Blueprint for a Global Village

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* Article: Blueprint for the Global Village. By David Sloan Wilson and Dag Olav Hessen. Cliodynamics 5: 123–157 (SOCIAL EVOLUTION FORUM).



"Life consists of units within units. In the biological world, we have genes, individuals, groups, species, and ecosystems—all nested within the biosphere. In the human world, we have genes, individuals, families, villages and cities, provinces, and nations—all nested within the global village. In both worlds, a problem lurks at every rung of the ladder: a potential conflict between the interests of the lower-level units and the welfare of the higher-level units(Wilson 2015). What’s good for me can be bad for my family. What’s good for my family can be bad for my village, and so on, all the way up to what’s good for my nation can be bad for the global village. For most of human existence, until a scant 10 or 15 thousand years ago, the human ladder was truncated. All groups were small groups whose members knew each other as individuals. These groups were loosely organized into tribes of a few thousand people, but cities, provinces, and nations were unknown (Diamond 2013). Today, over half the earth’s population resides in cities and the most populous nations teem with billions of people, but groups the size of villages still deserve a special status. They are the social units that we are genetically adapted to live within and they can provide a blueprint for larger social units, including the largest of them all—the global village of nations."



The Conflict Between Lower-Level Selfishness and Higher-Level Welfare

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."


Four Principles Behind the Success of Large-Scale Organizations

Peter J. Richerson:

"Four principles seem to underlie the success of such large scale, diverse organizations.

The first is status based on achievement. Technical and social competence are sources of status that culturally different people can appreciate even though other sources may dominate their lives. Competence of a high order is also required to operate large scale, diverse institutions and organizations. The leadership of international scientific enterprises is almost entirely based on achieved status (which is not to say that achieved statuses in science are always or entirely acquired by excellence in scientific work).

The second is tolerance. Individuals differ from one another and people from different cultures sometimes differ rather dramatically. People tend to be strongly wedded to their cultural identities, not to mention their personalities. People belonging to dominant cultures are often surprised when others don’t want to assimilate to their obviously superior culture. This superiority is generally only obvious to the dominant culture. Recall Gandhi’s quip when asked what he thought of Western Civilization: “That would be a good idea!” In a large, diverse organization, you can’t afford to find inevitable individual and cultural differences uncomfortable.

The third principle is respect. You have to tolerate scalawags, incompetents, and culturally limited boors because such people are common in every large organization. But the real work is going to be done by people and groups who respect one another. At the level of contending nations and ethnic groups, it is a myth that distinctive cultural groups always hate one another. In the mid-1970s, Marilyn Brewer and Donald Campbell studied ingroup and outgroup attitudes among 30 East African ethnic groups. The found a great deal variation in both attitudes, including cases where individuals in two groups both had strong average positive ingroup regard but also strong positive evaluations of each other. Journalists, translators, anthropologists, cross-cultural psychologists, ecumenical religious folk, and travelers often get enough insights into other cultures to be able explain them to us in sympathetic terms. Often, getting to know another group well leads to respect. Most people find it especially hard to respect their enemies. Yet, in the long run, struggles end, and the protagonists must make peace. In the meantime, respecting your enemies is liable to make the real or metaphorical fight less brutal and end sooner. Respecting enemies makes it easier to understand them and thus to avoid some fights and win the ones you can’t avoid. The US fought four long, brutal wars after WWII against Communist and Islamicist Third World forces it disrespected. At best, it could only win stalemates in them. Military and political innovations by the insurgents and governments of poor countries in the mid-20th Century allowed them to impose sufficient costs on European powers, even in highly asymmetric contests, to bring the colonial era to an end. The US, the last superpower standing, has been the slowest to learn the lesson.

The fourth is justice. People remember past grievances for generations. In violent conflicts, both sides are often guilty of atrocities. The trials of German and Japanese war criminals after WWII provided a measure of justice to their victims and helped to further the re-integration of these nations into the world community. Efforts in that direction have continued with the establishment of the International Criminal Court. Those guilty of injustice typically build elaborate theories to justify their misbehavior. For example, former US President George Bush famously explained that Al Qaeda attacked the US on 9/11 “because they hate our freedoms.” Bin Laden’s justification for the attack, that Middle Easterners widely detested American policy in the region, seems like a more plausible explanation. Extensive polling in the Middle East certainly points to Bin Laden’s explanation. In recent decades, Truth and Reconciliation restorative justice projects have been conducted in a number of countries that have experienced bitter internal conflicts. Often, these are in situations where the parties responsible for the worst behavior retain considerable political power. They do provide a forum where apologies can be aired and the false theories used to justify atrocious behavior can be de-legitimated. Thus, I think we know the basic principles we need to build a functional global village."