Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, as distilled in popular culture, holds that individual humans are brutally selfish as they struggle to triumph in a nasty world of scarcity and competition. Life is supposedly an epic "survival of the fittest," an idea ratified by the premises of conventional economics and its notion of homo economicus and scientist Richard Dawkins' famous theory of the "selfish gene."
But many scientists are rewriting this story based on their own empirical studies of life, which reveal the powerful role of cooperation in evolution. David Sloan Wilson, the renowned evolutionary biologist and scholar of cooperation, is a prominent proponent of "mullti-level selection," the idea that natural selection doesn't occur only at the level of genes and individuals, but among groups and even ecosystems.
Evolution is not just a matter of competition among individual organisms, he and other scientists argue. It's also about cooperation within groups and how groups of cooperators enjoy evolutionary advantages over groups consumed by internal competition.
"A group of cooperators can robustly out-compete a group whose members cannot cohere," said Wilson. In a famous essay co-authored with biologist E.O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson offers a concise summary of this idea: "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary."
In my latest episode of Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #32), I explore with David Sloan Wilson some of the insights that evolutionary science reveal about cooperation and other prosocial behaviors.