Choosing to Evolve

A paper on multilevel cultural evolution shows how looking to our origins might help us improve society at many levels, writes April M. Short.

Washington Square Park in New York, July 2019. (Corinna Barnard)

By April M. Short 
Z Network

Ours is a critical time in the cultural evolution of humanity that is likely to shape our long-term future, or lack thereof. As a species, we have been on a self-destructive trajectory that has led us to our current polycrisis of unlivable economic conditions, worsening climate disasters and the potential of an unspeakably devastating war, as the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 puts it.

The changes we all need to make, if we want subsequent generations to enjoy life, will most likely require big shifts toward improving connections with each other and the planet, and away from extraction and individualism.

The good news is that humans evolved often as cooperative and “prosocial” beings, so looking to the past and better understanding our cultural evolution as a species might help illuminate the best ways forward across the board.

This is the basis of a paper published in April in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  titled, “Multilevel Cultural Evolution: From New Theory to Practical Applications.” Rather than focusing on the genetic code and physical evolution of humans, the paper explores the advanced and groundbreaking — but seldom discussed — field of cultural evolution.

[Related: The Way Out]

The paper’s senior author David Sloan Wilson, a distinguished professor emeritus of biological sciences at Binghamton University, New York, and the founder of the school’s Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) program, told the Independent Media Institute in May  that the authors of the article wrote it “to show that a synthesis, which has already taken place for the study of biological evolution, is now in progress for the study of human cultural evolution, with wide-ranging practical applications.”

Looking at humanity through a lens of cultural evolution shows that “we are neither cooperative nor selfish,” Wilson says.

“We are capable of both — so becoming cooperative requires providing the right environmental conditions. Also, cultural evolution helps us to recognize the common denominators that apply across all contexts of our lives — our families, neighborhoods, schools, businesses, and so on, and at all scales, from small groups to the planet. This is very empowering.”

He shared the example of a program for at-risk high school students that he helped to design in 2010 at Regents Academy in Binghamton, New York.

“By providing the right social environment, kids who flunked three or more of their classes during the previous year [2010] performed as well as the average high school student in the district [in 2011],” he says.

Wilson explained in an article published on the Binghamton University website in April 2023 that evolutionary science is made up of a triad: variation, selection and replication — and that triad is also visible in the evolution of culture, “from economics and business, to engineering and the arts, and the functioning of society at all levels.”

He added that “knowing how cultural evolution happens also means we can harness it for the larger good, creating a more just and sustainable world.”

While evolution has been at the core of biological sciences over the last century, evolutionary science is rarely part of the conversation when it comes to understanding culture and the modern-day problems of society.

The Human Evolution Panorama, Science Exploration Hall, Science City, Kolkata, India. (Biswarup Ganguly, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

As Steven C. Hayes, co-author of the paper, psychologist, and professor emeritus at the University of Nevada, Reno, told the Independent Media Institute in May, multidimensional and multilevel evolutionary theory “is now at a level of knowledge and sophistication where it’s ready to step forward and be part of that broader cultural conversation.”

However, he says that if you pick almost any area that might be important in our society, “from immigration to climate change, or economic justice, or the opiate crisis, or the impacts of the pandemic, or suicide in young people — and on and on it goes —” seldom will behavioral sciences and the behavioral aspects of the evolutionary sciences even be mentioned. The authors of the paper on multicultural cultural evolution sought to remedy this.

Hayes says that while he acknowledges the real atrocities humans have committed (like slavery, climate destruction, and much else), it’s imperative that people are able to see that humans have also done better, and are capable of doing better, going forward.

“It strikes me in doing this work that the narratives we tell ourselves about our history as a species are powerful in shaping the future,” he says. “We’ve created an economic system that is destroying the Earth. Think seriously about what we’ve supported just over the last 50 to 100 years, and how hard it is for us to step up to the challenges of just climate change, never mind economic disparities — we can do better.”

Hayes says as a species it is time for us to choose to “evolve on purpose,” and he believes “we can use the tools of evolutionary science to do that.”

Humans Evolved as Prosocial — Not Individualistic

Human Evolution — Work in Progress. Silhouettes by Steven Coombs, Dmitry Bogdanov, FunkMonk, Ghedoghedo, Giant Blue Anteater, Scott Hartman, Philippe Janvier, Chris Jennings (Risiatto), T. Michael Keesey, Gareth Monger. (T. Michael Keesey, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

One key point the paper makes is that humans evolved most often through cooperation and we are, at our foundations, prosocial — meaning that we’ve evolved to care about the welfare of others and behave in ways that support the greater good.

The paper explores in detail three hallmarks of cultural evolution that include: 1) pro-sociality 2) social control that enforces prosocial behavior and 3) symbolic thought, which includes an adaptable catalog of symbols with shared meaning.

Hayes, who is also president of the Institute for Better Health, has worked for four decades on developing a new behavioral science approach called Contextual Behavioral Science and studying how to ease human suffering by empowering them to live values-based lives.

“We did not evolve as selfish primates,” Hayes says. “We evolved as social primates, we reined in selfishness, we fostered community, and we made sure that every voice matters.”

He notes that from his perspective, having researched cognitive functioning and psychology there is an “alternative view of human functioning that will foster human beings who are whole and free.”

From a psychological perspective, which evolutionary science supports and the paper details, individualism is simply not good for us.

“Thriving… almost always means collaborating with others,” Hayes says, noting that one point that should give people hope is that when one moves in an individualistic way, toward selfishness and narcissism, they move toward unhappiness.

The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890. (The Yorck Project Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

“Narcissists are not happy,” he says. “People who lie, cheat, and steal are not happy. There’s a deep-down yearning for love, connection and belonging that is there at birth.”

Hayes sees the cultural biological evolution toward traits that benefit the common good over individual gain show up not just in human history, but in today’s world, by way of his work as a clinical psychologist.

The afflictions that are most prominent today of narcissism, loneliness and actions that harm others, and how they are intertwined with negative impacts of social media, for one example, all could be said to varying degrees to have a solution to focus more on building interpersonal relationships and communities. And individuals who partake in this positive socialization often have better mental health as a benefit.

“It’s time for us as mental health professionals and scientists to speak about the importance of relationships and of empowering our young people to learn how to have relationships that matter.”

Alternative to ‘Greed Is Good’

The “Economics and Business” section of the paper is focused on the ways multilevel cultural evolutionary theory can provide an alternative to the “greed is good” economic narrative.

It expands upon the Nobel Prize-winning work of political scientist Elinor Ostrom, which proved that groups can effectively self-manage common-pool resources like “forests, pastures, fisheries and the groundwater,” without falling into self-serving behaviors when they follow a specific set of design principles she puts forth.

Press conference with the laureates of the memorial prize in economic sciences 2009, Oliver E. Williamson and Elinor Ostrom. (Prolineserver 2010, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ostrom’s work disproved the well-known economic myth of the “tragedy of the commons” that insists privatization and top-down regulation are necessary to manage resources.

The paper proposes that Ostrom’s concepts have the potential to be effective across “contexts and scales” rather than being confined to the discipline of economics. And the paper predicts that by using cultural evolutionary theory, “virtually all functionally oriented groups can benefit” from implementing the principles Ostrom laid out for economics. [These exact ideas were explained in detail in Peter Kropotkin’s 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution.]

Expanding the Conversation

Hayes says that if readers were to take one thing away from the paper, he would want it to be an understanding that modern evolutionary science is not just what you learned about in high school.

“My message to people would be: When you know how to evolve on purpose, who knows what your ceiling may be? You as an individual, you as a couple, you as a family, you as a company, you as a community, us as a world.”

While individualism and “survival of the fittest” were the takeaways from the study of evolution that were widely upheld in modern culture, Hayes notes that Charles Darwin was among the first to talk about the role of multilevel selection and cooperation in evolution.

“There are economic and social forces that took advantage of the competitive view, and it started very early on in the field [of evolution],” he says. And Hayes says that it wasn’t long after Darwin shared his theory of evolution, along with other prominent thinkers at the time, that corporations began to take hold of the narrative.

Hayes says he thinks society has been slow to adopt a more realistic understanding of human evolution because doing so would not appeal to certain economic and social interests. The paper on multilevel cultural evolution offers that alternative perspective, Hayes says.

“This paper says, modern, multidimensional, multilevel evolutionary science is ready to step forward as both a basic and applied field. It has a number of successes it can point to right now,” he says.

“It is on sound ground that we can begin to think about how to evolve on purpose … in the real way that culture, companies, individuals, couples, communities, neighborhoods, and fields of study have always done: through healthy variation that’s selected, retained, and fitted to context in a multidimensional and multilevel way.”

Hayes notes that a principled alternative way of culture is “one in which we begin to see that it’s our obligation as citizens, as family members to create a context in which trust sharing and cooperation can grow,” he says. “That isn’t namby-pamby, it’s not weak, it’s not Pollyanna, it’s not anything goes. It’s the salve on the wounds that are created by selfishness, and a vision that we can live out.”

We humans do our best, he notes, when relationships, families, businesses, and groups cooperate.

“Why wouldn’t you want to scale that? Why wouldn’t you want a model for how to do that? The problem is that our models have been mostly part of [colloquial] wisdom and spiritual traditions, and they’ve been sliced and diced by the modern world,” Hayes says. “People with narrow interests have stepped forward and have sold humanity a bill of goods that is false.”

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a co-founder of the Observatory, where she is the local peace economy editor.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. It was published by Z Network.

The views expressed in this article may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

26 comments for “Choosing to Evolve

  1. robert e williamson jr
    August 26, 2023 at 14:35

    These thoughts are great stuff in a more perfect world, however when the super wealthy manipulate living conditions to punish the have-nots incredible pressure is brought to bear on those have-nots to provide for themselves and those they are charged with caring for.

    The resulting attitude or perception by Alpha wanna be’s is all is fair in love and war”, , i.e., “it works for the wealthy”, “everyone else does it, there fore I must choose to do the same”.

    The government does little to nothing to lead by example and level the playing field. This is what I witness in this country.

    Thanks CN

  2. Eddie S
    August 26, 2023 at 13:10

    I for-one strongly agree with the benevolent goals of this article/author. We SHOULD rationally and compassionately evolve ourselves to a higher level of functioning as befits a complex urban society.

    The challenge, as always, is ‘HOW’ ?? Through the ~60 years I’ve been following politics, I’ve seen (and continue to see) literally hundreds of excellent, progressive/humanistic solutions proposed for the myriad problems that our world has, but unfortunately I’ve seen just as many negative/regressive solutions proposed and too-often implemented, so I have to admit to a ‘tired pessimism’ about positive solutions. A major example is gun control here in the US. The stats are staggering and a recent one I Googled was the estimate of 19.8 MILLION (not thousands) AR-15’s in private hands here in the US. Even the slaughter of our own innocent children in chronic mass shootings doesn’t result in any meaningful solutions, and in fact many pandering politicians just double-down and pass even more regressive laws. Those AR-15 owners are undoubtedly NOT interested in socially/culturally evolving, so you can write-off them and probably most Republicans and many Democrats.
    Sadly, I’m coming to believe that we won’t evolve before a mass-catastrophe (ie; nuclear war and/or severe climate-change effects) happens…

  3. Karl
    August 25, 2023 at 17:21

    Speaking of evolution, the most important case in sight is the case of the stagnant Western social model (USA, Europe, UK, etc) versus the evolved social system of China (Russia). Western social model has to go through a social transformation equal to what China and Russia went through, eliminating their elite, in order to evolve into a viable social economic model.

  4. SH
    August 24, 2023 at 20:28

    “The changes we all need to make, if we want subsequent generations to enjoy life, will most likely require big shifts toward improving connections with each other and the planet, and away from extraction and individualism. …. society has been slow to adopt a more realistic understanding of human evolution because doing so would not appeal to certain economic and social interests.”

    Our entire economy is based on “extraction”, from the earth and all its life forms – so what is the “appeal” to us of those “economic and social interests” that is so great that we have allowed ourselves to be so “extracted” from for so long … especially when it is becoming more and more clear that “when one moves in an individualistic way, toward selfishness and narcissism, they move toward unhappiness.” – when so much has been extracted that we have shrunken down to a point where naked “survival” seems to consist only of “selfishness and narcissism” – cui bono, one might ask, clearly not us …

  5. Robert Crosman
    August 24, 2023 at 19:10

    A comparative survey of cultural attitudes across many of the world’s countries places the U.S. at the extreme end of the “pro-individualism” spectrum – a total outlier (Mexico is at the other end). Since the first arrival of northern European colonizers, North America has attracted the most selfish and acquisitive types, and rewarded so-called “rugged individualists” disproportionately. Americans admire successful people of any sort, even successful criminals (Trump, for example) and individualism has philosophers like Franklin, Emerson, and Thoreau who glorify marching to a different drummer.
    Cultural mutation is accelerated by a population that easily accepts change, and has no great veneration for the past, or for intrenched institutions like an established Church or hereditary aristocracy. Capitalism is inherently individualistic, and of course international capitalism is the main gift the United States has blessed the world with. Despite the critiques of capitalism that flourish in the pages of Consortium News and elsewhere, capitalistic individualism shows no signs of slowing down. Under the mantra of “change is good,” we seem determined to pursue change to the borders of extinction, and maybe beyond.

    But who am I to criticize? I’m an individualist, too – just like everybody else!

  6. Rafi Simonton
    August 24, 2023 at 15:32

    The Cause Can’t Produce Its Solution But Locality Can

    No problem can be solved using the same methodology by which the problem was created. So then western rationalism and empiricism. Obviously, both are valuable–but only in their place. Empiricism does not produce meaning, reason has no place for the non-rational. Scientifically speaking, a painting is a chunk of cloth with splotches of pigment. It is the non-rational artistic, poetic, religious, and spiritual side that gives it meaning.

    The side usurped long ago, culminating in the Enlightenment. Which is said to have died in the trenches of WWI; sensing the demise of western systems of power, its worst adherents are fighting a last ditch effort to hang on. Thus neolibs and neocons. It’s not just about politics and economics since they are derived from the same mentality. To be exact, the dominance of the left brain hemisphere. No, that’s not New Age drivel. Look up the neuroscientist Dr. Iain McGilchrist. His two volume “The Matter With Things” explains in extensive scientific detail how our brains work. Understanding this is necessary before real change is possible.

    Another huge problem is that grand solutions tend to be abstract and too large a scale to be comprehensible. When I went back to university late in life as a botany major, I was shocked to find out so many people born and raised in Seattle couldn’t identify the dominant native tree species. I saw the same in suburban NYC and San Francisco. The habits of colonists who live superficially on top of the land with no roots in it. Trees live in obligate symbiosis with fungus on their roots in a complex system, the mycorrhizosphere. Where thousands of different critters interact; this alone makes cooperation by far the dominant mode on Earth. It’s just very difficult to model scientifically and the idea of competition fits with econ dogmas.

    The first step to global change is not a leap, it’s to make connections right where you are. Learn the basics of the immediate ecosystem. A mentor of mine said he started with trees because they were large and didn’t move. The most practical knowledge of how to live in a locality is that of the indigenous people, who’ve discovered over millennia what works in a specific environment. Now don’t go running to your nearest rez–they won’t want yet more ignorance to deal with. Do your homework. Know the history and culture appropriate to where you live. Read books like “Indigenizing Philosophy through the Land (a Trickster methodology for decolonizing environment ethics and indigenous futures)” by Brian Berkhart.

  7. vinnieoh
    August 24, 2023 at 15:21

    The “Ten Commandments,” or rather the Commandments, as there is much scholarly debate about just how many Moses delivered, depending on different ancient written sources. The most salient ones, proscribing: murder, lying, theft, adultery, and greed were all rules to be adhered to by the tribe, the community, so that the community could live in peace and harmony and thrive. The ancillary ones commanding elder respect, and the appeal to the authority of God should be seen in the context of those times. Those salient ones are rules or laws that exist across almost all cultures, and one does not have to adhere to the Judaic/Christian narrative to understand the societal necessity of those rules.


    The founding of the United States, with all its many fundamental flaws and inadequacies, attempted to push the cultural evolution bubble by banishing the privilege of bloodline inheritance of rule, and by putting a wall between the State and the Church. Since its founding in imperfection, successive generations have slowly chipped away at many of those original flaws, attempting – consciously or not – to form “a more perfect union.” It should be noted that many that came to this shore were persecuted for their religious beliefs from whence they came, and (I’m going to catch a lot of shit for this) could be considered the radical fringe – religious fanatics. The point is, though the Constitution forbade the establishment of an official Church, many that came here, especially from all parts of Europe were zealous Christians.

    There are many reasons for the slow but continued decline in the US of religious affiliation and adherence to traditional teachings. The most obvious is the insistence by the most die-hard fundamentalists to the literal interpretation of the Bible. That simply is an anachronism which finds fewer new adherents with every passing generation. However, the predominance of Christians in the population had a directive effect on the cultural evolution here. Many of the most outspoken abolitionists based their objections to slavery on their Christian beliefs, to cite one such example. The establishment of Social Security was originally intended to relieve the suffering destitution and poverty of the elderly. Finally in the attempt at “The Great Society” and the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid was the attempt to more broadly distribute the benefits of a prosperous but unequal society.

    So, with time and the passing of generations, the government – ideally that endeavor which we all do collectively – usurped many of the traditional roles of the established churches and deprived them of that window of contact used for religious proselytization. To put a fine point on what I’m saying: our collective endeavor known as government absorbed many of the beneficial aspects of organized religion, and as one grew the other declined. This should not be considered a defeat, but a victory, for some of what was best of our religious traditions informed those progressive aspects of our government.

  8. jean maxime
    August 24, 2023 at 13:29

    Sometimes going forward means putting the car in reverse gear and opting for a better direction. If we do not take into account the environment that gives birth to everything naturally and without money, we are headed for a short time when a few will own everything and, in their folly, destroy it all very fast. wisdom is the faint wisp of voice from the trunk of the car that roars “YOU STUPID!” in the end and when all is lost and most still will not hear in the tumult of finding someone to blame.
    Reverse is not, however, something that the prevailing ideology of “progress” allows in its optic.

  9. bardamu
    August 24, 2023 at 13:29

    It’s good to see Ostrom’s work getting greater exposure among immediate issues and commercial events. The perspectives offer us ways past facile dichotomies and towards solutions.

  10. Dan Dixon
    August 24, 2023 at 12:47

    Thank you for this. I for one would like to see how this idea is NOT Malthusian or Social Darwinism be addressed. There is a buzzsaw of backlash against CRT, DEI, and 15-minute cities and this idea is prone to the same. For this project to succeed, it needs to be available and straightforward in its goals and methods so every person who looks can see the merits. This article is a beginning.

  11. Gregory
    August 24, 2023 at 10:21

    The problem is not that individuals lack the ability to cooperate with others or lack the ability to evolve towards a more harmonious relationship with others … their resistance stems from the imposition of a communitarian hierarchy trying to manipulate and control .
    WEF’s Harari states the goal quite clearly – “humans are now Hackable beings ! and his favorite – ” free will is finished” !
    The National Academy of Sciences has a Human Genome Editing Project that reads like some kind of mad scientist wet dream that is presently being unleashed on society…all for the greater good , of course.

    • Caliman
      August 25, 2023 at 11:29

      I totally agree. That we are social beings is a given. That we tend to follow charismatic and manipulative leaders who usurp control is lamentably also a given. Put the two together and you can get something worse than individualism: you get an individualism powered by masses/mobs.

      This has been known for a very long time … at least since the time of the Greeks. The founders of the US, well-versed in history and the Enlightenment, were quite wise is fighting against these tendencies, though their system has not been entirely successful over time.

  12. Drew Hunkins
    August 24, 2023 at 10:14

    Starts with 4 basics first!

    1.) Affordable and decent housing
    2.) Family supporting living wages for all
    3.) National single-payer healthcare coverage for all
    4.) Very affordable education at all levels up through grad schl, with an eventual option for debt jubilee

    Start with these 4 first!

  13. John Rowland
    August 24, 2023 at 08:58

    The individual needs community to reach their full potential. Community needs to affirm the individual to reach its full potential. Community & the Individual exist in dynamic tension with each other.

    Marxism celebrates the Collective while denying the individual. Neo-conservativism celebrates narcissism, supremacism, materialism, reductionism, xenophobic behavior at the expense of the community. Both seek to impose their world view on everyone else and destroy culture and community by their actions.

    Pro-social behavior can only happen when the individual is empowered. Culture can only evolve when it is free to do so. Fundamentally, the relationship between the individual and the community is complex and it does not work to impose a particular ideological framework around it.

    In other words, the individual needs to be free for cultural evolution to happen.

  14. jamie
    August 24, 2023 at 07:44

    Outstanding that the cultural importance and issue is finally brought up; perhaps it is no too late, or, unfortunately, for western culture it is.

    It requires time for a person to change behavior, often decades, I guess changing a culture is much more complicated, like fixing climate change at this point in time. We could talk about cultural evolution or cultural “devolution”, the latter when some cultural traits are no longer useful to adapt to a changing environment. That is I believe what happened to the western culture, unfortunately, based on narcissism, supremacism, materialism, reductionism, xenophobic, manipulative, militaristic mind, traits that have been evolving for centuries (from church, nazi, to “liberal governments”) and reinforced because they have brought riches and development (of course at the expenses of others), and that was when things were “simple”. Today in a much more complex, more unpredictable, more “power-balanced” world those traits no longer allows our culture, our thinking, to adapt properly, to make sense out of the new environment. That is why we see the west, instead of trying to change and adapt to the new environment, is trying to shape it in a way that it can continuing adapting with the same traits. Unfortunately some cultural traits like narcissism/supremacism prevent a culture to adapt and adjust, dooming the fate of that society.

    Cultural DNA is a very interesting science, a powerful one; who is able to decipher the DNA of a culture can actually increase the predictability of such culture, its path, its failures, its potential, etc. just like Human DNA can tell us about ourselves, diseases we potentially could suffer.
    I think a major error in perception of ourselves, especially in an individualistic society, is that when I say “I am”, I describe my body, limited to my body; our consciousness go much farther than that; when I say “I am” I am the environment that I have grown up, its temperature, its colors, its smells and odors, its sounds, and shapes, the amount of sun’s rays, universe’s radiations, I am the things I have eaten and drunken, the people and animals that have seen and met, the national and international events that shaped my perception, my fears, my hopes, above all I am my culture and society. When I say “I am”, I am all those things, I am the reflection of my culture which is shaped and influenced by all those things; we have absolutely no control over who “I am”; our individual consciousness’ boundary goes far beyond our physical body and is the result and reinforcement of a culture; that is why it is important to study culture, how it evolves, how it shapes us, etc
    We have no control over who “I am” but we can be aware of it, then perhaps changes happens spontaneously

    • SH
      August 24, 2023 at 20:45

      I might suggest that “who is able to decipher the DNA of a culture can actually increase the predictability of such culture,” – is perhaps an invitation to try to manipulate it , “just like human DNA” – and considering that we don’t know enough to fool around with those building blocks of life 4 billion years in the making, though we have the “tools” to do so – perhaps fooling around with the building blocks of culture when we don’t really understand those either is what has led us to the sad state we are in – though we have the “tools” to do that as well – “advertising”, the internet, “social” media ….

      Teilhard de Chardin, in the Phenomenon of Man, spoke of the “noosphere” as the stage of evolution we were, hopefully, moving toward – but it seems as though we have allowed those “economic and social interests” the author spoke of to get in the way of that evolution the author believes is possible …

      • jamie
        August 25, 2023 at 14:19

        Absolutely, your suggestion is right, who is able to decode the cultural DNA of a society could also be able to manipulate such culture, artificially engineering an environment in which such culture would have difficult time surviving (of an “enemy”) or make it in such way that it would suit perfectly its culture; we have somewhat done it in the past, and just like today that the rest of the world is (unconsciously) trying to make an environment no suitable for us, or forcing our culture to bring forth some other traits make some other “unfittable”
        Who understands how to decode/decipher the cultural DNA and knows the mechanism of cultural evolution hold an enormous power. That is why in a just world, information like those, unbiased information is available to all, without distinction… we are entering a new era in which we are not the most powerful, the most intelligent, etc. and that is good; if we change and adapt we might lose traits of our culture which have had a detrimental effect in all of us. Whatever anyone suffers, culture and social pressure are more than often the main reasons of such suffering

  15. vinnieoh
    August 24, 2023 at 03:27

    First, thanks CN for posting this piece; I hope the community here will read this and appreciate it’s importance. Unfortunately for me, it is very late, I’m very tired, and this will have to wait until I can mentally function adequately.

    It seems to me CN is responding to the sentiments expressed by many of its supporters (at least through the comments forum) that we (humanity) can do better, and we must, if we are to survive.

  16. firstpersoninfinite
    August 23, 2023 at 19:26

    “Evolve on purpose.” Hmm… isn’t that what selfish people also do? It seems to me that the whole point of cultural evolution was to produce individuals, so individualism isn’t really a problem in that sense. We’d all still be hunters and gatherers with life spans of 25 years if cooperating was the highest goal of humanity. Individualism is only a problem when you want people to think the same things in the same way in the hope of not allowing any other possible interpretations. And it’s probably best not to start your article with quotes from the “World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023,” since they are harbingers of the greatest risk to humanity besides the thermonuclear war they warn of. And when it comes to constraining selfish individualism like that of billionaires and politicians and corporations and military/industrial behemoths, I’ll ask the same old, timeless question: “Who will bell the cat?” It can’t be done from the ground up, because cats have claws… and armies.

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      August 24, 2023 at 12:09

      Where is your evidence that “[w]e’d all still be hunters and gatherers with life spans of 25 years if cooperating was the highest goal of humanity.” I believe that it was cooperation that enabled us to lengthen our lifespans and grow beyond being hunter gatherers. The idea that the individual is more important than his/her society is a Thatcherite idea. “There is no such thing as society”, said Maggie T. I think your perspective is pessimistic and serves as an excuse to do nothing to save lives and the planet.

    • Rafi Simonton
      August 24, 2023 at 16:35

      Cooperation Does Not Preclude Individualism

      I also value the idea of individual–being unique is in itself a creative contribution to the whole. But I disagree with most of your other claims. It’s an assumption that the point is to produce individuals and ironically, this very idea is itself a cultural concept, so then collective.

      You also seem to assume that hunter-gatherers are by definition inferior. Yet studies show primal people as very intelligent while the brain size of urban people has been declining. It’s also not true hunter-gatherers have a shortened life span; average age is an artifact of statistics where infant mortality skews the figures. Besides, hunter-gatherers have something so many moderns (and post-moderns) are searching for desperately–a meaning to their lives and deep connections to all life in their local environment.

      Cooperating IS the highest goal. How do I square that with a claim for individualism? Well, I have no problem with multiplicities or with the non-rational. It’s the left brain hemisphere dominant culture that so dislikes ambiguity, uncertainty, and tries to convince itself that it can control everything. {see my main comment}

      Cooperation is built into the human body; consider mitochondria and the beneficial bacteria on our skin and in our guts. In nature, symbiosis is the dominant mode. {again, see my main post} It’s a fact in all cultures, including the one that believes itself to be about competition, and despite the fantasies of libertarians. Did you do the research, fell the trees, make the paper, and do the printing for the textbooks you used? How about the electrical, water, and sewer systems where you live? Or the food? Or a business? The reality is that all humans depend on cooperation.

      Left hemisphere logic is the Aristotelian either/or, the law of the excluded middle. Both millennia of human experience and subatomic physics for the last 100 years say differently. Is the photon a wave or a particle? Either/or won’t work there. Nor does it for individual OR cooperation. Reality has room for both/and.

  17. August 23, 2023 at 19:15

    I think any sustainable future will paradoxically involve a move back to nature, more like the way Native Americans managed the land. It will definitely involve lots of cooperative behavior, and a lot less competitive behavior. I don’t see any viable future in an urbanized, non-natural system that tries to divorce people from the natural world.

    It will require a rejection of the capitalist-consumerist system that is currently destroying the biosphere.

    • firstpersoninfinite
      August 24, 2023 at 10:51

      Here! Here! Well said.

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      August 24, 2023 at 12:10

      You may be right but I personally do not want to live in the woods.

    • Lois Gagnon
      August 24, 2023 at 15:42

      The late Jerry Mander’s book, “In the Absence of the Sacred” published in 1991, speaks to your comment. Technological society has been a disaster for indigenous cultures who as you point out, knew how to live in harmony with nature. Some of the historical references are outdated, but overall, the book’s premise holds up very well. We need to get back to living in harmony with our Mother Earth.

    • Caliman
      August 25, 2023 at 14:56

      I rather think it will be the opposite: as technology is perfected more and more and especially as our numbers reduce over the next many decades, we will move even further away from “nature” in the sense of depending on it. The great effect of this will be that our footprint on the land can be reduced and more of the planet can be allowed to go back to its natural state.

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