Ep 2. David Sloan Wilson

By Toby Shannan

Our Guest

David Sloan Wilson is an American evolutionary biologist and a Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences and Anthropology at Binghamton University.

He is known for his many books describing the broad applicability of evolutionary theory to more than just biology - Darwin's Cathedral, Evolution for Everyone, Prosocial, This View of Life - all treat evolution as the meta tool in understanding human behaviour, culture and society.

I plan to discuss David Sloan Wilson’s understanding of evolution, specifically the theory he has championed: multilevel selection and its importance in understanding how humans have evolved to become social creatures.

Multilevel Selection, is one of the most long standing controversies in evolutionary thought. For some it is an extension of Darwin's theory, required to explain how adaptations can evolve at any level of a multi-tier hierarchy of units, such as:

  • from genes to ecosystems in biological systems

  • or small groups to global governance in human social systems.

For others, it is a theory that was rejected over half a century ago and needs to be thrown on the scrap pile of history.

If however multilevel selection were to be proven true - it demands a complete reevaluation of our moral philosophy. The typical paradox of human behaviour - how can we be so kind, benevolent and altruistic on one hand - and so avaricious, self-interested and violent on the other hand - now can be explained through a simple axiom --

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. ..everything else is commentary”

The importance of Wilson’s thinking in times of crisis cannot be overstated. As our normal perceptions of who we are - begin to fray in the light of a complete economic collapse and global pandemic

  • Who and what are we as human beings?

  • Are we competitors or cooperators?

  • Are we selfish atoms or universal altruists?

I suspect there will be a great sorting now, as some ideas and some organizations will wither and others will flourish. As organizational people - we need to ask ourselves why? Are there ideas that can make organizations, societies and all of humanity better?