ProSocial Teaming: Can Evolution Theory Help Us Create More Successful Groups?

This is the second installment of my walk through the new book, Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups, by Dr.’s Paul W. B. Atkins, David Sloan Wilson, and Steven C. Hayes, from Context Press, 2019. My aim is to discuss the book, chapter by chapter, as a sort of summary and review for folks who don’t know what Prosocial is or don’t have time to pick the book up and read it themselves right now. Credit for anything enlightening should go to the authors, here – I’m no Prosocial expert.

I hope that some introduction to the information in this book inspires people to give it a read. The lessons and practices in this book will apply to anyone interested in improving collaboration and equity in their communities or organizations, large or small.

What does Evolution have to do with human behavior?

We’re likely all familiar with the premise of Darwin’s evolutionary theory: variations in physical and behavioral traits that make an organism more adaptable to its environment improve the organism’s ability to survive and reproduce, and in turn, those adaptations are passed on to subsequent generations. 

Charles Darwin introduced the ideas of variation, selection and retention of traits that benefit a given organism.

Of course, this realization was a landmark in the history of our understanding of species development. However, in this simplest form, the theory struggles to explain selection for behavior that may benefit a group, while compromising the benefits to the individual. What role do altruistic behaviors play in this system? Why isn’t pure self-interest the dominant MO for successful species?

Evolution at Multiple Levels

Multilevel Selection Theory describes evolution acting on multiple levels – within an organism, between individual organisms, and between groups of individual organisms.

Current evolution science points to Multilevel Selection (MLS) Theory to describe the nuance left out by Darwin’s contributions. This is a foundational concept to the ProSocial approach, which seeks to set the occasion for behaviors of individuals that benefit the group. Consider four ‘rules’ laid out by MLS theory (quoted here from the text of the book):

  1. “Social behaviors are almost invariably expressed among sets of individuals (groups) that are small compared to the total evolving population.” That is, behavioral selection occurs at the level of groups that are smaller than the overall evolving population. Think: various companies in a single market, or multiple churches in a single community.
  2. “…behaviors that are for the good of the group often have costs for the individual doing the behaving, and therefore they seldom improve the relative fitness of the individual within the group…This makes natural selection at the smallest scale – among individuals within a single group – primarily disruptive as far as prosociality is concerned.”
  3. “Cooperation and prosociality are selected for because they benefit the group that’s competing with other groups more than they hurt the individual who’s competing with other individuals within that group.”
  4. “…Adaptation at any level of a multitier hierarchy requires a process of selection at that level – and tends to be undermined by selection at lower levels.” The two levels of selection – between individuals and between groups – can be applied to any population or individual. Group-level common (social) behaviors are selected depending on what benefits the group, but individually selected behaviors – benefitting the individual – often conflict with group-selected behaviors.

These ‘rules’ point to a pervasive problem presented to groups. As the authors put it, “What it takes to grab the biggest slice of the pie is different than what it takes to make the biggest pie.” If you want to build an organization that serves the whole and the individuals that constitute that whole, we must consider the push-and-pull of both sources of need.

Evolution in Multiple Streams

Current understandings of evolution go beyond what Darwin first described. For example, Darwin recognized variations in physical traits, but had no concept of genes or gene expression. Presently, evolution-scientists acknowledge four evolutionary mechanisms (Streams): 

  1. Genetic inheritance: organisms resemble their parents, because they share the same genes
  2. Epigenetics: Not all genes are expressed in a given organism. Genes are selected for expression via the same processes of variation, selection and retention.
  3. Learning: Trial-and-error learning (Skinner’s ‘learning by consequences’) applies variation, selection and retention to behaviors, as a function of their direct consequences.
  4. Cultural evolution: Behaviors are learned and copied by subsequent generations. What is observed to be effective is copied, and ‘lives on’ in those later generations, for as long as the behavior remains a benefit to the behaver.

Major Evolutionary Transitions: Many Become One

When the disruptive behaviors of individuals are properly checked, the group itself works so well together that it becomes much like an individual organism. This is known as a Major Evolutionary Transition. You can imagine this phenomenon when you consider a hive of bees. Each bee is an individual. When all the bees in the hive are working cooperatively, decisions about where to start a new hive, where to gather resources, and how to allocate work, are all the result of collective decision-making that benefits the whole.

In a Major Evolutionary Transition, individuals form groups, and when they reach a high level of cooperation, these groups function as organisms in their own right.

Groups of humans are as different from groups of other organisms as humans are from other species. What is it that sets us apart from them? Why have humans become the uncontested ‘top of the food chain’ wherever they have settled? Consider the ‘Three C’s of human distinctiveness’:

  1. Cooperation: Humans are the most cooperative primate.
  2. Cognition: Humans have a unique capacity for symbolic thought.
  3. Culture: Humans transmit learned behaviors across generations, more effectively than any other species.

The core of these three C’s is cooperation. This is the key advantage we have over other species, and the key to what could be our next Major Evolutionary Transition. As begin applying these concepts to our own groups and contexts, we’ll take the lens of Evolution Science – occurring at Multiple Levels and in Multiple Streams, benefiting the group when cooperation is enabled – to identify where, when and why one group fails while another thrives, and how we can target changes in the group to allow for maximal cooperative functioning.

Want to learn more?

See my first post, Introduction: What is Prosocial Teaming?

In my discussion of Chapter 2, coming soon, we’ll see how moving beyond the false dichotomy of top-down management and free-for-all group behavior is possible, and necessary for a new model of successful groups.

Also, for an intensive workshop-style training, please take a peek at our event with Dr. Thomas Szabo and Dr. Darnell Lattal, set for January, 2020 near Seattle, WA. Tom was a student in Steve Hayes’ lab when Prosocial emerged and has been conducting Prosocial workshops for ten years. Darnell is former president of Aubrey Daniels International, one of the foremost OBM firms in the world. She has been practicing for over 40 years.

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