By Nwaodu Lawrence Chukwuemeka
FRI, AUGUST 18 2017-theG&BJournal-The solution to that puzzle is a process of selection among groups in a multi-group population. Once again, the logic is relentlessly relative, which means that a group can sabotage a multi-group organization as easily as an individual can sabotage a group. MLS theory doesn’t make everything nice, but it does specify the conditions required for any group to function as a corporate unit (reminder: the word “corporate” is derived from the Latin word for “body”). If the group isn’t organized to prevent disruptive self-serving behaviors from within, then fuggedaboutit.
The retired general was right to call toxic leadership in the Army an “institutional cancer”. Toxic leaders aren’t just a bunch of bad apples in a barrel that need to be tossed out. They are employing a social strategy that works for them, given the institutional structure of the U.S. Army. If they were tossed out, they would quickly be replaced by other power-hungry people in a leadership position smart enough to adopt the same strategy. The current institutional structure breeds toxic leaders, not by genetic evolution of course, but by the selection of social strategies in behaviorally flexible individuals. The only solution to this problem is a change in the institutional social environment. The same goes for the structure of many business corporations, which are perversely designed for self-serving disruptive strategies on the part of power-hungry leaders to succeed.
The retired general’s use of the word “cancer” was more apt than he probably knew. Real cancers illustrate the same phenomenon—cells that are perversely adaptive according to the relentlessly relative logic of evolution, by spreading at the expense of other cells within a multi-cellular organism. Eons have natural selection at the level of multicellular organisms has resulted in mechanisms that suppress cancerous cells, along with other infectious agents, to a remarkable degree—our immune systems (go here and here for more).
The same story can be told for human genetic evolution3. Chimpanzee societies are despotic in human terms. Our species is different because our ancestors became talented at suppressing disruptive self-serving behaviors within groups, so that the best way to succeed was as a group. We are psychologically adapted to suppress cancerous social strategies in the same way that our bodies are physiologically adapted to suppress cancer and other infectious agents. Our psychological immune system operates spontaneously and largely beneath conscious awareness. We don’t have to think about according high status to cooperative members of our group (prestige) or punishing cheaters. We just do it in the same way that our B-cells churn out antibodies. Of course, these mechanisms only suppress disruptive self-serving behaviors in our species, which are an ever-present danger, just as cancer is an ever-present danger for multi-cellular organisms. The basic logic MLS theory applies to both.
Our psychological immune system evolved in the context of small groups with a relatively even balance of power and did not prepare us for the larger societies that emerged with the advent of agriculture. These societies therefore became despotic, ironically more like chimp societies than small-scale human societies. Fortunately, cultural evolution is a multi-level process, no less than genetic evolution, and the largely cooperative mega-societies of today a product of ten thousand years of cultural group selection, largely but not entirely in the form of warfare4. Once again, MLS theory doesn’t make everything nice. It specifies the conditions under which groups of any size evolve—or fail to evolve—into corporate units. It is up to us as policy selection agents to make things nice with the insights provided by MLS theory5.
Charleen R. Case and Jon K. Maner, the researchers who conducted the social psychology experiments, are gratifyingly aware of the evolutionary big picture. Their introduction includes a discussion of primates, human genetic evolution, and evolutionary psychology, which would have been unheard of in a social psychology journal 20 years ago. The more the evolutionary worldview gains traction, then the more obvious the problem of toxic leadership will become and the more effective we will be at doing something about it.
Their elegant experiments contain the seeds of policy prescriptions. They were able to turn disruptive self-serving behaviors in power-hungry students on and off with their experimental treatments. Real social organizations can do the same with their institutional arrangements. Leadership can be bestowed upon individuals who are motivated to seek the respect of their peers rather than individuals who seek power for its own sake, with the important proviso that prestige-hungry individuals might become excessively loyal to their group at the expense of a multi-group social organization. It’s multilevel selection all the way up and down. Knowing this, the selection of individuals, combined with the selection of institutional design, can bring cancerous social strategies under control to a much greater degree than they are now.
There is one important body of knowledge that Case and Maner do not cite, based on the work of the political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2009 for showing that groups are capable of managing common-pool resources (avoiding “the tragedy of the commons”) if they possess certain design principles 6,7. These principles make great sense from a multilevel evolutionary perspective, as an article that I co-authored with Ostrom and her postdoctoral associate Michael Cox describes in detail 8. Simply put, groups that implement the core design principles are strongly protected against disruptive self-serving behaviors from within.
Once Ostrom’s work is generalized from a multilevel evolutionary perspective, it can be extended beyond common-pool resource groups to include all groups whose members must work together to achieve common goals. In a sense, working together is itself a common pool resource vulnerable to the tragedy of abuse unless core design principles are in place.
Seeing this clearly with the help of the right theory has led me to work with a team of colleagues in the behavioral sciences to create a practical framework for improving the efficacy of groups called PROSOCIAL. Through an Internet platform and network of facilitators, we can help any group, anywhere in the world, work better by adopting the core design principles, along with other insights derived from multilevel evolutionary theory. To learn more, please visit PROSOCIAL Magazine, which has been newly launched to serve our growing community of groups.
A final point is that the relentlessly relative logic of MLS theory is scale-independent. It applies to nations, multinational corporations, and global commons issues such as the climate and world economy, no less than a single business or imaginary groups of four people working on a verbal problem-solving task. Compare Case and Maner’s elegant experiments on why groups fail with Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s big history book on why nations fail. You will see that when it comes to Multilevel Selection, all the world’s a stage.
Nwaodu Lawrence Chukwuemeka (Ideas Exchange Consulting).| firstname.lastname@example.org (07066375847).