most prominent incarnation is to be found in the Norwegian fairy tale about Askeladden that generations of Norwegian children have had hammered into their heads.

Askeladden – unlike the American Superman – is a humble peasant idler and a “village idiot” who wins half a kingdom and the princess through a unique ecological code of action: (a) He spares his energy and never strains, (b) he helps the weak and the needy, (c) he listens to nature and partners with its forces, and (d) he believes in his good luck (https://new.evolution-institute.org/sites/default/files/Norway%20nina-norwegian%20model.pdf).

Helge and the new Agenda CEO, Marte Gerhardsen, may very well concur. As Helge said, “Climate reform enables reformers to mobilize churches and unions: If we have to reduce dependence on oil, then situate jobs in climate to ensure work for Norwegians.”

Marte wrote on March 18, her first day, “Norway is changing. Population change, employment change, and our environment are different than before. Many of the schemes that have been established to ensure freedom and security for all are no longer as accurate. Norwegian policy needs fresh ideas to solve future challenges.”

Perhaps the United States will follow Norway’s lead. Read why this may be important in Jerry Lieberman’s next installment and the conclusion of this series.

Published On: June 2, 2014

Gin Kohl Lieberman

Gin Kohl Lieberman

Gin Lieberman has been involved with the Evolution Institute since its inception – assisting with the necessary paperwork for incorporation and non-profit status. She has served as Project Resource Manager for EI and interim editor of TVOL. Before she retired, Gin was an educator: First teaching high school biology and chemistry and later university courses such as Public Speaking, Organizational Communication, and Writing for the Mass Media. Gin’s undergraduate degree is in biology, her master’s is in journalism studies, and has a doctorate in communication with a cognate in moral and political philosophy.

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