The Shared Dream at the Top of the Stairs

Apparently (I have not yet read it), E.O. Wilson has a new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, promoting his ideas about multilevel selection.  What’s that?  That’s the idea that Natural Selection is taking place not only at the level of the individual (as the overwhelming majority of biological scientists infer from observable facts, and a few have observed firsthand), but is also occurring at the level of competition between groups of organisms.  This second idea is usually given the epithet “group selection,” and frequently accompanied with sneering.

I myself expend a good deal of effort getting students to understand that in most circumstances Natural Selection will favor traits that enhance individual survival and reproductive success, even when they decrease the success of the group or species.  Most evidence suggests that, with the exception of things like the eusocial insects (what E.O. Wilson studies) and naked mole rats – all things that have unusually high within-group genetic similarity – individual selection overrides group selection.  It is intriguing, that even in our highly individualistic and competition-driven late-capitalist culture, the default assumption seems to be that everybody generally works for the good of the group.  However, we find very little evidence of other species being team players.

However (in a riveting TED talk) psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests that selection for something like eusociality and improved cooperation and altruism in humans might have lead to the evolution of a type of consciousness that is associated with spiritual or religious experiences:

How do we create the “all in the same boat” feeling associated with these “top of the stairs” religious epiphanies Haidt describes?   Partly, I think we’re already doing it.  We have been ever since we as a species got our first look at the Earth entire, in 1966

First View of Earth from Moon | NASA Image #67-H-218
First View of Earth from Moon | NASA Image #67-H-218

… or at least, by the time we got a really good look at her face in 1972.

Apollo 17’s “Full Earth” image (a.k.a. “The Blue Marble”)
NASA image AS17-148-22727

Buckminster Fuller probably grokked it before 1968 with his 
Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth
, and Stewart Brand inspired multitudes of hippies with the basic notion through the Whole Earth Catalog (1968-1998).

So that puts us all in one boat, surrounded by the same thin membrane of atmosphere.  But multilevel selection seems to necessitate competition between groups to provide group selection pressure, keeping the success of more cooperative groups (or super-organisms) high relative to those groups that have an overabundance of selfish “free riders.”  The intensity of the warriors’ experience of “us” is dependent on a contrasting “them,” particularly in a high-stakes game where self-sacrifice is potentially so profound.  Globally, can we promote “the shift from ‘I’ to ‘we’,” without external competitors?

Many science-fiction writers have said that the next logical step is to have another “world” or “civilization” with which to compete.  They don’t need to be enemies, per se, just competitors.  Simple-minded creatures as we writers often are, this usually comes down to a fight, providing “entertaining” fiction for us to consume.  This is an option, admittedly with a low (though non-zero) probability of happening in the next century.

Option two, humans diversify by colonizing distant worlds.  This is another favored theme, be it in classics like Frank Herbert’s Dune or the latest Kim Stanley Robinson book, 2312.  My first-started-but-now-on-hold novel project works in this realm also.  Effective separation of different human populations over time and space leads to cultural diversification, somewhat like the way separation of different populations of one species can lead to their diversification into new species (this is called allopatric speciation in evolutionary biology).  Such projects are not impossible, though the likelihood in the next century is for very little of this (as much as I’m inspired by the call to Occupy Mars and support the 100 Year Starship program).

Option three, we re-entrench in smaller communities or tribes.  This is often the fertile ground in which post-apocalyptic fiction takes place, and my current novel project is rooted here.  Again, the most common scenario is that these tribes will fight when they interact, unless they’re forming alliances to fight off mutual threats.  I believe this option has much higher probability than the previous two, though I’m not ready to commit to a probability above 50% (take some time for Peak Prosperity’s “Crash Course”, and decide for yourself where you think we stand… and he didn’t even account for climate change).

Maybe there is a fourth way.  In the comments for the bold and radical article “Self-Evident Truths” by Derrick Jensen (comment 11 by mike k.), it is suggested

We can begin by coming together in small groups to deeply consider these things, and make truth, love, and beauty effective realities in ourselves and in our world.

One response suggests World Café as a method for accoplishing this, and I have found it a useful tool also.  There’s a great set of similar tools for coalescing the brilliance of small groups at Liberating Structures.  But this only gets us working together in small groups.  The essence of the argument for multilevel or group selection is that this is an evolutionarily stable strategy for competing with other groups.

Can we rethink what that competition is? Could it be a competition between groups for the best solutions, the most vibrant, ecologically-integrated, just and regenerative communities?  Could local pride and tribalism work in way that didn’t invite violence, but instead amplified positive deviance?
Maybe these are the questions to explore via World Café. Such questions invite us to dissolve the self in the greater “we,” perhaps even at the global level, in a collective effort by humans to improve the well-being of all.

6 Comments

  1. Rethinking competition is a good idea. I don’t know if it’s got the potential to override the individual selection forces that are mainly expressed as success in procreating. That’s how the insects manage such good societies – there is no individual competition for breeding and the colonies are better seen as phenotypic extensions of the queen.

    There are now games out there to compete against other people to save more energy. The first one I heard about was called Pushing Green but their site isn’t working at the moment. This describes it:

    http://www.greenerideal.com/lifestyle/home-and-garden/8737-pushing-green-energy-saving-contest-will-pay-your-energy-bill-for-a-month/

    I also found http://greenmyplace.net/

    Like

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