Can We Intentionally Evolve a Prosocial World?
It is not hyperbole to say that the world is at a perilous point in its evolution. Until very recently an evolutionist might have described human evolution as a process in which one species took control of the world.
But now, as runaway global warming looms, we must admit that we have evolved a world that is moving dangerously out of our control.
Can evolutionary theory help us figure out how to avoid this terrible future?
Perhaps no one has done more to describe how evolutionary theory can save us from ourselves than David Sloan Wilson. He often points out that at every level from the functioning of a cell to the impact of the entirety of humanity on the planet, we can ask whether the functioning at a lower level harms or benefits the higher level. What’s good for a parent may not be good for the family. What is good for a family may not be good for the community. What is good for the community may not be good for the nation.
And what is good for the nation, may not be good for the world.
In a series of non-fiction books,1–3 he has wrestled with the question of how altruism evolves and how we can increase it at every level. The question is pivotal for our future as human beings. If units below the level of all of human culture, continue to act in their interest at the expense of the larger good, we will continue to have all of the problems that have so long plagued human existence; from the abuse of one person by another up to wars between nations and ultimately to catastrophic climate change.
In a sense the solution is simple. We need to arrange the consequences of the acts at any level so that they contribute rather than undermine wellbeing at the higher level. Perhaps the most important example of this problem is the actions of corporations.
Corporations evolved because they achieved outcomes that could not be achieved by smaller entities. The best example is the rise of railroads. Legal structures allowing the modern corporation to evolve as a function of enabling railroads to be built and managed across great distances.4
A contest between altruism and self-aggrandizement is at the heart of our dilemma. A large network of powerful corporations is hell-bent on maintaining their ability to act in their interest, even when it undermines the wellbeing of many others.
To a great extent, they have gained the power to maintain policies favorable to them, by mesmerizing many of the people they harm with the fiction that allowing powerful people to pursue their wealth will necessarily benefit the society as a whole. We now live in a society that has been decimated by the success of this fiction. Over the past fifty years, the free market fiction that my self-aggrandizement will be good for you has enabled the wealthiest among us to increase their wealth while driving much of the population into penury.
One of the pillars of advocacy for this individualist fiction was Ayn Rand. She argued that the ultimate moral value should be the individual’s pursuit of his or her well-being. Her most widely read novel, Atlas Shrugged, was her most significant success in promoting this view. Although the book was not well received by literary critics, it became a cult classic among many advocates for Free Market economics. Its thesis was that there are Doers — people of great brilliance and drive who do the important things that make our society run. Paul Ryan, the former Majority Leader of the House of Representatives was a follower of Ayn Rand, as was Alan Greenspan the Chairman of the Federal Reserve during a period of substantial economic growth that came to a crashing halt in 2008.
In Atlas Shrugged, we were taught that the Doers should be given free reign; the moochers should be ignored. It is the doers who create the things society needs and they get far too little thanks for doing it. Atlas Shrugged is about the doers going on strike — rather than holding up the world, Atlas simply shrugs it off. That will teach those moochers!
Now David Sloan Wilson has published a novel that takes on this fiction. It is a story of loving cooperation. It tells of a young idealist who creates a movement to promote cooperation at every level of society. Wilson’s goal is to engage people who may have little interest in the science of evolution but are looking for a good story. In Atlas Hugged, they will find one.
Atlas Hugged provides the counterargument for the “Greed is Good” mantra. The world and most of the people in it will be better off if our mantra is something like “Nurturance is Good.”
In Wilson’s story, John Galt III is the grandson of John Galt, the hero of Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged. Thanks to the tutelage of an evolutionary biologist, Howard Head, John Galt III sees how the collected knowledge of the world is the product of what he calls the Cult of Scholars, whose devotion to accurate knowledge has contributed so much to the world. He realizes that all knowledge could be organized within evolutionary theory. He claims to have found “a way to tell right from wrong that could be justified entirely by factual knowledge.” And he concludes that “to find a world free of suffering, look inside any healthy organism.” “Parts of a cell don’t impose suffering on each other. They work harmoniously together for the common good of the cell.” “Goodness has decisively triumphed over evil within every healthy organism.”
In both this book and his nonfiction writing and organizing, Wilson hopes to achieve, what I would call a “fully cooperative world,” one in which all of the people in the world — from the level of individuals to the level of nations — are working together to maximize the fitness of the world.
By maximizing fitness, I mean maximizing the likelihood that all of the species will survive. (I say all species because it appears that human wellbeing depends on an ecosystem in which other species are thriving.)
Atlas Hugged is a compelling read. It has excitement, surprise, warmth, humor, and even some sex scenes. Wilson describes a plausible world in which people are caring and respectful, where they act in the interest of their community. Wilson succeeds in painting a picture of how positive virtues can succeed. He shows it is not necessary to scare people to engage them. The most exciting part for me was the possibility that a worldwide movement of the type that Wilson has been calling for in his nonfiction work, could actually happen.
Most of all, Wilson recognizes that we are far more likely to influence the vast majority of people through fiction than through the publications of the academy. A year or so ago, he told me that he had been invited to Steven Spielberg’s house for the weekend. I covered my jealousy by saying that I felt sorry for him because the last time I was with Spielberg I was bored to tears. I hope that Spielberg will read Atlas Hugged and turn it into a movie that increases the number of people who embrace the altruistic alternative to the free-market fiction that is so damaging our planet.
Wilson’s book is a significant addition to the genre of books about utopian societies, which began with Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516. Noteworthy in the genre are Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, published in 1888, and B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two, which came out in 1948. Bellamy’s book inspired support for socialism over the next fifty years. It came at a time, not unlike the present when wealthy capitalists dominated government and the rights and wellbeing of workers was limited.
Skinner’s book had limited influence at the time it was published. However, among followers of Skinner’s scientific work, it was well received. It was attractive to young radicals such as myself because in Skinner’s scientific writing and in Walden Two, he envisioned a society that would use the science of human behavior to create a better world. When the youth rebellion of the 1960s came along, the book inspired a number of utopian communities such as Twin Oaks and Los Horcones, (as well as a preschool that my son Mike attended.)
Wilson’s book comes at another time when young people ache for the creation of a more compassionate society. Like the late 19th Century we are in a time of great economic disparity and government under the control of great wealth.
Unlike Skinner’s book, Wilson’s addresses what I believe to be the fundamental problem that is at the root of our current malaise; namely the belief that the selfish pursuit of one’s wealth will benefit everyone. At the same time, it is well-grounded in the human sciences that have made great progress since Skinner’s work. Indeed, Wilson has taken the lead in showing how Skinner’s thinking is very much in keeping with an evolutionary analysis.5
If Atlas Hugged inspires a new generation to work for the cooperative society that John Galt III began to create, it will make an important contribution to the emerging social movement to reform society along prosocial lines. It is fitting that as the quintessential antidote to Ayn Rand’s thinking, Atlas Hugged is not sold but rather gifted for whatever the reader would like to give in return. All proceeds go to Wilson’s nonprofit organization, Prosocial World, which strives to accomplish in the real world what takes place in the novel. For this reason, it is available only on its website.
1. Wilson, D. S., This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Vintage Books: New York, 2019.
2. Wilson, D. S., Does altruism exist? Culture, genes, and the welfare of others. Yale University Press: Boston, MA, 2015; p 192.
3. Wilson, D. S., Darwin’s cathedral: Evolution, religion, and the nature of society. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL, 2010.
4. Biglan, A., Rebooting Capitalism: How behavioral science can forge a society that works for everyone. Values to Action: Eugene, OR, 2020.
5. Wilson, D. S.; Hayes, S. C.; Biglan, A.; Embry, D. D., Evolving the future: toward a science of intentional change. The Behavioral and brain sciences 2014, 37 (4), 395–416.