Multilevel Selection Theory

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The Commons and Evolutionary Theory

David Sloan Wilson:

Ostrom's "’s core design principle approach dovetailed with multilevel selection theory, which my fellow-heretics and I had worked so hard to revive. Her approach is especially pertinent to the concept of major evolutionary transitions, whereby members of groups become so cooperative that the group becomes a higher-level organism in its own right. This idea was first proposed by cell biologist Lynn Margulis (1970) to explain how nucleated cells evolved from symbiotic associations of bacteria. It was then generalized during the 1990s to explain other major transitions, such as the rise of the first bacterial cells, multicellular organisms, eusocial insect colonies and human evolution (Maynard Smith and Szathmary 1995, 1999).

Hunter-gatherer societies are famously egalitarian, not because everyone is nice, but because members of a group can collectively suppress bullying and other self-aggrandizing behaviors within their ranks – the defining criterion of a major evolutionary transition (Boehm 1993, 1999, 2011). With disruptive competition within groups held largely in check, succeeding as a group became the main selective force in human evolution. The entire package of traits regarded as distinctively human – including our ability to cooperate in groups of unrelated individuals, our ability to transmit learned information across generations, and our capacity for language and other forms of symbolic thought – can be regarded as forms of physical and mental teamwork made possible by a major evolutionary transition.

Lin’s design principles (DP) had “major evolutionary transition” written all over them. Clearly defined boundaries (DP1) meant that members knew they were part of a group and what the group was about (e.g., fisherman with access to a bay or farmers managing an irrigation system). Proportional equivalence of costs and benefits (DP2) meant that members had to earn their benefits and couldn’t just appropriate them. Collective choice arrangements (DP3) meant that group members had to agree upon decisions so nobody could be bossed around. Monitoring (DP4) and graduated sanctions (DP5) meant that disruptive self-serving behaviors could be detected and punished. Fast and fair conflict resolution (DP6) meant that the group would not be torn apart by internal conflicts of interest. Local autonomy (DP7) meant that the group had the elbow room to manage its own affairs. Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule making authority (DP8) meant that everything regulating the conduct of individuals within a given group also was needed to regulate conduct among groups in a multi group population.

The concordance between Lin’s core design principle approach and multilevel selection theory had three major implications. First, it placed the core design principle approach on a more general theoretical foundation. Lin’s “Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD)” framework emanated from political science and she was an early adopter of economic game theory, but her main case for the design principle approach was the empirical database that she compiled for common-pool resource groups around the world, as described in her most influential book Governing the Commons (Ostrom 1990). Multilevel selection theory showed how the core design principle approach follows from the evolutionary dynamics of cooperation in all species and from our own evolutionary history as a highly cooperative species.

Second, because of its theoretical generality, the core design principle approach is likely to apply to a much broader range of human groups than those attempting to manage common-pool resources (CPRs). Almost any group whose members must work together to achieve a common goal is vulnerable to self-serving behaviors and should benefit from the same principles. An analysis of business groups, churches, voluntary associations and urban neighborhoods should yield the same results as Lin’s analysis of CPR groups.

Third, the core design principle approach can provide a practical framework for improving the efficacy of groups in the real world. It should be possible for almost any kind of group to assess itself with respect to the design principles, address shortcomings, and function better as a result. This prospect was especially appealing to me as president of the Evolution Institute, since I was now actively engaged in formulating and implementing public policy from an evolutionary perspective." (

The New Cooperative 'Invisible Hand' and Ultrasociality

David Sloan Wilson:

"The same theory that delivers the death stroke to the old concept of the invisible hand also provides a strong foundation for the new one. The two elements of the invisible hand metaphor are: 1) A social system works well; 2) without its members having the welfare of the system in mind. Nature is replete with examples, such as eusocial insect colonies and multicellular organisms as societies of cells. The members of these societies work harmoniously for the common good without even having minds in the human sense of the word. In each case, the first element of the invisible hand metaphor is satisfied because the society is the primary unit of selection—colony-level selection in the case of eusocial insects and organism-level selection in the case of multicellular organisms. The second element is satisfied because higher-level selection winnowed a small set of lower-level behaviors that contribute to the common good from the much larger set of lower-level behaviors that would disrupt the common good. In short, higher-level selection is the invisible hand. When it doesn’t occur, then disruptive forms of selection among individuals within groups take over, such as cancers in multicellular organisms and varying forms of cheating behaviors in eusocial insect colonies.

One of the great discoveries of evolutionary science during the last few decades is that this theoretical framework, called multilevel selection theory, can be applied to the evolution of our own species–including our genetic evolution primarily at the scale of small groups, our cultural evolution at successively larger scales during the last 10,000 years, and the rapid changes swirling all around us today that we are trying to influence with our policy decisions. If ever there was a need for a new King to replace an old King, it is now.

A detailed brief for the New Invisible Hand is provided in an academic article titled “Human Ultrasociality and the Invisible Hand: Foundational Developments in Evolutionary Science Alter a Foundational Concept in Economics”, which I wrote with the economist John Gowdy[2]. The main take-home message is easy for anyone to understand. We must learn to function in two capacities: As designers of large-scale social systems and as participants in the social systems that we design. As participants, we don’t need to have the welfare of the whole system in mind, but as designers we do. There is no way around it. Anything short will result in social dysfunction.

This is a definitive refutation of laissez-faire as a perspective for formulating policy, but it is not an endorsement of centralized planning. Indeed, the main import of the New Invisible Hand is to suggest the existence of a middle path, a way to design social systems that is itself evolutionary and iterative, resulting in regulatory processes that look like laissez-faire, even though they never would have come into existence on their own.

In short, the middle path between laissez-faire and centralized planning has been discovered many times, as might be expected from a cultural evolutionary perspective—but that isn’t good enough. Each discovery originates as a cultural “mutation’, often by happenstance, and spreads on the basis of its success to a degree, but then remains confined within certain cultural boundaries and is largely unknown outside its borders—somewhat like the geographical distribution of a biological species. What’s needed is a way to transcend these cultural boundaries so that all of the examples can be related to each other and understood from a unified theoretical perspective provided by a combination of evolutionary theory and complex systems theory." (

See: Wilson, D. S., & Gowdy, J. (2015). Human Ultrasociality and the Invisible Hand: Foundational Developments in Evolutionary Science Alter a Foundational Concept in Economics. Journal of Bioeconomics 17(1), 37–52.

More information

  • "Lin inspired me to begin several projects in parallel with each other. One was to collaborate with her and her postdoctoral associate Michael Cox to write an academic article, “Generalizing the Core Design Principle for the Efficacy of Groups” that established the three major implications listed above for an academic audience (Wilson, Ostrom and Cox 2013)."
  • "Michael was the lead author of a 2010 article that evaluated the core design principle approach for the literature on CPR groups that had accumulated since Lin’s original analysis (Cox et al. 2010). Our article was published in a special issue of the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization titled “Evolution as a General Theoretical Framework for Economics and Public Policy.” Both the article and the special issue should be consulted for more on the theoretical framework that underpins the design principle approach."
  • "Just as I am not the first to declare the old concept of the invisible hand dead, I am not the first to “discover” the existence of a middle path. It emerges from numerous theoretical perspectives and there are outstanding case studies to draw upon. Important books include Complexity and the Art of Public Policy by David Colander Roland Kupers; Big Mind by Geoff Mulgan, The Gardens of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, and The Origin of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker." [1]
  • Wilson, D. S., & Gowdy, J. (2015). Human Ultrasociality and the Invisible Hand: Foundational Developments in Evolutionary Science Alter a Foundational Concept in Economics. Journal of Bioeconomics 17(1), 37–52.

From the References

Boehm, Christopher. 1993. “Egalitarian Society and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy.” Current Anthropology, 34:227 – 254.

———. 1999. Hierarchy in the Forest: Egalitarianism and the Evolution of Human Altruism. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

———. 2011. Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. New York: Basic Books.