Evolutionary Collective Individualism

Evolutionary Collective Individualism
Prosocial: ‘Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups’ is a book for designing effective and socially equitable groups of all sizes, including businesses and societies.


Based on the work of Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom and grounded in contextual behavioural and evolutionary science, Prosocial presents a practical, step-by-step approach to help energise and strengthen businesses and organisations. It suggests that the stereotypical view of individualism being opposed to collectivism is flawed, and that by designing better systems, the alignment of moving both together in harmony is written in our evolutionary code.


Collaboration And Co-operation

While the human race is often known for being an evolved form of the ‘ultra-social primate’, there seems to be a direct contrast between the evolutionary history of our very nature, and many of the challenges facing society today. Climate change, disorganised political systems and unsustainable practices can all be under-pinned by examples of failures to cohesively and fairly co-operate across organisational layers.

Prosocial looks at evolution from both a biological and cultural standpoint. Whereas the biological represents the component parts, the cultural represents the emergent features. This draws on an interdisciplinary approach – marrying anthropological, psychological and behavioural science frameworks. Evolutionary analysis is therefore a multidimensional systems model.

Evolutionary processes are also multilevel – meaning they occur at many levels simultaneously. What applies to the micro finds alignment on the macro, and this applies right down from the genome, up to multi-group populations. Prosocial highlights that science needs to rely on a less reductionist lens in its understanding of the human condition, and how this relates to the way in which we shape our societies and cultures. For example, evolutionary change is often reduced to change in gene frequency, rather than trait frequency.

In tackling some of the fundamental principles of evolutionary psychology, Prosocial also aims to address some of the controversy existing in Darwinian models – namely the nature of competition, alongside collaborative, altruistic or prosocial behaviour throughout the animal kingdom.


The Business Of Culture And Society

In taking a rigorous, cross-disciplinary look at human behaviour, culture and society, Prosocial argues that humans do have the capacity for sustainable, democratic governance of shared natural resources (common pool resources), but only under certain conditions. Their model reveals 8 core design principles for groups to become successful in managing shared resources, they are:

  1. A clear group identity and a shared sense of purpose: a sense of belonging, common goals and identity

  2. Fair distribution of costs and benefits: the costs incurred by members of a co-operation are distributed in proportion to their benefits

  3. Inclusive decision making: most individuals in the group can participate in decisions that affect them, as well as set or change the rules of the game

  4. Monitoring progress towards goals: the community aims to meet common goals

  5. Feedback loops: appropriate feedback regarding helpful and unhelpful behaviour using communication

  6. Fast and fair conflict resolution: resolving conflicts within the group or with other groups is perceived as fair and efficient

  7. Recognition of group and member autonomy: recognising the autonomy of individuals or sub-groups within the larger unit in relation to different spheres of shared interests

  8. Appropriate relations with other groups: groups exist on many nested levels with appropriate relations of organisation between them

This model is compared to the outdated model of human behaviour known as Homo Economicus – in which ‘the rational economic man’ is described as a species in his own right. This depicts man as self-interested, with all behavioural calculations being rooted in this self-interest.

The book argues that naturally, Homo Spaiens are believed to act much more like the actors within the common pool resource model described above, in the right environment. It is also possible to align acts of self-interest, with the common good.

It’s arguable that technology could provide the frameworks and tools we need for more transparent, distributed, accountable and fair systems. Community is essential, as humans require connection to thrive. But on a personal level, the ways in which an individual defines community is varied.


Building A Better World

Whereas the 8 core design principles identify a systems solution, on an individual level, practically engaging in diverse, real-world groups collaboratively requires psychological safety and flexibility. This means reflecting on balancing our outer actions, with our hidden inner thoughts and feelings that may be less successfully communicated.

Scientists are still divided on the use of evolutionary theory to strengthen co-operation within and between communities, however many still appreciate the concluding call to action for moving towards “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible”.

Prosocial frames a clear contrast between gene-centered individualistic views of evolution and the multilevel, multidimensional model adopted by a multi-disciplinary approach. It suggests that there is a happy medium to be found between autonomy and coordination, individual and collective interests. More than this, selfless acts can simultaneously be considered selfish – such as the desire for fulfilment.

Prosocial provides the tools for resolving and reflecting upon these paradigms using current evolutionary theory. Cohesive and collaborative systems are what aim to resolve dialectical tensions in a way that does not necessarily make individual interests wholly subservient to a singular collective agenda.

As we head into the unknown, a collective vision for a better future requires a balance in polarities and paradoxes, appreciating the unity in diversity to be found within the complexity of the grey area.