Fundamentally, this blog is dedicated to applying the latest research in evolutionary psychology to the world of business. However, the scope of the blog will be more than this.
I must admit that after registering this domain, I initially regretted choosing the name Darwinian Business.
Misconceptions and politically motivated misinterpretations of evolutionary theory abound. For various reasons, many people associate ‘Darwinian’ with ‘Social Darwinism’ (which was actually based on the ideas of the sociologist Herbert Spencer rather than Charles Darwin himself). At worst, some still associate Darwinism with eugenics and Nazi Germany (for a debunking of the claim that Hitler was a Darwinian, read this).
However, Charles Darwin and his intellectual descendants independently came to the conclusion that evolution isn’t all about brutal competition. Evolution also explains the prevalence of cooperation, kindness, and altruism- The Better Angels of Our Nature– to reference Steven Pinker’s work on the decline of violence.
As stated by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man:
The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable—namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man. For, firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.
Perhaps this is a call for evolutionary-minded social scientists to reclaim the word Darwinian. The following quote from David Sloan Wilson is pertinent:
Avoiding a stigmatized word is a classic example of an action with a short-term benefit and a long-term cost. An immediate negative reaction is avoided but the long-term confusion does great harm. I strongly believe that scientists and scholars have a responsibility to use and defend face value definitions and avoid having them hijacked by particular schools of thought. If we aren’t careful about semantics and the history of ideas, who will be?
Beyond this, it’s common for people to confuse descriptive theories for normative theories. That is, theories of how things work for theories of how things should be (the is-ought problem).
Evolutionary theory is derived from the scientific method, and science can reveal uncomfortable facts about the world and of human nature. However, we should not see these scientific findings as justification of the status quo- that would be an example of the naturalistic fallacy. As stated by Mark Van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja in Naturally Selected, “we aim to explain, not excuse”.
Rather, running themes of Darwinian Business will be how we can help prevent counterproductive and destructive behaviour in the workplace- such as discrimination, excessive risk taking, bullying, workaholism, and fraud- through an understanding of our evolved psychological dispositions.
The majority of behavioural science deals with proximate questions- how people behave and think. For example, the fields of cognitive psychology and behavioural economics have documented an extensive list of ‘cognitive biases’, such as loss aversion and the optimism bias, which can impair business decision-making. However, evolutionary psychology answers ultimate questions- why people possess these psychological dispositions.
An oversimplification of evolutionary psychology is that these ‘adaptive biases’ helped us solve recurrent problems in our distant ancestral past, which are now frequently misaligned with the demands of the modern world. Whether we like it or not, evolution has shaped who we are today.
What we’ve witnessed over the past decades is a scientific convergence. Scientists from different disciplines such as genetics, paleobiology and neuropsychology are closing in on perhaps the greatest mystery of all: the origins of the human mind.
The message I want to communicate is that evolution is a powerful theory that can not only unify the social sciences as a meta-framework, but that it has profound implications for everyday life and how we conduct business. These are not novel ideas, and I will credit them accordingly. However, these ideas are not widely held either, in the business world nor in academia. My intention is to use the minuscule amount of influence I have to spread principles of evolution.
This blog is about business, but it’s remit is more than profit making. Darwinian Business will look at how an evolutionary perspective can help improve employees’ wellbeing, foster innovation, and explore how business can be conducted in a manner that serves society.
Ultimately, evolutionary literacy can help us create more effective organizations, and help us address global issues calling for bold leadership. As stated by Nigel Nicholson in Managing the Human Animal; “The system that knows itself has more control over it’s own destiny“.
Written by Max Beilby, February 2016
Colarelli, S. M., & Arvey, R. D. (Eds.) (2015) The Biological Foundations of Organizational Behavior. University of Chicago Press
Darwin, C. (1872) The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (Vol. 2). D. Appleton
Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan
Kenrick, D. T., & Griskevicius, V. (2013) The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think. Basic Books
Nicholson, N. (2000) Managing the Human Animal. Thomson-Texere
Nicholson, N. (1998) “How Hardwired is Behavior?”, Harvard Business Review. Available here
Pinker, S. (2011) The Better Angels of Our Nature: A history of violence and humanity. Penguin
Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The modern denial of human nature. Penguin
Richards. R.J. (2016) Was Hitler a Darwinian? No! No! No! The Evolution Institute. Available here
Van Vugt, M. & Ahuja, A. (2010) Selected: Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it matters. Profile Books
Wilson, D. S. (2016) TVOL Special Edition: What’s Wrong (and Right) About Evolutionary Psychology? This View of Life Magazine. Available here
Wilson, D. S. (2007) Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives. Delta