David Brooks’ op-ed ‘Nice Guys Finish First' reviews a sampling of books and essays that are adding color and nuance to existing ideas around evolution and “survival of the fittest”. He highlights a trend towards acknowledging the survival advantages of cooperation, and how human beings might be wired for it.
The science of a given age tends to reflect the societal norms and structures of that age. This is true both in terms of which scientific inquiries are pursued, and the conclusions and narratives that are constructed around their results.
Darwinian theory, for example, was very much a product of its time, echoing the social theories of contemporaries such as Malthus, and the concerns of a second generation industrial middle class trying to justify its inherited opulence in the midst of staggering urban misery.
Business and economic theory have long been colored by the problematic rhetoric of “survival of the fittest” (and not incidentally, by poor understanding and application of Darwin’s actual theory).
We have lived these last past decades in the era of neo-liberal economics, which championed free, unregulated markets (while some of its staunchest advocates engaged in market rigging and cronyism) under this very banner.
The attitudes of early industrialist (who funded pseudo-science validating their treatment of labor), and to varying extents those that followed, mirror Darwin’s theory in its most reductionist articulation. Howard Rheingold sums up nicely the existing paradigm around competition and survival in business in his 2005 TED talk:
Biology is war in which only the fiercest survive. Businesses and nations succeed only by defeating, destroying and dominating competition.
There seems to be a movement in business thinking analogous to the one in evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and related fields, towards a paradigm in which cooperation can be a winning strategy.
Thinkers and doers the likes of John Seely Brown are talking about ecosystem strategy, knowledge sharing, co-creation etc… concepts which seem at odds at some level, with “survival of the fittest” as understood in the past. The emerging paradigm might be better stated as “survival of the most knowledge-networked”.
Silicon Valley seems to validate, in some regards, this school of thought. The phenomenon of tech companies investing in employees who they know will leave, and in educational institutions that don’t always yield direct returns in terms of R&D licensing, may be analogous to a broader conversation taking place in our society about investing in the infrastructure, literal and social, that allows us to thrive collectively.
Mercenary culture, such as we’ve seen play out on Wall Street and elsewhere in American life, corrodes the shared fiber (if you’ll excuse the pun) that allows for knowledge to flow and work to get done and maximum collective value to be realized.
This is all background to my main point here, which is that it’s really cool to see the co-evolution of societal norms and science, in a pretty clear way, in our time.