Conflict Between Lower-Level Selfishness and Higher-Level Welfare

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By David Sloan Wilson and Dag Olav Hessen:

"The conflict between lower-level selfishness and higher-level welfare pervades the biological world (Wilson and Wilson 2007). Cancer cells selfishly spread at the expense of other cells within the body, without contributing to the common good, ultimately resulting in the death of the whole organism. In many animal societies, the dominant individuals act more like tyrants than wise leaders, taking as much as they can for themselves until deposed by the next tyrant. Single species can ravage entire ecosystems for nobody’s benefit but their own. But goodness has its own advantages, especially when those who behave for the good of their groups are able to band together and avoid the depredations of the selfish. Punishment is also a powerful weapon against selfishness, although it is often costly to wield. Every once in a great while, the good manage to decisively suppress selfishness within their ranks. Then something extraordinary happens. The group becomes a higher-level organism. Nucleated cells did not evolve by small mutational steps from bacterial cells but as groups of cooperating bacteria (Margulis 1970). Likewise, multi-cellular organisms are groups of highly cooperative cells, and the insects of social insect colonies, while physically separate, coordinate their activities so well that they qualify as super-organisms. Life itself might have originated as groups of cooperating molecular reactions (Maynard Smith and Szathmary 1995, 1999). Only recently have scientists begun to realize that human evolution represents a similar transition. In most primate species, members of groups cooperate to a degree but are also each other’s main rivals. Our ancestors evolved to suppress self-serving behaviors that are destructive for the group, at least for the most part, so that the main way to succeed was as a group. Teamwork became the signature adaptation of our species (Boehm 2011). Extant hunter-gatherer societies still reflect the kind of teamwork that existed among our ancestors for thousands of generations. Individuals cannot achieve high status by throwing their weight around, but only by cultivating a good reputation among their peers. Most of human moral psychology—including its other-oriented elements such as solidarity, love, trust, empathy, and sympathy, and its coercive elements, such as social norms enforced by punishment—can be understood as products of genetic evolution operating among groups, favoring those that exhibited the greatest teamwork.


Human teamwork also acquired a mental dimension including an ability to transmit learned information across generations that surpasses any other species. This enabled our ancestors to adapt to their environments much more quickly than by the slow process of genetic evolution. They spread over the globe, occupying all climatic zones and hundreds of ecological niches (Pagel and Mace 2004). The diversity of human cultures is the cultural equivalent of the major genetic adaptive radiations in dinosaurs, birds, and mammals. The invention of agriculture initiated a positive feedback process between population size and the ability to produce food leading to the mega-societies of today. Cultural evolution differs from genetic evolution in important respects but not in the problem that lurks at every rung of the social ladder (Richerson and Boyd 2005). Just like genetic traits, cultural traits can spread by benefitting lower-level units at the expense of the higher-level good—or by contributing to the higher-level good. There can be cultural cancers that are no less parasitic than physiological cancers. For teamwork to exist at any given rung of the social ladder, there must be mechanisms that hold the wolves of selfishness at bay. A nation or the global village is no different in this respect than a human village, a hunter-gatherer group, an ant colony, a multi-cellular organism, or a nucleated cell.


Accomplishing teamwork at the level of a nation is hard enough, but it isn’t good enough because there is one more rung in the social ladder. Although many nations have a long way to go before they serve their own citizens well, a nation can be as good as gold to its own citizens and still be a selfish member of the global village. In fact, there are many examples in the international arena, where nations protect their own perceived interests at the expense of the common global future.


Moral indignation works at the scale of villages because it is backed up by an arsenal of social control mechanisms so spontaneous that we hardly know it is there. The most strongly regulated groups in the world are small groups, thanks to countless generations of genetic and cultural evolution that make us the trusting and cooperative species that we are. The idea that trust requires social control is paradoxical because social control is not trusting. Nevertheless, social control creates an environment in which trust can flourish. When we know that others cannot harm us, thanks to a strong system of social controls, then we can express our positive emotions and actions toward others to their full extent: helping because we want to, not because we are forced to. When we feel threatened by those around us, due to a lack of social control, we withhold our positive emotions and actions like a snail withdrawing into its shell. This is why people refrain from unethical acts—to the extent that they do—in village-sized groups and why cooperation is accompanied by positive emotions such as solidarity, empathy, and trust. The reason that nations and other large social entities such as corporations openly engage in unethical acts is because social controls are weaker and are not sufficient to hold the wolves of selfishness at bay. This is why politicians can talk openly about national self-interest as if nothing else matters—even though a villager who talked in a comparable fashion would be regarded as insane.


In this essay, we have sketched a surprisingly simple solution to the apparent conflict between self-interest and mutual benefits at all hierarchical levels. We are suggesting that the social dynamics that take place naturally and spontaneously in villages can be scaled up to prevent the ethical transgressions that routinely take place at a large scale. Why is such a simple solution not more widely known and discussed? Although we immediately realize this solution when it comes to cell-organism relationships or individuals within villages, we do not realize that the same principles also hold for companies or nations. One reason is because of an alternative narrative that pretends that the only social responsibility of a company is to maximize its bottom line. Free markets will ensure that society benefits as a result. This narrative makes it seem reasonable to eliminate social controls—precisely the opposite of what needs to be done. Governments have been under the spell of this narrative for nearly 50 years despite a flimsy scientific foundation and ample evidence for its harmful effects. We can break the spell of the old narrative by noting something that will appear utterly obvious in retrospect: The unregulated pursuit of self-interest is cancerous at all scales. To create a global village, we must look to real villages."