Cultural Evolution

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

Turchin, P. (2016) Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Beresta Books

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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’

Henrich, J. (2015). The Secret of our Success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton University Press

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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 (see Inoue & Matsuzawa, 2007):

 

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