Category: Book Review

A Wild Life: An overview of Robert Trivers’ autobiography

Whilst on holiday I decided to read a book telling the life story of one of the world’s most influential evolutionary theorists. Despite it not being about the application of evolutionary psychology to the workplace, I thought this post would be of value regardless.

The scientist in question is Robert Trivers.

Robert Trivers is an American evolutionary biologist, who has managed to revolutionise both the natural and social sciences.

Steven Pinker described Trivers as “one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought”, and Time magazine has named him one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. In 2007, Trivers was awarded the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Crafoord Prize in Biosciences for “his fundamental analysis of social evolution, conflict and cooperation”, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for evolutionary theory.

Robert Trivers’ key contributions to science are papers he published in the 1970s whilst at Harvard, formulating theories such as Reciprocal Altruism, Parental Investment Theory, and Parent-Offspring Conflict.

Reciprocal Altruism helped explain how cooperation can evolve outside of kinship through mutually beneficial exchanges, whilst Parental Investment Theory predicted that the sex which makes the largest investment in reproduction will be more discriminating in mating, with the sex investing less being forced to compete for mating opportunities. Parental-Offspring Conflict illustrated that families are not harmonious entities, and that offspring compete for greater investment from their parents.

One cannot overstate the influence Trivers’ theories have had on the direction of scientific inquiry. Popular science books such as Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene drew heavily on Robert Trivers’ papers. Arguably, Trivers’ theories are the pillars of evolutionary psychology.

Most recently, Trivers has created a theory self-deception as an adaptive evolutionary strategy. Trivers argues that deceit and self-deception are two sides of the same coin- we fool ourselves the better to fool others. I will be reviewing his book The Folly of Fools, exploring its application to business in due course.

Of course, scientific accomplishments do not necessarily make for a riveting autobiography. Academia frequently entails a sedentary, solitary and intensely internal life, one that Trivers states “never appealed to me”. What is so remarkable about Robert Trivers is the rollercoaster life he’s lived instead.

A Wild life is a mixture of recollections of Trivers’ interactions and collaborations with great minds, near-death experiences, and the minds and behaviours of animals.

Welcome to Jamrock

A Wild Life is largely dedicated to Trivers’ time in Jamaica. As a Harvard graduate student Trivers moved to Jamaica to study lizards, becoming known locally as the ‘Lizard Man’. Trivers has spent over 18 years of his life living in the Caribbean.

Unbeknownst to me, lizards are detested by Jamaicans- the equivalent of rats in the West, but also surrounded with superstition. Trivers tells hilarious stories of how he used his lizard powers to scare locals to his advantage.

Trivers documents a cocktail of near-death experiences. As a taster, Trivers has fallen from great heights, has been held at gunpoint during a Kingston nightclub robbery, and has had to defend himself from machete and knife yielding burglars.

Running themes of A Wild Life are Trivers penchant for smoking marijuana, and his fondness of Jamaican women. Infused with Trivers’ use of Jamaican slang, one at times may think they’re not actually reading a scientist’s autobiography, but that of dancehall star. 

Under Arrest

Trivers is not foreign to fighting either.

For example, Trivers documents getting in a fight with a local Jamaican bully called Jasper, upon witnessing Jasper verbally abuse his (yet to be) mother in law. Unfortunately for Jasper, Trivers taught himself boxing at a young age, and ended up giving him quite a beating.

“As it turned out, though, the boxing match was only the beginning of my fight with Jasper.” Trivers ended up getting arrested for the incident, accompanied by a prolonged court case, where Trivers was found not guilty of the assailant’s counter-charges.

How many times has Trivers been arrested? For strictly criminal offenses, 5 times if I can count correctly.

One of the most comical accounts is Trivers being held in jail for 10 days over a trivial matter of refusing to pay an increased hotel fee for foreigners (with Trivers insisting that he was a Jamaican citizen). Trivers was subsequently charged with credit card fraud. “Jamaica is probably the only country in which you using debit cards permits you to be convicted of ‘credit card’ fraud.”

Civil Rights Activism

As a white American Harvard academic, you may be surprised to learn that Robert Trivers was a member of the Black Panther Party. Trivers worked closely with the controversial figure Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panthers. More recently, Trivers has become a gay rights activist. Appalled by the treatment of gays in Jamaica, Trivers joined the Homosexual Defense League, with the initiative being based on Black Panther credos.

Trivers states:

I’m willing to put my life on the line when those calls come. We will roll in to protect life and if we are late we will gather evidence. We will not just “stand around and look.”

Trivers notes that despite common misconceptions, homosexuality is rife in the natural world and not confined to humans. For example, homosexual behaviour is prevalent in mammals spanning lions, dolphins and various primates. Arguments that homosexuality is unnatural are unfounded.

Regrettably, some perceive evolutionary psychology as justifying racism, misogyny, homophobia and the status quo. As both the grandfather of evolutionary psychology and a civil rights activist, Robert Trivers eloquently demonstrates why this is nonsense.

Many scientists shy away from politics, believing that it compromises their objectivity or that it is not their duty to address social issues directly. Trivers is a glaring exception.

The Way Forward

An implied argument in A Wild Life is that Trivers would have been a more successful scientist had he not lived the way he has. However, I’m not so sure. He may have been a more prolific scientist in terms of output. But it seems that the richness of Trivers’ life experiences arguably increased  the scope of his scientific endeavours and the depth of his theorising, rather than serving as a distraction. Not many scientists have been exposed to the various facets of the natural world and of human nature as Trivers has. For example, how many Western scientists have been able (and had the desire) to integrate and defend themselves in a society with one of the highest murder rates per capita in the world?

A major life lesson from A Wild Life is that one must not just study life but also live it. Scientists and academics can spend their whole adult lives studying and thinking, forgoing personal enjoyment and exciting experiences. One shouldn’t let the pursuit of knowledge and scientific advancement sacrifice their personal lives.

Conversely, an internal activity which Trivers promotes is self-reflection; a means of overcoming self-deception. Trivers lists a lack of self-reflection as his biggest regret.

“You self-deceptionist,” my first wife would sneer. “You talk a lot about parent-offspring conflict, yet you neglect your own son.” Guilty as charged. Too much ambition and too little thought about my family: wife, children, and myself.

Trivers concludes A Wild Life by discussing his efforts to reflect when making big life decisions. ‘Autopilot’ used to be viewed by Trivers as a successful strategy for major decisions. “Autopilot? As a means of choosing which of three universities and cities you should live in for the next fifteen years? By definition autopilot is the opposite of careful conscious introspection and evaluation- it is what you do when the path forward is obvious and no rational reflection is needed.”

Trivers discusses how his (lack of) decisions impacted him and his family, resulting in inadequate pay and productivity. “Served me right: if you don’t think through a problem, you shouldn’t be surprised when later it looks as if no one has thought it through.”

Openly revealed in A Wild Life is Trivers’ mental health issues, specifically his suffering from bipolar disorder. As one accused of being self-deceived, Trivers demonstrates moments of piercing introspection.

Act A Fool

There was one passage in A Wild Life with greater relevance to Darwinian Business.

It was on the topic of ‘dummying up’. In contrast to self-deception and the inflation of the self, Trivers mentions a second kind of deception- deceiving down- in which the organism is selected to appear less large and less threatening, thereby gaining an advantage.

Trivers recalls a conversation with the black panther Huey Newton of all people, discussing employees dummying up to avoid being required to do more difficult tasks.

I only wish that one of Richard Nixon’s aides had been on hand to silently activate a tape recorder so that none of this was lost to posterity. Unfortunately, I can only give a rough sketch of Huey’s answer.

If I remember correctly, he imagined a situation in which a waiter is always managing to position himself so as to avoid seeing his boss calling him and to otherwise appear to be working while not actually doing any work. His own monologue in response ran roughly as follows: “Oh, so you’re so dumb that you happen to be looking the other way when I’m trying to get your attention. And you’re so dumb that when you know I am  watching you, you decide to polish silverware that needs no polishing. And you’re so dumb that you are always walking toward the pantry without ever reaching it. Well, you’re not that dumb!”- followed perhaps by slapping the organism to the ground, verbally or otherwise. In short, Huey revealed to the actor the hidden logic of his actions, and the final ironic punch line was that, “You’re not that damned dumb” since you’ve managed to arrange all this dumb-acting behavior in such a coherent pattern, designed to deceive your employer.

You can buy a copy of A Wild Life here

References

Trivers, R. (2011). The Folly of Fools: The logic of deceit and self-deception in human life. Basic Books

Trivers, R.L. (1974). “Parent-offspring conflict”. Am. Zool. 14: 249–264

Trivers, R.L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.),Sexual selection and the descent of man, 1871-1971 (pp. 136–179). Chicago, IL: Aldine

Trivers, R.L. (1971). “The evolution of reciprocal altruism”. Quarterly Review of Biology 46: 35–57

Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership

Malcom Gladwell polled Fortune’s top 500 companies for his 2005 book Blink, and found the average height of male CEOs was just under 6 ft, but the average American male is 5 ft 9 inches. Around 58% of these CEOs were 6 ft or taller, whereas 14.5% of men in the US population are this tall. Approximately 30% of these CEOs were 6 ft 2 inches or taller, compared with just 3.9% of American adult men.

Fully 94.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are male (Fairchild, 2015).

This is not just an American phenomenon, similar stats are revealed elsewhere. For example, 94.5% of the FTSE’s top 100 company CEOs are men (UK Government, 2011).

The same preferences are revealed in political leadership.

For example, height is a partial predictor of victory in US presidential campaigns. Since the beginning of the 20th century, nearly 70% of the presidential campaigns between the two major parties have been won by the taller candidate (Sun, 2016). Despite Hilary Clinton’s prospects, we are yet to see a female US president.

Also, overweight presidential candidates are extremely unlikely to be victorious. The last overweight US president was William Howard Taft, back in 1909.

Why do we overwhelming choose tall men as our leaders?

Traditional leadership theory cannot explain these seemingly irrelevant correlations with gender, height, weight and health. They are deemed spurious correlations, or social constructs.

Popular science books such as Gladwell’s Blink scratch the surface- it is our unconscious biases that explain our fondness of tall masculine leaders. However, these popular writings don’t identify the roots of our prejudice. One has to ask, why do we have these unconscious biases in the first place?

In Selected, Oxford University psychologist Mark van Vugt and Financial Times science writer Anjana Ahuja note that despite the trillions of words written on leadership, few have addressed the ‘why’ of leadership. “This gaping hole must be plugged if we are to truly understand the human instinct to lead and the accompanying instinct to follow.” (p. 17). To understand our leadership and followship psychology, van Vugt and Ahuja urge us to revisit our ancestral past- to head back to the African Savannah.

The Savannah Hypothesis

A convergence of evidence from fields such as anthropology and paleobiology has painted a picture of what life was like for our distant ancestors.

Before the advent of agriculture, food was scarce. The food that was obtained was either foraged or hunted- our ancestors were physically active. We were also prey- predators roamed the Savannah and posed a serious threat to life. Violence and warfare was unfathomably high compared to rates in modern society (see Pinker, 2011). People lived not in towns or in mega-cities, but in tight bands maxing 150, and rarely encountering outsiders (see Dunbar, 2011). The technologies and organisations of modern society did not exist- no hierarchy or formal recruitment processes to select the most competent leaders.

In the light of the environment our distant ancestors faced for 2 million years before the advent of agriculture, our preferences for tall, physically fit males as leaders makes a lot of sense. As stated by van Vugt and Ahuja (p. 164):

“For leadership activities requiring physical strength and stamina, such as group hunting and warfare, our ancestors would have wanted the physically fittest man for the job (in retrospect, a wise judgement, because you are a testament to their success). Height, weight and health would have pointed to fitness.”

Essentially, we’re continuing to select warriors as our leaders.

A running theme in Selected is that our leadership preferences are an example of a mismatch: traits selected for in our ancestral past that have shaped our psychology, which are misaligned with the demands of the modern world. A core argument is that these mismatches are implicated in leadership failure.

“Today, though, leadership is very rarely about foraging and fighting in 100- strong tribes of blood relatives; it’s about ruling nations of millions (a billion, in the case of China), running multinational corporations with thousands of employees, and rubbing along in a global village where people don’t look and behave the same way as you do. Is it any wonder that the leaders we choose today so often disappoint?” (p. 183).

What is so powerful about evolution is it’s theoretical parsimony. Evolutionary Leadership Theory reconciles a vast array of previously contradictory theories. As stated by van Vugt and Ahuja (p. 18):

From the simplicity of this evolutionary perspective, an astonishing array of disparate, bewildering findings on leadership fall into place. We crave in our leaders maturity in a time of uncertainty, and youth and vibrancy when we ourselves yearn for social change. We want leaders who conform to a certain physical stereotype- because they flick a subconcious switch in our brains that most of us probably don’t even know we have… We might be sophisticated animals in a primate hierarchy, but we, like every other animal we share this planet with, have taken a long, grinding evolutionary path to get here, and our minds are littered with psychological souvenirs of the journey.”

What motivates leaders?

Why would anyone want to become a leader, with all the responsibility and scrutiny entailed?

Van Vugt and Ahuja are blunt and argue it’s for the ‘three S’s’- salary, status and sex.

To elaborate, leaders accrue greater financial benefits, elevated social status from their position, and greater sexual opportunities (primarily for men- more on this later). The authors note the circular nature of the three S’s. “[T]he ultimate evolutionary aim is reproductive success, which must be achieved through sex, which means catching the eye of sexual partners, which means being a man of status. And how is this status signified today? Through salary. And so, thanks to evolutionary leadership theory, we have a thread linking money to power to sex.” (p. 16).

Power corrupts

Van Vugt and Ahuja note the sordid relationship between leadership and corruption.

Research demonstrates that not only does power induce people to have greater confidence in their abilities and their judgement, powerful people also find it difficult to empathise with others (see Robertson, 2012). The authors cite an innovative experiment: people primed to recall moments of power were asked to write the letter ‘E’ on their foreheads, for others to read it (Galinsky et al, 2006). The power-primed were three times more likely to write the E from their own perspectives (i.e. a reflected E to others… I assume the power-primed participants were not fellow dyslexics).  Beyond this, “[w]ith power comes the potential for abuse, a truism stamped all over human history.” (p. 137).

The circularity of the three S’s also helps explain the prevalence of ‘Dark Triad’ personalities holding societies’ top leadership positions: narcissism, psychopathy and machiavellianism (cf. Kashdan & Biswas-Diener, 2014). Power is probably irresistible to those with pro-self personalities, because it provides opportunities for personal gain. “Let’s not beat around the bush- these guys are bastards. Worst of all, there is plenty of evidence that, in evolutionary terms, it sometimes pays to be a bastard.” (p. 138).

The male drive to compete

Arguably it is not gender per se which leads to the glass ceiling for women, but the overwhelming male impetus to compete. “Status is a major factor in the gender debate: evolution has selected men to be more ambitious and status-obsessed than women because, for them, these behaviours translated into ancestral reproductive success.” (p. 206).

Throughout history and across cultures, women desire high status men with good financial prospects as long term partners (see Buss, 2008). Due to the higher costs of reproduction, women choose resourceful men who can provide for their babies.This ultimately explains why men are so hungry for success.

This is also why the perks of leadership- salary, status, and sex- militate against female leadership. Higher status and wealth doesn’t translate into reproductive success in quite the same way as it does for men. As stated by van Vugt and Ahuja; “These evolved differences in the way men and women view status- men care about it much more than women do- might be responsible for strengthening the already robust bias towards male leaders.” (p. 176).

Van Vugt and Ahuja note that business women are susceptible to fertility problems, presumably from career related stress. However, one can hypothesize that fertility problems are due to professional women delaying their first pregnancy. Additionally, pregnancy and child-rearing arguably place restraints on womens’ career aspirations. To what extent does this contribute to the glass ceiling? Unfortunately the authors don’t adequately address this.

Van Vugt and Ahuja note that women on average have superior verbal and interpersonal skills, and are more empathic than men: highly valuable abilities in international business and politics. However, subsequent research demonstrates that women succeed in other stereotypically masculine domains, such as investing. For example, a recent study illustrates that women make superior traders on average- women are less likely to over-trade, and they are less inclined to take big risks which can lead to catastrophic failures (Bose et al, 2016).

The authors cite a study by Leeds University Business School, showing that equal gender representation on company boards makes a healthier balance sheet. Just adding one female director on a company board appears to cut a company’s chances of going bust by 20%, and that having two or three female directors lowered the chances of bankruptcy even further (see Ahuja, 2010; UK Government, 2011).

Reviewing the literature of neuropsychology, one can conjecture that women are less susceptible to the corrosive effects of power (see Robertson, 2012).

What can we do about this?

Becoming aware of our cognitive biases throughout the hiring process is a start, but arguably not enough.

The research cited above is instructive: increase the representation of women on company boards, ideally to 50:50.

As opposed to the standard prescription of ensuring equal pay to women, van Vugt and Ahuja have a counter-intuitive suggestion: stop paying leaders so much money.

“It is also pertinent to rethink those astronomical pay packages; not only do sky-high salaries perpetuate gross inequality in companies and foster ill-will on the shop floor, they attract mainly men. Since rewards and privileges signal status, which increases a man’s sexual allure, men are drawn to well paid positions like bees to a honeypot. And many of these men, who regard the post as a way to further their own needs rather than those of the company or group, will be anything but a sweet deal for the company, especially if they turn out to be Dark Triad leaders.” (p. 207).

Difficult to implement? Perhaps.

Not only do firms have to compete with market rates, the authors note that followers also want their leaders to be compensated well- it’s a sign of their company’s strength. However, one must appreciate that despite growing income inequality, we are primarily an egalitarian primate. Van Vugt and Ahuja contend that CEO compensation packages are inherently unsustainable and require correction.

“Our take on over-inflated CEO rewards? Someone has to blink first.” (p. 208).


Written by Max Beilby

You can buy a copy of Naturally Selected  here.

*Post updated 18th April 2016

 

References:

Ahuja, A. (2010) Women in the boardroom help companies succeed, The Times. Available here

Bose, S., Ladley, D., & Li, X. (2016). The Role of Hormones in Financial Markets. Available at SSRN 2743087.

Buss, D. M. (2008). The Evolution of Desire-Revised Edition. Basic Books

Dunbar, R. (2010). How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar’s number and other evolutionary quirks. Faber & Faber.

The Economist (2014) The look of a leader: Getting to the top is as much to do with how you look as what you achieve. Available here

Fairchild, C. (2015) Why so few women are CEOs (in 5 charts), Fortune Magazine. Available here

Galinsky, A. D., Magee, J. C., Inesi, M. E., & Gruenfeld, D. H. (2006). Power and perspectives not taken. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1068-1074

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. Back Bay Books

Kashdan, T. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–not Just Your” good” Self–drives Success and Fulfillment. Penguin

Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: The decline of violence in history and its causes. Penguin UK

Robertson, I. (2012). The Winner Effect: How power affects your brain. A&C Black

Sun, L. (2016) When Democracy Meets the Ghost of Evolution: Why Short Presidents Have Vanished, This View of Life Magazine. Available here

UK Government (2011) Women on Boards: Lord Davies Report. Available here

 

Cooperate To Compete: An Overview of ‘Ultrasociety’, by Peter Turchin

How did we evolve from small-scale societies of foragers and hunter-gathers into large-scale industrial societies, in an evolutionary blip of 10,000 years?

In Ultrasociety, historian Peter Turchin advances a scientific approach to history to identify the causal mechanisms that enabled large-scale society- a strand of research Turchin calls Cliodynamics. Through quantitative analysis and modelling, Turchin is able to verify and discard various theories of how large-scale societies evolved.

The standard explanation of how large-scale societies evolved from small-scale egalitarian tribes is the advent of agriculture- as proposed by Jared Diamond (1998) in Guns, Germs and Steel. The premise is that agriculture created high population densities as well as production surpluses that enabled hierarchy. “On this premise, agriculture got the ball rolling and the entire history of civilisation followed from that.” (p. 20).

However, Turchin argues that this theory is incomplete. Although agriculture was a prerequisite for large-scale society, it is not a sufficient explanation. For example, why would agriculture necessarily lead to the rise of states and costly institutions being implemented, such as bureaucracy, the rule of law, and organized religion? Additionally, agriculture had a markedly negative impact on human health due to agricultural produce providing poorer nutritional value, resulting in smaller stature, more illness and the spread of pathogens through high density settlements… How did agricultural societies  succeed against small-scale hunter-gatherers despite these costs?

Turchin argues that, paradoxically, the main driver of large-scale society has been war. “It is competition and conflict between human groups that drove the transformation of small bands of hunter-gatherers into huge nation-states. Not to put too fine a point on it, it was war that first created despotic, archaic states and then destroyed them, replacing them with better, more equal societies… War is a force of destructive creation, a terrible means to a remarkable end.” (p. 22).

The following passage explains the evolutionary logic (pp. 38-39, emphasis added):

“When people first started cultivating plants and settled in permanent villages, war between tribes became more intense. Defeat now could easily result in a loss of land for growing crops, which meant starvation… Because of the consequences of losing were so grave, societies came under great evolutionary pressure to get better at surviving at war. This meant inventing better weapons and armor, building up social cohesion, and adopting better battlefield tactic. But the best thing you could do was simply become a larger group, so that you could bring more battalions to the fight.

This inexorable evolutionary logic forced villages to combine into larger-scale societies. These combinations could take the form of loose alliances, more cohesive federations, or centralized, hierarchical chiefdoms… The same evolutionary logic induced chiefdoms to combine in yet larger-scale societies- complex “chiefdoms of chiefdoms”. Those, in turn, scaled up into early states and empires, and eventually into modern nation-states. At every step, greater size was an advantage in the military competition against other societies.”

One must appreciate that although wars between empires and nation states dwarfs inter-tribal conflicts in scale, the proportion of people engaged and directly affected by warfare has declined remarkably. “There is no contradiction between larger armies and larger butcher’s bills from warfare, on the one hand, and on the other, a greater part of the population enjoying peace.” (p. 41, cf. Pinker, 2011).

Cultural Multilevel Selection

The evolutionary theory advanced by Turchin to explain why we humans are the world’s champion cooperators is cultural multilevel selection

Multilevel selection (also known as group selection) is a theory in evolutionary biology proposing that natural selection acts at the level of the group, instead of at the more conventional level of the individual. There is some controversy over group selection. However, the ‘game-changer’ is applying multilevel selection to cultural evolutionas opposed to genetic evolution. As stated by Turchin; “[…][T]he most important point is that the evolution of cooperation is driven by competition between groups.  These groups can be teams, coalitions, even aggregations without any clear boundaries, or whole societies. No matter what form groups take, it is competition on the collective scale that is necessary for cooperation to evolve. We cooperate to compete.” (p. 93).

A troubling implication of cultural group selection is that in the absence of an external threat, the level of selection moves to within the group, causing cooperation to erode and inequality to rise. The spirit of ‘we are all in the same boat’ disappears and is replaced by a ‘winner takes all’ mentality, resulting in growing social dysfunction and in extreme cases, societal collapse. As stated by the historian Arnold Toynbee, ‘great civilisations are not murdered- they die by suicide’ (quoted pp. 42-43).

A thought provoking analysis of American politics is provided in Ultrasociety, arguing that rising income inequality and political polarisation since the 1970s indicates that the US has become a dysfunctional state (bear in mind Ulitrasociety was written before the rise of Donald Trump). Similarly, Turchin also links the rise of extreme individualism in the US and elsewhere to the increase in corporate scandals during the early 2000s, and to “the greatest case of corporate hubris and fraud- the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08.” (p. 51).

Let’s explore a case study provided in Ultrasociety to further our understanding: the Enron scandal.

The Enron Scandal

Jeff Skilling was widely regarded as a business genius. An executive at Enron who worked closely with Skilling called him “the smartest son of bitch I’ve ever met.” (Bryce, 2002, p. 47, cited p. 45). Skilling obtained an MBA from Harvard, graduating in the top five percent of his class. He went on to become a management consultant at McKinsey, becoming one of the youngest partners in the firm’s history. He joined Enron in 1990 and was promoted to president and Chief Financial Officer in 1997, becoming CEO in 2001.

Smart Skilling may be. However, Skilling held a warped view of evolutionary theory, which Turchin suggests sowed the seeds of disaster.

The story of the Enron scandal is well known. Enron went under in 2001, with its shareholders losing tens of billions of dollars and 20,000 employees not only losing their jobs but their entire life savings. Its top executives ended up in prison, where Skilling is still serving his sentence.

 

 

Although other Enron executives bear responsibility for Enron’s failure, Skilling was widely seen as the company’s visionary. Turchin argues that the managerial system Skilling created turned Enron into an “an epic of corporate greed, fraud, and corruption.” (p. 46).

Jeff Skilling famously claimed that Richard Dawkins’ (1976) The Selfish Gene was his favourite book (see Conniff, 2006). Although Turchin argues that The Selfish Gene was flawed and caused significant harm, Dawkins’ classic work has arguably been widely misinterpreted (for example, selfish genes don’t necessarily make selfish people).

Skilling took his variant of Social Darwinism and applied it to increase competition within Enron, enacting systems such as the Performance Review Committee- colloquially known  as ‘Rank-and-Yank’. Skilling recruited hundreds of newly minted MBAs from the leading business schools every year, and fired the bottom fifteen percent of performers whilst lavishly rewarding the top five percent of performers.

Skilling told reporters that the PRC was ‘the glue that holds the company together’. “Skilling couldn’t have been more wrong. The PRC wasn’t glue. It was poison.” (p. 46).

As one former employee said; “If I’m going to my boss’s office to talk about compensation, and if I step on some guy’s throat and that doubles it, then I’ll stamp on the guy’s throat.” (Johnson, 2009, quoted p. 46).

Turchin summarises the Enron scandal eloquently (p. 47):

“It is cooperation that underlies the ability of human groups and whole societies to achieve their shared goals. This is true for all kinds of groups, for economic organizations, firms and corporations, as well as for political organisations, such as states. But what Skilling did at Enron was to foster within-group competition, which bred mutual distrust and back-stabbing (if not throat-stomping). In other words, Skilling completely destroyed any willingness among his employees to cooperate- not with each other, not with their bosses, not with the company itself. And after that, collapse was inevitable.”

What is the relevance to your business?

With the benefit of hindsight, corporate scandals at notorious firms may seem obvious. However, the Enron scandal took the world by surprise. Fortune Magazine named Enron ‘America’s Most Innovative Company’ for six years in a row. Enron is not an isolated case. For example, Lehman Brothers was ranked #1 ‘Most Inspired Securities Firm’ in 2007–less than a year before its collapse. With the prevalence of corporate management systems encouraging intra-organizational competition, one must ask where the next corporate scandal will arise. As stated by Turchin; “It looks like Fortune doesn’t learn from its mistakes” (p. 51).

The business implications of all this should be clear: enact business policies that reduce inequality, foster an organizational culture that promotes cooperation, and suppress internal competition. As stated by Turchin (p. 93):

“As a corollary, while competition between teams create cooperation, competition among players within a team destroys it. In other words, to succeed, cooperative groups must suppress internal competition. Equality of group members is, therefore, a very important factor in promoting group cohesion and cooperation, which translates into the capacity of the group to win against other groups. This insight… should be intuitively obvious. Yet it is not. At least, it is not obvious to the majority of corporate managers, nor the owners of professional sports teams.”

I’ll wrap up this post with a couple of my own suggestions which are worth exploring–with varying degrees of appropriateness depending on the nature of your business:

1. Reduce the discrepancy in employees’ basic pay, and increase compensation from bonuses linked to company (or team) performance.

2. During difficult times, it’s wise to appreciate the adverse impact of mass redundancies have on group cohesion and consider alternative paths of action, such as organization-wide pay-cuts. Employees may be prepared to accept change if the alternative is job losses.

2. Democratise team meetings so that all members are able to have their voices heard, and enable bottom-up communication processes that feed directly to senior leaders.

3. Also, make sure your leaders are visible and approachable. Make a priority what Nigel Nicholson calls ‘Managing By Wandering Around’ (see Nicholson, 2014). If you’re a leader, take the time to walk around and speak with employees in various contexts, and make them feel “we’re all in this together”. Don’t segregate yourself.

4. Similarly, make sure the amount of physical space allocated to senior management within the company is equitable and doesn’t trigger indignation (in other words, that your offices don’t resemble Enron’s headquarters).

Written by Max Beilby

To buy a copy of Ultrasociety, click here

*This post was updated 3rd April 2016

References

Bryce, R. (2002) Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of EnronPublic Affairs, New York

Conniff, R. (2006) “Animal Instincts”, The Guardian. Available here

Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press

Diamond, J. M. (1998). Guns, Germs, and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. Random House

Johnson, E.M. (2009) “Survival of the Kindest”, Seed Magazine. Available here 

Pinker, S. (2012) “The false allure of group selection”, Edge. Available here

Pinker, S. (2011) The Better Angels of Our Nature: A history of violence and humanity. Penguin

Nicholson, N. (2014) The ‘I’ of LeadershipJoey-Bass

 

Collective Brains: An Overview of Joseph Henrich’s ‘The Secret of Our Success’

How have we humans become the Earth’s dominant species- through our innate intelligence and our superior mental abilities?

Not so, says Harvard’s Joe Henrich in The Secret of Our Success.

Surprisingly, primates such as chimpanzees actually eclipse humans in many forms of fluid intelligence, including working memory and information processing speed. Primates also perform better in various behavioural game theory experiments (strategic economic games). Additionally, despite the complexities of modern society and the multitude of skills we are able to acquire, we  modern humans are  virtually helpless as lone individuals, and unable to master the most basic of survival skills in the wild.

Exhibit A:

 

So what is the source of our ecological dominance?

Henrich presents a convincing thesis that it is our hyper sociality – that is, our social learning capabilities and our ability to acquire culturally accumulated know-how. Through an examination of lost European explorers, hunter-gatherers and small scale societies, Henrich demonstrates that cumulative cultural evolution– the accumulating body of information and its cultural products (covering all domains of life, such as social norms, food processing and hunting, tool manufacture to mate choice), is the driver of our success.

A great illustration of how social learning is our species’ greatest strength is provided by Esther Herrmann et al (2009). The researchers compared performance on a range of cognitive tests on a sample of 106 chimpanzees, 105 two year old children, and 32 orangutans—using 15 cognitive tasks that posed problems about the physical or social world.

IMG_2187.JPG

The chart above (p. 15) makes clear the discrepancy in social learning abilities. Henrich explains that we humans are prolific, spontaneous and automatic imitators, where we use cues such as success and prestige to figure out whom to learn from. Conversely, we also copy wasteful or inefficient practices if these steps are performed by high status individuals.

Cumulative cultural evolution manifests into a ‘collective brain’- what Henrich argues is a type of super-organism. The power of these collective brains depends on in part on the size of the group of individuals engaged and on their social interconnectedness. “It’s our collective brains operating over generations, and not the innate inventive power or creative abilities of individual brains, that explain our species’ fancy technologies and massive ecological success.” (p. 212). Henrich clarifies that this process is not linear, and how cultural know-how can be lost if the size of the group and their interconnectedness declines. This phenomenon is dubbed the Tasmanian Effect (reflecting how the aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania lost their cultural know-how from isolation as the Bass Strait flooded and transformed Tasmania into an island 12,000 years ago).

A core argument in the Secret of Our Success is that cultural evolution is a type of biological evolution. As Henrich states: “[c]ultural differences are biological differences, but not genetic differences. Human biology, including our brains, involve much more than genes… Recent evidence clearly shows how culture can shape biology by altering our brain architecture, modelling our bodies, and shifting our hormones. Cultural evolution is a type of biological evolution; it’s just not a type of genetic evolution.” (p. 263).

A great example of cultural differences being biological is the ‘culture of honour’ that remains in southern states of America. Henrich cites the work of Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen (1996), showing that young American men from southern states react more aggressively when challenged (being bumped into and called an ‘asshole’ in a narrow hallway. How would you react?), with greater spikes in cortisol and testosterone as compared to their Northern counterparts. Nisbett and Cohen’s innovative research illustrates that their aggressive response is because these southerners have inherited a culture of honour from their Irish and Scottish ancestors, where one has to defend their manhood upon provocation. This package of social norms is adaptive and evolved in a world of weak formal institutions- it’s a biological difference, but not a genetic difference (their Irish and Scottish ancestors have since lost their culture of honour).

Henrich argues that cumulative cultural evolution is now the central force of human evolution, and has been for hundreds of thousands of years . One of the classic examples of culture-gene co-evolution provided includes the prevalence of lactose tolerance.With the advent of agriculture and domesticated cattle, genes which permitted the intake of cow’s milk proliferated in Europe, which in turn furthered the uptake of domesticated cattle and milk consumption, creating a feedback loop.

The Secret of Our Success is a tour-de-force and a significant advancement of social science, adding nuance to evolutionary theory whilst challenging both constructivism and traditional evolutionary approaches . Instead of culture being something which contradicts evolutionary science, culture itself can be analysed and modelled as an evolutionary process accordingly. Simultaneously, Henrich challenges the ‘old’ evolutionary approaches, such as Massive Modularity Theory, which only pay lip service to the importance of culture in explaining human behaviour. “My point is that trying to understand the evolution of human anatomy, physiology, and and psychology without considering culture-gene co-evolution would be like studying the evolution of fish while ignoring the fact that fish live, and evolved, underwater.” (p. 317).

The following passage hammers the point home:

We saw big brained explorers repeatedly flounder in environments ranging from the Arctic to the Australian outback. As our heroes sought to confront the recurrent challenges faced by our paleolithic ancestors, like finding food and water, they struggled. No foraging modules fired up and no fire-making instincts kicked in. Mostly, they just fell ill and died as a result of blunders that any local, indigenous adolescent equipped with cultural know-how inherited from earlier generations could easily have avoided. It’s not merely that people in modern society need culture to survive. Hunter-gatherers, as well as other small-scale societies studied by anthropologists, are massively dependent on large scale bodies of cultural know-how, relating to tracking, food processing, hunting and tool manufacture. This expertise is often complex, well-adapted to local challenges, and not casually well understood by most pratitioners… All human societies, whether they live as hunter-gatherers or not, are entirely dependent on culture.(p. 318, emphasis added).

One is left wishing that Henrich discussed further the implications of cumulative cultural evolution for our future. As Henrich states; “[h]aving crossed the Rubicon, we can’t go back” (p. 217).  Cumulative cultural evolution helps explain how our ancestors spread across the globe despite our physical and mental limitations, and how we have become an ecological force. However, what are the implications for the challenges and opportunities humanity faces, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, nuclear proliferation, advances in artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering of the human genome? Are we not at risk of ‘scoring a lethal own goal’, as Stephen Hawkings put it? It would be interesting to hear Henrich’s thoughts on these issues.

Can this help us build stuff?

Henrich concludes The Secret of Our Success by discussing the implications of cultural evolution for designing new organizations,  institutions and policies (pp. 330-331). I’ve listed these points verbatim below:

  1. Humans are adaptive cultural learners who acquire ideas, beliefs, values, norms, motivations, and worldviews from others in their communities. To focus our learning, we use cues of prestige, success, sex, dialect and ethnicity, among others, and especially attend to particular domains, such as those involving food, sex, danger, and norm violations. We do this especially under uncertainty, time pressure, and stress.
  2. However, we aren’t suckers. To adopt costly practices or nonintuitive beliefs, such as eating strange food or believing in life after death, we demand Credibility Enhancing Displays (CREDs). Our role models must endure costs, such as extreme pain or big financial hits, that demonstrate their deep commitment to their expressed beliefs or practices.
  3. Humans are status seekers and are strongly influenced by prestige. But what’s highly flexible is which behaviours or actions lead to high prestige. People will grant others great prestige for being fierce warriors or nuns.
  4. The social norms we acquire often come with internalized motivations and ways of seeing the world. People’s preferences and motivations are not fixed, and a well-designed programme or policy can change what people find desirable, automatic, and intuitive.
  5. Social norms are especially strong and enduring when they hook into our innate psychology. For example, social norms for fairness towards foreigners will be much harder to spread and sustain than those that demand mothers care for their children.
  6. Innovation depends on the expansion of our collective brains, which themselves depend on the ability of social norms, institutions, and the psychologies they create to encourage people to freely generate, share, and recombine novel ideas, beliefs, insights, and practices.
  7. Different societies possess quite different social norms, institutions, languages, and technologies, and consequently they possess different ways of reasoning, mental heuristics, motivations, and emotional reactions. The imposition of new formal institutions, imported from elsewhere, on populations often create mismatches. The result is that such imposed formal institutions will work rather differently, and perhaps not at all.
  8. Humans are bad at intentionally designing effective institutions and organizations. We should take a page from cultural evolution’s playbook and design “variation and selection systems” that allow alternative institutions or organizational forms to compete. We can dump the losers, keep the winners, and hopefully gain some general insights during the process.

Written by Max Beilby

To learn more about The Secret of Our Success or to buy a copy, click here.

*Post updated 1st April 2016

 

References:

Herrmann, E., Hernández‐Lloreda, M. V., Call, J., Hare, B., & Tomasello, M. (2009). The structure of individual differences in the cognitive abilities of children and chimpanzees. Psychological Science.

Inoue, S., & Matsuzawa, T. (2007). Working memory of numerals in chimpanzees. Current Biology, 17(23), R1004-R1005

Nisbett, R. E., & Cohen, D. (1996). Culture of Honor: the psychology of violence in the south. Westview Press