Most people either know about Darwin’s theory in broad strokes or learn enough to try and apply survival of the fittest thinking in a simplistic way to their leadership or business approach. Unfortunately when misunderstood or misapplied it can lead to a rise in inequality and an increase in selfish behaviors. Even when the leader or organization has the best of intentions at heart.
If our places and things wake up, will they be shaped over time by evolutionary pressures? How will they shape us, our groups, our communities, and our world? Unlike natural evolution, we may have far more control over the “rules of the game” for what aspects of the system are stable, and what aspects should learn and change via outside pressures, goals, and constraints. Will the designers and organizations in charge of the underlying game mechanic know enough about Darwin’s theories and evolutionary biology to build systems that support individual, group, and societal goals? Or will we end up with places and things (and people) that are driven to evolutionary dead ends or amplify the worst instead of the best of what we are capable of?
This view of life
A while back we learned about three people and a movement that has opened our eyes and forced us to reconsider the simplistic cartoon we had in our heads about Darwin’s theory. The pioneering evolutionary biologists, David Sloan Wilson, and E. O. Wilson, and the Nobel-winning economist Elinor Ostrom. Each has contributed significantly to our understanding of evolution and how it is still going on to this day within the complex system that is our society.
As a way of exploring these questions David asks us to consider first the misunderstanding of evolution first put forth by Sir Francis Galton in the 1800’s in his work “Hereditary Genius.” His work was instrumental to the rise of eugenics and the belief that simply breeding the individuals with the best traits together over successive generations could lead to a “superior race.” The 20th century was in many ways torn apart by this compelling—to some—but tragically naive understanding of how Nature works. Even today it shows up as a boogie man in popular media to explain away this or that horror, just run faster and the slower victims will be culled and you’ll survive.
Chicken or egg
Now consider a famous set of experiments we learned about from David and his team who are actively leading a renaissance in the thinking and studying of evolution and how it plays out in collective action for the common good.
A scientist at Purdue named William Muir ran experiments because he was interested in increasing the number of eggs produced by chickens. One of his questions was, “is egg-laying capability a heritable trait?” Could he breed super chickens by counting the number of eggs each chicken produces, picking the best chickens and breeding them together and, ending up with a dramatic efficiency increase? When he ran this experiment over a few generations he ended up with a surprise. Out of a hen house of nine hens, six were pecked to death and productivity plummeted. He had bred super aggressive “psycho chicken” bullies (sounds familiar if you look at the hero-worship culture in some of today’s business leadership environments.) Basically, the resulting chickens were so successful at producing eggs because they bullied the other hens out of a fair share of food.
Muir ran another parallel experiment, he wondered, “what if it wasn’t about ‘counting eggs produced per chicken,’ but rather about the traits that evolved within the entire henhouse—the process of egg-laying within the collective—that would increase egg productivity?” After all, hens aren’t lone beings who lead a solitary life, they are raised in collective groups. He took the best producing hen houses and bred those chickens together and over successive generations found that he could increase egg-laying by an astounding 160% and the chickens were not only healthy, but they were also happy chickens by all indications. If a trait is a socially inherited trait we’ll need to consider the context, agents, actions, and affordances that give rise to a given inherited capacity. David Sloan and E.O Wilson summed it up best. “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”
“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” -David Sloan Wilson, E.O. Wilson
David Sloan Wilson worked with Elinor Ostrom to explore how evolutionary theory applied to common-pool resources and prosocial behaviors in real-world settings. If humans are so filled with the naive version of Darwinism why do we get together in communities, cooperate to form cities, and build great societies? What is happening that makes humankind the best cooperator on the planet? How is it that we make neighborhoods into communities into regions? What makes resilient, poly-centric systems work over decades and even over centuries? Are there mechanisms or design patterns that must be true in a sort of grand unified theory of prosocial and collective action? Together these two researchers and now a growing movement of thinkers and doers have defined design principles for collective action that are based on prosocial evolutionary forces.
Below are the prosocial core design principles that they developed and that David and his team at Prosocial World continue to test and refine as they scale these theories and practices out into the broader world. Prosocial groups have:
1 – Strong sense of identity & purpose
2 – Proportional costs and benefits
3 – Fair & inclusive decision-making
4 – Monitoring of agreed behaviors
5 – Graduated escalation of sanctions
6 – Fast & fair conflict resolution
7 – Local autonomy
8 – Appropriate relations w/other groups (self-similar)
Unlisted in these eight are a foundational layer of trust
There is no panacea that will solve these kinds of complex-system-based challenges but building trust through the application of these principles in a fair and equitable way has shown significant results. It is worth noting, as Elinor Ostrom did in her Nobel acceptance talk that complexity and chaos are not the same things. Making every group the same size and removing apparent chaos by forming top-down structures is a formula for feeling good and causing great harm. Often the best systems that help manage common-pool resources have small groups who do the monitoring directly and methods for these groups to be self-similar as they relate to larger groups that might provide economies of scale (see design principle 8). She notes that “in studies of 47 farmer irrigation systems and 44 fisheries over 72% of farmer-managed systems had high performance but only 42% of governmental irrigation systems had high performance even with fancy engineering.”
In 2015 Wired reported on experiments in prosocial mitigation of hate speech within the massively multiplayer video game called “League of Legends.” These sorts of platforms aggregate hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of players all participating in a series of natural experiments. One experiment they ran was to restrict chat by abusive players as a temporary punishment. As a reminder, this is Elinor Ostrom’s design principle about graduated sanctions. That experiment demonstrated 20% fewer reports of abuse by other players. We’ll soon have trillions of connected devices that have some elements of collective and embodied cognition. They may not be what we think of as “smart” for all the ways industries try to convince us our doorbells and vacuum cleaners are smart, but nevertheless, they’ll represent a large experimental medium for us to explore and hopefully advance the theoretical frameworks and tangible real-world examples found in our soon to be blended machine-age society.
“The Optimus Experiment tested 217 unique conditions across more than 10 million games worth of data, with 10 percent of all games acting as controls.” – Wired
There are a few more people you should meet in this journey, a researcher named Skylar Tibbits who is exploring how the shapes of things and their properties can cause them to self assemble at a macro scale (think of this as 4D printing where the assembly instructions are encoded into the materials, energy inputs, and forms themselves). Michael Levin, and John Bongard take this much further as they released a paper in 2020 signaling the dawn of an entirely new field of machine behavior that redefines cognition and where it enters the picture from slime mold all the way up to you and me.
Things fall together
Skylar Tibbits co-founded and leads MIT’s Self Assembly Lab and explores how we might program matter itself. We’ve always done this in some way whether by training trees to grow in a certain way or craftsmen using the grain of the wood to build better furniture or other implements. Skylar takes it to the next level using the new tools of production we have at hand from 3D printers to carbon fiber weaving robots, to computer-controlled milling machines. He explores how energy, materials, geometries, and forms can lead to transformations into useful places and things. In essence, he’s exploring a new kind of craft that may be less about putting chips in things and making everything robotic and more about building into the materials and forms themselves an innate drive to take shape and characteristics on, based on the needs and uses of the end-user(s). He aspires to animate the world with active matter that co-evolves with us and has innate ways to shape our relationships and capabilities with things and be shaped in a feedback loop by our uses and re-uses. His dream is to usher in a new industrial revolution that stands across disciplines from science and engineering to art and biology. He expects far more things will be shaped bottom-up by understanding the materiality of our world and what environmental factors might be brought to bear to shape, add energy to, or guide a structure’s assembly.
What is a machine? We draw our images and metaphors from the industrial revolution and the era of the clockwork universe: Machines are predictable, created by humans (rather than Mother Nature), and inanimate. Let’s consider the prospect that we’re on the threshold of a new science, “Machine Behavior” where life is organic and mechanistic at multiple levels and machines might inherit the traits of organisms and new hybrids may be born, built, or both. Stunning advances in biology, neural networks, cognitive, and computational science give us the tools to make machines that increasingly exhibit the traits of, and are as difficult to understand, as life itself.
Michael Levin and Josh Bongard have been building an entirely new field of science around machine behavior. We often use science’s latest advances as metaphors to understand our world. The universe was clockwork in the 18th century. Our brains were switchboards in the early telephone era. Today we often describe life as a machine. But we might have that backward. Perhaps machines are best understood as living things. Their claims revolve around the core idea that cognition (and behavior) arises much earlier in the realm of life. They believe that our metaphors for how machines work (both natural living ones like you and I and the sorts of things we build) are too closely matched to industrial age metaphors that distract us and provide little illumination into what’s really possible.
They demonstrate compelling evidence that much of cognition is encoded into the forms, flows, forces, and folds represented in life itself. Josh has built machines called Xenobots that have evolved (in a virtual computing medium) to perform complex tasks using basic behaviors that can be found in Nature (like the contraction of muscle tissues). He has then built these in the real world—after thousands of rounds of computational evolution—to perform tasks like scrubbing blood vessel walls of plaque.
Michael is exploring experiments that hint at being able to retrain our body’s cellular responses to help shift cells that became cancerous to cells that have relearned how to be fruitful and productive cells again. He believes that rather than harsh external drugs or more invasive methods the body encodes much of what it knows in the very fabric of our cells. Think of his work as developing a curriculum for our body’s cells to be more prosocial. After all, we are made of trillions of cells in congregations that help us then get together and perform miracles in the world around us through cooperation.
Now we can ask a few interesting questions:
- What would happen if we built the 8 core prosocial design principles directly into the things and places that are slowly waking up around us either by means outlined by Skylar or by classic industrial design approaches that include embedding sensors and actuators into our everyday goods and places?
- What would it look like or how would the world be different for better or worse if our objects where social darwinists versus actual prosocially evolved systems?
- Could these patterns be embedded from birth in our connected and increasingly cognitively empowered places and things?
- How might guiding or policy making bodies learn from Elinor Ostrom and crew and realize there is no top down panacea but there are evolved social interaction models that have stood the test of time?