David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary biologist and the author of Atlas Hugged.
JOE WALKER: David Sloan Wilson, welcome back to the show.
DAVID SLOAN WILSON: Thank you very much, Jolly Swagman.
WALKER: It’s great to see you again after our blockbuster episode, which was very popular despite being so academic. I think we covered a lot of ground. Today, at the end of 2020, we’re going to talk about several things. We’re going to touch on multi-level selection again, but we’re also going to talk about your new book, Atlas Hugged, which, as people might be able to tell from the title, is your own update of Ayn Rand’s famous 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged. And Dave, before we start talking about your book specifically, maybe we can begin with Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. So, tell me what you learned about Rand herself through this process of researching and writing your book.
WILSON: Well, I sense that Ayn Rand is a little bit lesser known overseas than in America, but in America, and probably also in England, she is iconic as the person who provided a moral foundation for the greed is good, neoliberal ideology that America stands for. There are important people, such as Alan Greenspan, the head of the Federal Reserve, who was her disciple, frankly, her disciple. And one thing that he said about her was, “Before Ayn Rand, I thought the free market was good, but afterwards I thought of it as right.” And we have story after story about American politicians, most recently Paul Ryan, who would assign Atlas Shrugged to his staff as a kind of an indoctrination. Ayn Rand herself said that art is the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal.
What she did was built or kind of a secular religion around the individual, sanctifying the individual, the individual as their own God. This was written in the 1950s. So, It’s credited with a lot of influence. So you could even say that she’s had as great or greater an influence as famous economist such as Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek. At the same time, I’m always careful to point out that if Ayn Rand never existed, probably that tradition of individualism would be just the same, just as strong. She was a vehicle for it, but was by no means, I don’t think, an essential element of it. That’s a tradition that has to have its own social science or social history explanation.
And then the final thing I’ll say is that it illustrates the power of fiction. Why? What is it about a story, even a very lengthy, as you’ve discovered by trying to read her novel, stories, such as that, what is it that’s different and in some ways more powerful and more compelling than the real world? A fictional world is more compelling than a real world. All of these things provided a great starting point for my own first foray into fiction. Although, my dad is as a famous novelist, so I kind of come by it easily. But this is my first novel.
WALKER: What were Rand’s intellectual influences?
WILSON: Well, this is an important question to ask, so thank you for that, because she really must be understood in the context of her times. She was born in Russia, experienced the worst of Russian communism and socialism. I believe her family had all of its property confiscated. So, this gave her a zeal for free enterprise that we can understand. You got to get back to the 1950s. That was the Cold War. That was when the communist madness was spreading worldwide, all of that sort of stuff. So, you can understand her as a product of her times, and yet also when you just proceed with history and you look at her against the background of the current times, then you see that although socialism failed in communist Russia, in fact, socialism has failed wherever it’s been tried by name.
This is a very important point to make. In my scientific work and my non-fiction writing, I have essays with people like Jeff Hobson that really documents that the two problems with socialism that has been tried in this kind of full-throated way, is number one, centralized planning, that’s a disaster, always was always, will be. And number two, the concentration of power into the hands of two elites. If you have concentration of power and centralized planning, that’ll never, ever work. So, that needs to be said. At the same time, if you look at unfettered capitalism, which is what Ayn Rand stood for, that also doesn’t work. Just a different set of evils.
That’s where we are today. We don’t have the threat of socialism today, really. When people talk about socialism in the first place, they don’t know what they mean, or in the second place, they might be talking about something which is much more benign and effective, such as social democracy of the Nordic countries and so on and so forth. So, finding the right style of governance is very important, and it’s important in the novel in addition to the real world. But Ayn Rand definitely, definitely needs to be understood against the backgrounds of the world and America in the 1950s, the middle of the 20th century.
WALKER: Just unpack why central planning doesn’t actually work on the one hand, and why laissez faire doesn’t work either.
WILSON: Well, I have a whole series of essays, not essays, conversations, print and podcast conversations on my website, This View of Life, titled ‘Evolution, Complexity, and the Third Way of Entrepreneurship’. So there, in a very extensive way, I really hope some of your listeners cross over and just type in that title, ‘Evolution, Complexity, and the Third Way of Entrepreneurship’, and you’ll get a very comprehensive answer to that question. But the short version is, is that laissez faire doesn’t work because it’s just not true that everyone pursuing their own interests benefits the common good. That’s the first thing you need to know about multi-level selection. Selfishness is typically disruptive.
The invisible hand metaphor is profoundly untrue except in a very different form that we can talk about. Next thing is, is that socialism doesn’t work, centralized planning doesn’t work, just because the world is too complex. The world is too complex to be comprehended by any group of experts, period. That’s not only true at the national scale. It’s true at any scale. It’s true for your own life. It’s true for a small business. We just don’t know enough, even those of us that are trained as scientists and stuff like that, to actually avoid unforeseen consequences. Therefore, what is required, and that’s the third way, is a managed process of cultural evolution. We must have a target of selection. It must be systemic. We must orient variation around the target, and we must replicate best practices, realizing that they’re sensitive to context. That’s the thesis.
I explore that thesis with about a dozen authorities on any kind of social change that you can imagine, national governance, development efforts, entrepreneurship as we typically think of it, urban planning, the Smart Cities movement, you name it. If you’re trying to accomplish positive change, you cannot use laissez faire, you can not use centralized planning. You must employ a managed process of cultural evolution, and because that’s the only thing that can work, it’s the only thing that ever has. If you review examples of positive cultural change in the past or present, then what you find is, is that a convergence on the third way, a pragmatic, experimental approach to positive change. I really had a great time fleshing out that thesis with these great authorities and making that available both in the form of long print conversation and then more accessible podcasts.
WALKER: I feel like apart from the obviously egregious historical examples of central planning and laissez faire, that today they don’t really happen in practice in Western societies, and there’s sort of a long continuum in between them. And we kind of walk along that continuum between changes of government and political parties. But where would you precisely locate your third way on that continuum?
WILSON: Well, the best current examples are the famous Nordic countries, it’s sometimes called the Nordic model of governance, which is very much a blend. It could be understood in evolutionary terms as similar to the social dynamics of a smaller group. In a smaller group, when it works well, when they work well, and they often they don’t, but when they do, it’s because first and foremost, there’s an equal balance of power. Everyone has a say and insists on having a say. That creates a kind of an egalitarianism that in the first place makes use of everyone’s contributions, but also prevents being taken advantage of, because the great danger of social life at all scales has to be taken advantage of. Whenever there’s a big power imbalance, then you know it’s going to happen. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
And so social control and the balance of power, and then members of the group working in a collaborative spirit, so now that you can’t push me around, I guess the only thing left is for us to do something together. What the Nordic countries have done is they’ve scaled that up so that that’s what operates on a national scale. Labor is strong, capital is strong. These are capitalist societies. Government is strong, and they all work collaboratively for the good of Norway or for the good of Denmark or Sweden or Finland. Really, what they’ve done is they’ve scaled it up. If you look at them historically, you find actually that’s quite accurate. When you look at them as a century or several centuries ago, you find in part because they were in then North, climatically they were challenging, it basically required cooperation at a smaller scale. So, it was kind of baked into the culture more so than some entrepreneurial cultures. But there’s your happy medium that you were talking about.
We’ve got a good model, perfectly good model. Often, when people talk about the Nordic model, especially in America, it gets dismissed as, “Oh, we couldn’t possibly be like Norway. They’re this or they’re that. They’re culturally homogenous and all of that.” But, no, actually, they’re a fine model. We could say more about actually America during its own history has fluctuated between being more and less egalitarian and democratic, and was even influenced by the Nordic model during its own history. FDR was influenced by a book called Sweden: The Middle Way, and on and on. But, yeah, you’re right that pure forms of socialism and laissez faire capitalism don’t exist.
But another point to make, Joe, is that it’s not just a matter of splitting it down the middle. The Third Way, a managed process of cultural evolution, is not some kind of compromise. It’s actually quite a complicated process. Those three ingredients forming a target of selection, orienting variation around the target, replicating best practices. That’s a whole complex process that needs to be orchestrated. It’s not just something in between socialism and capitalism. It’s really different. That’s an important point to make.
On Ayn Rand’s Outsized Influence
WALKER: I’ll link to the conversations that you mentioned. And I also recommend Dave’s previous book, This View of Life, for an elucidation of The Third Way, and also the problems with central planning and laissez faire. Dave, was Ayn Rand a happy person?
WILSON: I don’t know. She was the center of a cult that made her happy, maybe. I mean, to say a little bit more about her and her movement, and also the philosophy that she formed, which she called Objectivism. She regarded herself as a kind of a high brow intellectual philosopher, and her philosophy was called Objectivism. It basically was, I mean, a version of humanism. Really, it romanticized the individual thinker and the ability to make decisions on the basis of rational thought. So, the idea that you can just kind of check your premises and decide the best thing to do, and then once you knew what that was, then you could just push that to the limit, even against opposition, knowing that it would work out well for everyone was her philosophy of objectivism in a nutshell. The sanctity of the individual is how I put it in Atlas Hugged.
And so she became a celebrity, both as a novelist and as a philosopher. A movement formed around her, but that movement became really a cult surrounding her and a kind of a parody of what really people checking their premises might ever be. And that story is told by two people. One is by Nathaniel Brandon, who was a young man who entered her movement and became a disciple and also her lover. So she had an affair, she was married, but she had an affair with a much younger man, a member of her movement. He was also married, and so there was a kind of a scandalous sexual story there. And then later on, he wrote a sort of an expose of the movement called Judgment Day.
But then Michael Shermer of Skeptic fame, in one of his books, Why People Believe in Weird Things, there’s a whole chapter on Ayn Rand in which he himself gives a biography of her and shows just how much this became a cult that revolved around her, very quixotic, basically whatever she said went. People were either in her favor or not. So, it became really a grotesque parody of what it seemed to stand for. The movement appealed to two very different kinds of people. One were powerful people who liked to be told that their intentions for themselves are morally pure, and the second was young and idealistic people who were at the dawn of their adult lives, and then that heroic portrayal of the individual operating against convention was very appealing. Nathaniel Brandon as a Midwest teenager who was just kind of chafing against his provincial little social environment was captivated by Ayn Rand, and for a period, it seemed to just be so enthralling to be a part of this great movement.
WALKER: So, it’s a long book, Atlas Shrugged, and the writing isn’t particularly brilliant, yet it’s sold over 7 million… well, in my opinion, at least, some people might disagree with me, but it sold over 7 million copies since it was first published. What is it in the writing that is so mimetic?
WILSON: Well, there, let’s make a few points. The book was widely criticized by anyone with any kind of literary critic judged objectively. You might say that she is a good veteran in places, but horribly turgid, lengthy, wooden characterizations, outlandish plot. So, not a good piece of literature by those standards. You can place it alongside another book, which I do in the prologue, of Walden Two, by B.F Skinner. So this is another novel of the future, based on science, that had a huge influence and was very poorly written as a story. The storytelling left a lot to be desired. While we’re at it, let’s add some other sacred texts, such as The Book of Mormon, which Mark Twain called, “Chloroform in print.”
There’s something about sacred books and novels that are conveying a moral worldview that become influential despite their flaws on the storytelling end of things. I think this tells us a lot about the whole nature of fiction, stories, storytelling, from an evolutionary perspective, that what stories do is that they do contain a moral worldview so that if you become captured by the world view, then you will forgive flaws in the story because the story is representing what should be right and what should be wrong for you. And that’s what you incorporate, internalize, and love, basically, even if the story itself was quite clunky. And I had the real privilege … you have to know, Joe, that even though I’m an experienced writer of nonfiction and all of that, just like any first time novelist, I was very uncertain as to whether it was a good book, who would like it and stuff like that.
And one of the first people to read it was my colleague, Brian Boyd, who’s over there in New Zealand. He’s a very celebrated literary scholar. He’s actually the world authority on Vladimir Nabokov, and he just won the Rutherford Prize, which is New Zealand’s highest honor for an academic. He’s one of the few literary scholars who actually thinks about literature from an evolutionary perspective. He has a book called The Origin of Stories, and so why is it that we’re a storytelling animal in just about everything that we do? He found the time to read Atlas Hugged and loved it. We have a podcast on it that’s coming out on my podcast, This View of Life, which was tremendously gratifying, but it enabled us to explore these themes of what is it about a story that is so much more compelling?
Why is it that we might race through a novel, when in fact we have to slog through an academic piece of work or a piece of philosophy? So, these are all fun things to think about in addition to the world view represented by my book. But I’m very happy that I’m beginning to become confident that as far as the storytelling is going, I have surpassed both Ayn Rand and B.F Skinner. Maybe that was a low bar, but I’m glad to have hopped over it.
WALKER: I think you might’ve leaped over it. But, Dave, I remember in 2012, you wrote an article where you compared Ayn Rand with religious texts, and you found that something striking that they had in common was that the language about morality in both was simplified to the point where there are only two choices: to head towards glory and away from ruin, or to head towards ruin and away from glory, and there was no sense of trade-offs. Talk a little bit about that.
WILSON: Yeah. I mentioned that also briefly in the epilogue of about Atlas Hugged. The epilogue is titled ‘The Science Behind Atlas Hugged’, which connects some of these dots. But of the numerous themes of the novel, and also, of course, what I study as a scientist, are, of course, the nature of religion versus science, the whole concept of a meaning system. The difference between a theory and a meaning system is that a theory only tells you what it is, but a meaning system informs what you do., so those are very different objectives. Whether a meaning system can be secular in addition to religious, the importance of truth-telling, all of these things. But insofar as a meaning system informs what you do, basically, if you get captured by a meaning system, then you wake up every morning brimming with purpose and you know the righteous path, you know that you should do this and you shouldn’t do that.
And some of the simpler ways to accomplish that is to actually create a stylized universe, as I put it, that’s actually linear that way. In the stylized universe, this is not true of the real world, and the real world is just full of messy trade-offs, and so, if you imagine some kind of two-by-two quadrant in whichever way you behave, it might be either good or bad for you and good or bad for others, so there’s your two-by-two quadrant, in the real world, all the quadrants are full. I mean, when I behave towards you, it might be good for both of us, bad for both of us, good for me, bad for you, good for you, bad for me, those are all four quadrants. Welcome to the real world.
In a stylized universe, often only two quadrants are represented. The universe is portrayed as if everything that you might do is going to be either good for me and you or bad for me and you, in which case, what you’ve done is you’ve eliminated the need for any decision-making whatsoever, because within that world, the path to glory has been laid out for you. The signature of a meaning system like that is perfectly easy to measure and detect. You simply have to read or to basically listen or read to what’s being said, and just put things in those four quadrants and you see only two quadrants become filled. There is a sure signature of an adaptive fiction, basically. It might work well as in the meaning system, but it does not correspond to the real world. You can tell, because if it did, all four quadrants would be filled.
So, it turns out that when you go through that for a religious worldview, then you find that, you find that linear model. But so also with Ayn Rand. And so, there’s your point. The point is is that these stylized universes, which hugely depart from factual reality, might be either religious, in other words, invoke supernatural agents, or secular, not invoke supernatural agents, but depart from factual reality in many, many other ways. One reason I am a kind of an outlier as an atheist is that I make that point strongly. So, I’m not anti-religious. I’m actually very respectful of religion.
And in my book, Atlas Hugged, the Christian community gets a very sympathetic treatment, along with the main female protagonist, Eve, Eve Eden. And then an atheist worldview … and Ayn Rand was the new atheist of her day, that was decades before Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and Dan Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. She might be an atheist, but she was departing from factual reality in her own way. So, the whole quest of Atlas Hugged is to find a way of telling right from wrong without peering through a tissue of lies. The two main protagonists, John Galt III, the grandson of the protagonist of Atlas Shrugged, and his lover, Eve Eden, are each trying to find a way to tell right from wrong without peering through a tissue of lies. Her tissue of lies was Christianity. His tissue of lies was Objectivism. And what they’re searching for is some way that science can actually inform how we should behave in order to create a better world. That’s the holy grail of the novel, and in the novel they succeed.
WALKER: Rand’s epistemology relied solely on empiricism. Do you think appeal of empiricism for Rand was that it was an inherently individual exploit? So, you could be like, Rodin’s The thinker sort of sitting there reasoning from premises, whereas real science is a more collaborative enterprise?
WILSON: Yes, totally. Yeah. I just say amen to that.
WALKER: Sorry. Yeah, it wasn’t really a question, was it? It was more of a statement.
WILSON: No, but I’ll elaborate on it. Again, it’s reflected in the book. As it’s put in the book, it takes a village to be a truth-seeker. We can’t do it as individuals. Back to complexity, the idea that people can just sit around and logically reason their way through things, there’s this real hubris in that. The world is way too complex for that. The whole apparatus of science struggles to apprehend reality. I know that you recently had Joe Henrich on your show, and he’s a great example, and everything that he does with WEIRD people or WEIRD culture (is white educated, industrial, rich, democratic), and how trapped they are in their own bubble and can’t even remotely understand other cultures.
And so, and of course, 99% of science is done in weird societies, and because science has a process of managed evolution, a certain kind of managed cultural evolution with certain objectives, of course cultural evolution requires variation. If every scientist is from a given culture, then the variation is not going to extend beyond their cultural bubble, is it? They’ll be collectively unable to see things which actually exist because their culture, with its own adaptive fictions, just cannot comprehend it. That’s how hard it is to apprehend factual reality. There is a world out there apart from our own existence. You couldn’t get going with the theory of evolution without assuming that organisms exist in environments that exist apart from their existence and which shaped their properties, so there is a world that exists out there. We can apprehend that world with enough hard work. But it’s real hard, and it’s a very twisting path.
And so, the idea that you can just sit around Rodin-like and reason your way through things, that reasoning process is an important part of it, and that’s important to acknowledge that it is. The idea that The Third Way, that people … there’s always been an intentional component to human cultural evolution. It’s never been entirely blind. People just didn’t do stuff at random and then the good things got selected. People were always striving, thinking, attempting to change things. Then, of course, often they didn’t really know. I mean, there were unforeseen… what ended up happening, basically, acquired huge blind components. That means that there’s a very large blind component to human cultural evolution, but there’s also a very large cultural component.
A book I’m reading right now called The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece by a classic scholar and political scientist named Josiah Ober at Stanford University basically covers this for the whole Greek period. And of course, Greece is this cradle of culture and Western culture and democracy. What exactly happened in Greece that caused this amazing efflorescence which remains with us to this day? And damned if his account doesn’t have multi-level selection written all over it, based in part on his Stanford colleague, Deborah Gordon, who is an ant biologist. And so evidently has hung out with Deborah Long enough to know, or long enough to think that these Greek city States, a polis, plural, poli, were like so many ant colonies competing against each other. Amazing.
The degree to which they were actively formulating their constitutions, their rules of governance, the whole concept of federalism, nested units. The word deme comes from the Greek for the smallest unit, decision-making unit. They invented whole tribes that never existed before just to organize things. They did intermediate scales. They were just trying stuff out like crazy, and explicitly trying stuff out in order so that they could actually get themselves to cooperate more than they were before. So, huge intentional component that also led to a huge blind component, and kind of comprehending both of those things as part of human cultural evolution, holding them both together is a difficult thing to do. I mean, you can get used to it, but it’s sort of challenging to think that they’re both very important to keep in mind when we think about human cultural evolution.
On taking the selfishness out of Atlas Shrugged
WALKER: We’ll come back to cultural evolution later. Dave, you mentioned your protagonist, John Galt III, who is the grandson of Rand’s protagonist, and Chapter One to your book begins in the voice of John Galt III. He says, “Call me anything but John Galt. That is my name, but it is also the name of my father and grandfather. I am not like them, and the world they created is not the one I desire. The III after my name does not sufficiently set me apart.” So, what sets John Galt the third apart?
WILSON: Well, he rebels against the evil empire of his father, grandfather and grandmother. I need to tell you a little bit more about the plot because I had to begin with Atlas Shrugged, but of course I had to take great liberties with it along the way. So in my novel, John Galt I is a little bit the way he was in the way in Ayn Rand’s model. He’s a brilliant engineer. He claims to be able to harness static electricity, to create an unlimited source of clean energy. He goes and becomes an outlaw. He tries to start a strike of doers, going on strike. That’s the metaphor of Atlas Shrugged, the doers of the world, shrugging the world from his shoulders.
He ends up founding a utopian society out west protected by his force fields, powered by his static electricity engine. And so in my novel, John Galt I is a little bit like that, except everything he does is a failure. The static electricity engine is a folly. The utopian community is a folly. And then I import Ayn Ran into my novel in the form of Ayn Rant, who becomes John Galt I’s lover, and their son, John Galt II becomes a social media giant, think Rush Limbaugh, or think a little bit Donald Trump, but mostly Rush Limbaugh, who kind of popularizes the highbrow philosophy of his mother and father, and then basically ushers in the whole sort of world of extreme inequality and so on and so forth, what’s very much within us today.
So, our John, John Galt III, rebels against all of that. The evil empire is basically the evil empire of neo-liberalism, and John Galt III rebels against that. There’s quite a bit of Star Wars in there, the virtuous son rebelling against the evil father and so on and so forth. I tap into quite a few of the familiar modern myths like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and so on and so forth, but only in a kind of a gentle way and in a way that is, I think, not so black and white. I think in a really good novel, you have sympathy for all the characters. I mean, John Galt II, the Rush Limbaugh character, actually, you end up sympathizing with him. You end up sympathizing with them all, actually, even Ayn Rant.
That’s the mark of a really good fiction, is that you see all perspectives, basically. It’s not just good people and evil people. That’s boring. So, no, this is much more interesting. There was one segment of the book where John’s writing to Eve and he says, “This is what I’ve learned in my short life. The evil of the world is not caused by evil people. My father is not evil. My father is a good man under the spell of a bad story.” So, it’s the stories that we tell each other that we have to filter and winnow and come up with the right one. And when we do, then most people will be good. That’s basically it in a nutshell.
WALKER: What do most people not understand about the process of writing fiction?
WILSON: Well, I’m no expert. I mean, I’m maybe know more than most, having observed my father closely, and we had a bunch of fiction and then tried it for myself. But what I noticed was how pleasurable it was and how engrossing it was, even more than the nonfiction writing I’ve done. My nonfiction writing is typically praised for its storytelling qualities, but the degrees of freedom that you have creating a fictional world and the degree to which you moralize it, here, again, I’m agreeing with Ayn Rand, so that as you begin to furnish the world in the first place, that’s not a deterministic process. It’s highly evolutionary. I mean, things occur to you that they come out of nowhere and then you fit them in or not, depending upon whether they work.
In that fashion, you build up a world that was… I mean, you selected it, in a sense. It’s an evolutionary process. But time and again, something would bubble up from my consciousness and some new plot development, and I’d think to myself, “Of course, that’s how it must be.” And then it would go on like that. It’s in that sense that I think that storytelling is deeply, deeply embedded in our natures. And that means story creation in addition to story listening and so on. So, I tapped into something that was just deeply, deeply pleasurable. For that reason, I recommend it to others as something which is pleasurable in its own right. Of course, you hope it finds an audience too, but I do think it’s a form of exploration, like journal writing.
I mean, there’s lots of evidence showing that writing a journal and just reflecting upon your own experience is very therapeutic, helpful, restorative. And so I think poetry, songwriting, fiction, these are all things that are in that category, in short, all of the arts. I mean, there’s a whole, as you know, it’s still fairly small, but there’s a whole community of people thinking about all of the arts from an evolutionary perspective. I mentioned Brian Boyd for literature. There’s also Ellen Dissanayake. She wrote a book called What is Art For? As to why is it that the arts, which seemingly are not utilitarian, then why would they evolve? And the answer is, is that they’re immensely utilitarian after all in terms of helping us construct and color our cultures. Once you begin to take cultural evolution very, very seriously, then all the arts begin to make sense in terms of part of what it means to be inhabiting a cultural world, which is embedded in the real world.
WALKER: Having studied Rand and her works, is there anything about her or her writing that people underrate?
WILSON: … I’m pausing because I’m not a particular fan of her writing, but I have colleagues who were, in the first place, heavily influenced by her, and in the second place, do admire her as a writer and thinker. I should also say that I’m no great Ayn Rand scholar. I didn’t feel I needed to be. I mean, I’ve read plenty of her, I’ve written academic articles on her. So, I suppose you could say that I’m a scholar, but by no means have I read everything she’s written, not even close. She was disparaged by most philosophers, and I think for good reasons, because there’s a distinction for good reasons that actually reflect well upon her, which might sound curious, but most academic philosophies are attempting to be sort of system-building. They’re definitely attempting to be rigorous in terms of some standards of logic and so on and so forth.
Even though Ayn Rand pretended that that was true for Objectivism and the very name Objectivism, as I put it in Atlas Hugged, was the biggest deception of all. That’s not really what she was about. And so, judged by that standard, she deserves not to be taken seriously by philosophers, but judged by the standard of creating a worldview, and for that worldview to be very motivating to people. Well, she succeeded very well, didn’t she? So, as long as you kind of classify it as a secular religion as opposed to some kind of systematic philosophy, then you can see its strength. For those who get captured by it, then I think that they admire some aspects of her writing.
But I have to tell you, I’m not among them. Also, there’s a kind of a danger that by my writing a sequel to Atlas Shrugged, then my book will only be compared with Ayn Rand, when in fact, I’m up for something and after something larger then that. I’m attempting to communicate the evolutionary worldview. Maybe I could have done that in a different way without ever mentioning Ayn Rand, but the book actually conveys … and I think I’d like to think that Atlas Hugged the novel does pass muster scientifically. I’ve only recently encountered the phrase hard science fiction. So, science fiction in which the science is so authentic that actually what takes place in the fiction could actually conceivably take place in the real world. Having just learned about that category, I’m proud to have contributed to it, that what does take place in the novel, which is very rapid, transformative, positive cultural change, actually, it can happen. Something like this could happen. The book is actually pretty carefully thought out in terms of the elements of that, in terms of the track and so on and so forth.
WALKER: I think that there might be something worth keeping in Atlas Shrugged, and that is the importance of high agency. And maybe that’s something that people undervalue or overlook, the importance of being a highly agentic individual. And I think it’s noteworthy that lots of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have cited Rand as being one of their chief inspirations or influences, from Elon Musk to Peter Thiel, to potentially even Steve Jobs, if we believe Wozniak’s account of his intellectual influences. Is that something you agree with?
WILSON: I would. I would say that basically inspire people to be highly agentic, and then, yeah, that’s a good thing. Let’s call that a keeper. Now, what do they do on the basis of that? It’s there that I think you get to the primary failing of Atlas Shrugged, is that it’s like individual only, individualism only. And what’s needed is for highly agentic individuals to actually subordinate themselves to something larger than themselves. That’s another part of human experience. What we associate with religion and words such as “worshiped”, “sacred”, even “God”. But let’s take the word sacred, which is used all the time in secular context in addition to religious context. When you call something sacred, you place it above yourself. It dominates you. You agree by your attitude to work on its behalf, and it’s at that point that agency, agentic individuals, can actually work together for some kind of common good.
If there’s nothing as sacred, if everything is profane, then agentic individuals, basically they work for their own good, and then we’re back to laissez faire, aren’t we? So, in order for multilevel selection to take place, or in order for higher-level selection to take place, for individuals to work, that’s agentic, for something more than their own welfare, then they must place themselves below something else, and in today’s world, that has to be the entire earth. And so this leads inexorably in the novel and in real life to a whole earth ethic. If you’re not placing yourself underneath the whole earth as the higher good, then you will be creating problems somewhere. So we need agency because agency is required for cultural evolution. Yet, that agency must be subordinated to the global higher good.
In the novel, the difference between what John Galt III calls false Objectivism, the sanctity of the individual, is replaced by the true Objectivism, which is the sanctity of the earth as an individual. In other words, the earth as a superorganism. So three words make the difference. Three additional words make the difference. But agency is required at all points, and I think I’ve made that point myself when I said that human cultural evolution has always had an intentional component. People have always been trying to do something, basically, but what they’ve been trying to do often enough is to do such things as create a constitution or a relative governance or punish other people for not cooperating or forming norms or so on and so forth. So, it’s the individualism plus the community, and that community now needing to be a multi-layered or a multi-level community, which prevents just agentic individuals from causing harm.
WALKER: What are Brian Boyd’s best qualities as a proofreader?
WILSON: As a proofreader?
WILSON: What do you mean?
WALKER: Or as a reader of your fiction? I assume he gave some comments and feedback.
WILSON: He actually did proofread. Just a kind of amusing anecdote … I think anyone who publishes a book might be familiar with this. Of course, I have read the book a million times, so I was a proofreader. Then I got a professional proofreader who was really good. He got a million things that I didn’t catch. But do you know, dang, there were things that he didn’t catch either? And Brian caught a bunch, and then readers will write in about stuff that that’s just plain errors. It gives me a respect for genetic editing ability, the ability of our genes to proofread during replication and to keep those mutation rates down to such a low level.
But, Brian, I’m trying to think of what my podcast with Brian… I’m drawing a blank at the moment, just not recollecting much of what we talked about. Although, he did say that I mixed genres in a way that sort of surprised him. That on one hand, it’s a utopian novel, it’s also a hero’s journey, it’s a love story, so on and so forth. Also, that it was fast paced, that it had variety and all of these good qualities in a story that was, of course, lovely to hear.
WALKER: Have you read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces?
WILSON: Well, if I haven’t, I’ve assimilated it by osmosis. So, yes, but a long time ago, but I maybe you can pick out what you’d like from it, so go ahead.
WALKER: Oh, to be honest, I didn’t have a specific question in mind, but it is a really good book. I just wondered whether maybe you’d read that in preparation. But, yeah, I think you’ve probably subsumed a lot of the ideas already by now.
WILSON: Well, I mean, he gets to the heart of storytelling, of course, and motifs that are repeated again and again and again. And Brian, because I do go back a long way with him, he recommended a movie to me called Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which is a movie, it’s actually based on an Inuit myth, but the whole movie was produced and directed and acted by Inuits. Called The Fast Runner. The myth involves two virtuous brothers, one of which is the fast runner, and an evil character, who basically disrupts the whole social order. He takes over, he’s a big bully. He kills his own father. He doesn’t share food. He’s just the bad guy. And the whole story revolves around, first of all, this rupture in the social order. He rapes people. I mean, he’s as bad as a person can be.
And so first of all, there’s a rupture in the social order, and then there’s a repair. On the one hand, the movie is completely exotic just by virtue of the culture being exotic, exotic to us. There was an amazing scene in which he and his brother are sleeping in a skin kind of tent, and the bad guy and his clan come to kill them. They succeed in killing his brother, but the fast runner, and that’s why he has his name, bolts out of the tent and runs away. He’s stark naked and it’s springtime in the Arctic, and so it’s relatively warm and the ice has puddles and stuff like that. There is a protracted scene in which the fast runner is stark naked, is running through the ice and over the field and stuff like that, being pursued by this evil clan.
To someone for whom that’s exotic, I mean, it’s just mesmerizing. A point to make, I think, when we read fiction, for example, mystery novels, often part of their appeal is their particular setting, which might be 19th century England or Australia, or any place, but the charm of the novel, and much of the interest in reading it, is just to soak up details of the culture, which are exotic to the reader. And I actually tried to do that in my book for academic culture. So, I mean, John Galt, he goes to college and there’s a biological station, and stuff like that. So I try to provide that kind of details for academic culture. But back to the factual matter, there what you have are these timeless stories because the purpose of stories, and this would be back to Brian as someone who approaches literature from an evolutionary perspective, is once again to instruct. “Do this. Don’t do that. This is the danger so on and so forth.” And so it’s not surprising that there’s these universal themes which get represented again and again, are timeless. And that’s why Star Wars could be both thoroughly mundane in terms of its use of those motifs and at the same time, new and part because of its exotic setting space and so on and so forth.
On evolution, multilevel selection and social discord
WALKER: I want to talk about multi-level selection just while I’ve got you, Dave.
WALKER: And then ask you a couple of questions that I’ve been thinking about over the last couple of months. Maybe the best way to start would be to introduce people to the idea, to the extent that there are many in the audience who are not familiar with it. And if people want the long intellectual history, they can listen to the first podcast episode we recorded together. But let’s give them like a brief overview. I’m not sure how you’d like to start. Maybe we could start with biological group selection.
WILSON: Well, some ways we have been talking about multilevel selection in the sense that when individuals just try to pursue their own interests, then that can be disruptive. And so in the most famous meme that I ever coined, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups, altruistic groups beat selfish groups, everything else is commentary.” But that points out, which I think everyone can relate to on the basis of their experience, is that if you imagine the virtuous individual, what does it even mean to be moral and virtuous? It means that basically you’re behaving for the benefit of others or one’s group as a whole. Those behaviors are inherently vulnerable to the behaviors that we call self-serving. And so this was a problem for Darwin because obviously evolution promotes behaviors that cause individuals to survive and reproduce better than other behaviors. And it would seem that that would give selfishness the advantage, not altruism.
And so Darwin realized that he actually could not explain all of the behaviors associated with virtue because of their vulnerability towards the behaviors associated with evil and wrongness and so on. And the solution that he came up with is that despite that, groups of individuals who behave virtuously would robustly out-compete groups of individuals who could not cohere. So there was a process of selection, operating not just between individuals within a given social group, but also between social groups. And there was the force that could explain the evolution of goodness.
So there you have it in a nutshell, and multilevel selection merely expands that range downward. So we can think about the interactions of genes within multicellular organisms. Upwards, we can think about ecosystems and groups of groups, but really multilevel selection is so simple that I think I just succeeded in explaining it.
WALKER: Great. So I’d like to hear what you make of a particular critique of biological group selection. And the critique is that the men of… You know , it’s a historical fact that the men of the conquering tribe would take the women of the vanquished tribe as mates such that the genes of the vanquished tribe would then spread through the population of the conquering tribe. And there’s lots of examples of this, but just to give a couple from literature to make this clear to listeners, in The Iliad, the Greeks are laying siege to Troy and they periodically go out and sack its vassal states. And when they sack a city, they do two things. Firstly, they kill all of the men. And then secondly, they enslave the women and the children. A second example. In Shakespeare’s account, Henry V warns a French village to surrender or else their “Pure maidens will fall into the hand of hot and forcing violation.” So what do you make of this argument and does it significantly undermine biological group selection?
WILSON: No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t nearly, but the reason that it seems to is based on all sorts of unstated assumptions about the relationship between genetic variation and phenotypic variation. So this will get into the weeds a little bit, but actually it’s worth doing so I’m very happy to do it. So all of the first models … and there seems to be a cycle. Maybe it’s even inevitable that first you start out with a rich appreciation of complexity, the tapestry of nature and all that. But then when you begin to study it formally, then you have to use mathematical models. So all kinds of simplifying assumptions are required to do that.
And so there’s a kind of a de facto denial of complexity during the first model-building stages and then some insights come from that. But then those models reveal their limitations. And then at the end of the day, you end up with an appreciation of complexity, which is on much more solid foundations than its first form, which was just purely qualitative. And so against that background, when people started to model the evolution of altruism and it doesn’t matter whether it was called kin selection or game theory or group selection…
The simplifying assumption they made was that a given behavior, let’s say altruism or selfishness, was caused by a single allele, an altruistic allele, a selfish allele, a one-to-one correspondence between genes and behaviors. Okay, well that makes sense. And if you do that, of course, then all sorts of things follow as to genetic variation within and among groups, genetic and phenotypic variation within and among groups. And so if you imagine that you have a multi-group population and each group is colonized by a certain number of individuals, then the amount of genetic variation among groups will depend on the number of individuals that colonized each group. That’s just sampling error.
And so if groups are colonized by many individuals and especially if there’s a lot of gene flow between groups, there’s your raiding and your raping and pillaging and so on. Then most of the variation will exist within groups, not much variation will exist between groups, and so group selection can’t really be a very strong force under that scenario. So that’s the logic that leads people to believe that unless you have groups that are genetically isolated from each other, then group selection will not be a strong force.
Well, now let’s just do an experiment, and experiments like this were done starting in the 1970s when Michael Wade, my colleague working with flour beetles … He created groups of flour beetles. These are in little vials of flour. 16 beetles to a vial. Well, 16 is a pretty large number and it shouldn’t have too much genetic variation between vials when there’s 16 beetles in each vial. That’s a far cry from kin selection when every individual has a full sibling and he measured … He let them breed for 30 days and he measured group size. How many offspring were produced?
Well, there’s enormous variation among groups despite the fact that the groups were colonized by so many individuals and when he came to study exactly why that was, without going into details, what he found was complex interactions. Genes coded for traits, but those traits interacted with each other to produce the trait of population size that was ultimately what got selected. And so if you know a little bit about complex systems, you know about sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Then when you have replicant complex systems and they differ in a smaller degree, those differences don’t stay small. They grow larger because of their complex dynamics within each system. That’s why the weather is so difficult to predict.
And so I, in 2000, with my grad student Bill Swenson, we did this experiment: we created microbial microcosms. We did a number, but one was an aquatic environment. Basically we had test tubes with sterilized medium under which we put one milliliter of unsterilized pond water. And if you know a little microbiology, you know that there’s many, many millions of bacteria in one milliliter upon water, of microbes, algae, bacteria of all sorts. And so the variation between test tubes was just vanishingly small. We’ll incubate them for a week and then measure something about them like pH or something else you might care to measure. Damned if they didn’t vary a lot. And so the whole nature of phenotypic variation in a complex system is different than one kind of one-to-one mapping between genes and the phenotype that you’re selected for. Variation in nature never in short supply. You can measure in nature at any scale and you’ll find that it varies because it’s some version of the butterfly effect and sensitive dependence on initial conditions.
Then there’s the question of, if you select on that variation, do you get a response through selection? And the empirical answer is, you do. That’s what happened in our experiments. We did. So it’s only based on these extreme simplifying assumptions that people… And people just think it intuitively now. They probably haven’t even read the models. It’s just kind of the intuition that they’ve been taught is that group selection is… Or the relative power of within and between group selection is directly proportional to the genetic and variation within and between groups. So you could make a statement like that, but it’s not true for cultural revolution. And it’s not true for biological evolution either. I hope I didn’t go too much into the weeds there, but there is a brief account.
WALKER: That’s great. Thanks, Dave. Let’s talk about cultural evolution. What should people know about cultural multilevel selection and gene-culture co-evolution?
WILSON: Well, first they should listen to some of your own podcasts. And I want to compliment you, Joe, on becoming so literate and excited about what’s taking place in our field so that you’re interviewing the likes of me and Joe Henrich and many others to bring this to the attention of a larger audience.
WALKER: Thank you.
WILSON: And so often when I write about this, I say that almost everyone is either working towards or hoping for a cultural change, positive cultural change in their own way. They frequently use words such as evolve and adapt and the vernacular, but they seldom think to consult the actual science of change, evolutionary science. There’s a good reason for that because the study of evolution was so confined to the study of genetic evolution until only a few decades ago. But now what’s on offer is that we have a way to study and to influence cultural change based on a conceptual toolkit that has already proven itself in the biological sciences.
So we already know that we have a transformative, “nothing makes sense except in the light of”, theory for the rest of life. And if that toolkit can be carried over to study human cultural change, then that’s a pretty darn big deal. And so that’s the incentive for studying cultural evolution, cultural multilevel selection. That’s what I try to convey in This View of Life and in fictional terms in Atlas Hugged. But there’s a whole genre of books, more books than anybody can read is coming out on this. I could list a dozen of them right here. I won’t, but I mean, there are so many great books that are based on this paradigm that the real challenge is to expand the audience for them because even though it’s a vibrant community as I just said with all those books, it’s still just a tiny fraction of the worldwide academic community, not to speak of everyone trying to create positive change in the real world.
So on the one hand, it’s present tense, not future tense. People are already doing and thinking this way in the thousands, you might say. So that’s the good news, but of course there’s between seven and eight billion people on earth. And so in terms of this becoming common sense for everyone, the way everyone thinks, that’s what’s needed. Because as you’ve already said, how you behave depends on how you think. And that’s the other message of Dual Inheritance Theory is that there’s a symbolic stream of inheritance that has been firstly evolved by genetic evolution and has been co-evolving with it ever since, but to think of our symbolic systems as like our genes … and one of the things that that tells you is if you want to change the phenotype, if you want to change how we behave at all scales from individuals to the planet, we need to change the way we think. We need to change our symbolic systems. You cannot change the outside without changing the inside. And that’s pretty profound.
It’s not as if we can just stay the way we are on the inside and then do something different. I mean, we have a limit. The way any person is on the inside endows them with a small repertoire of behaviors for them responding to the world. And everyone’s phenotypically plastic that way, but what their symbolic systems gives them is an if-then tree of things to do, “If this, then that,” whatever, in terms of how to behave. But if you want to behave substantially different on the outside, we must change the way we think on the inside. So there’s a dialectic between our internal world and our external worlds that we need to manage. Unmanaged, they will take us where we don’t want to go. So it must be managed in that humble way, not centralized planning, but in that humble experimental way is the sense in which we need to evolve our futures.
So that’s basically … Everything I do is predicated on that. And so it penetrates my Atlas Hugged and Atlas Hugged itself co-evolved with my real world change efforts. So those are joined at the hip.
WALKER: Can I suggest two popular-ish books for people who want to get their heads around Dual Inheritance Theory, and then you can add or subtract from my recommendations, Dave?
WILSON: Yeah, sure. Not by Genes Alone was published in 2006. And The Secret of Our Success, and Henrich was a student of Richerson and Boyd. So there’s academic lineage there. His about 2014 or 2015 as I recall. I think Not by Genes Alone, that’s definitely an academic book. And so not every one of your readers is going to easily assimilate that book. I recommend it to them, but Joe’s book is beautifully written in addition to being authoritative. And I think his new book is needed as much. So if there were only two books, it seems strange that they should be by the same author, but that is an indication of my esteem for Joe Henrich.
Then to add other books onto that, I would list Peter Turchin’s Ultrasociety, which talks about cultural multilevel selection. Basically the last 10,000 years of history from a cultural evolutionary perspective. And then again, Peter has a book called Ages of Discord, which is an amazing analysis of American history from the same perspective. And if you want to understand America today, then Ages of Discord. Peter, actually, and he’s now widely credited for this. He predicted this mess 10 or 15 years ago, based on his knowledge of American history. This is our second Age of Discord. I mean, when we compare today with the first Gilded Age, there’s a lot to that. And when we compare what we need to do now with what was done for the New Deal, there’s a lot to that. And again, we could go on, but those are great picks.
WALKER: So in Ages of Discord and in Secular Cycles, Peter, Peter Turchin that is, finds that cycles of inequality and cooperation inversely correlated, and that closely mirrors Bob Putnam’s finding in his new book, The Upswing, which tracks how inequality is corrosive of social capital. Question for you, Dave, why do you think that’s the case and does a multi-level selection framework predict that?
WILSON: It does predict that and it gives it a generality that is, I think, awe-inspiring when you think of it, that the same set of principles can account for everything from current events to 10,000 years of human history, to the genetic evolution of our species as a highly cooperative species to the genetic evolution of other highly cooperative species. Not only does it transcend or you should say explain cultural variation within humans, but it also explains inter-species variation and non-human species. It’s all the way back to the origin of life for heaven sakes.
I mean, when you think when people talk about… When political scientists talk about democracy and stuff like that, they typically provide very shallow cultural explanations like Greek democracy or American democracy, the democratic movements in Europe and so on and so forth. When the true explanation is basically that something like democratic governance is required for life. Cooperation is inherently egalitarian. And so whenever you get … and is inherently as we have already said. And so when within-group selection takes place, then it inherently is corrosive of cooperative efforts. You don’t cooperate with a bully. You don’t cooperate with someone who is using. You resist that person, and sometimes you fail. And so you must because you’re forced to, but those groups actually do have their days. So if you actually look at history, you find it’s full of despotic regimes and empires which were predatory on other cultures. There’s slavery, there’s all these things, which we recognize as highly immoral, although not by the people who practice them.
But what you find again and again, it’s in this history of a classical Greece that I’m reading now, it’s in books such as Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson, The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett, recent books of Douglas Fukuyama, is that when societies are inclusive, then they tend to work well as societies. When they become despotic and authoritarian, they only work for the elites and the elites cannot really bully people into cooperating with them. I mean, they can to a degree, but for the most part, those social groups end up succumbing in between-group competition, which is warfare mostly, but also economics. Warfare and economic productivity are joined at the hip. You can’t wage war if you’re not economically productive.
So there is your higher-level competition favoring internal egalitarianism. Of course, that’s just expanding the scale of conflict in addition to cooperation. And so we have to ask the question, is worldwide cooperation possible without a process of between-planet selection, which is science fiction? And the answer to that question is yes, but only by a very mindful process of cultural revolution. We have to have worldwide cooperation as the target of selection. And then we have to orchestrate all lower level activities with that in mind. In other words, everyone, including nations, must regard the Earth is sacred and they must work towards it.
And if they want to distinguish themselves as nations … and it’s in setting exemplars and models. That’s what the whole concept of reputation is. One of Joe Henrich’s contributions to all of this is to make the distinction between basically dominance and prestige. Two ways to become high status in a group. One is to just to be powerful and take it like a bully would or autocrat would. The other is to earn it by doing something that’s so valuable to others that they bestow the reputation upon you. And so societies that are based on reputation, often they’re very hierarchical, but the criterion for becoming powerful is actually to be a responsible agent with respect to the larger entity.
So that’s how nations should be competing with each other and have in the past. So when you look at people that, for example, were advocates of the League of Nations or the United nations and so on, that’s how they saw themselves. That the way to be patriotic, the way to be a great nation was to be a leader among nations in establishing a cooperative world order. That’s not even new, but it’s something that we can understand better than we did before. And then we can say, “That’s how we make America great again. That way.” And any nation can then compete on that field and then it becomes more like an organized sport.
WALKER: There are some beacons of hope in the historical record which shine out as examples of the fact that inequality doesn’t have to lead to dominance and that the elite can be noble and self-sacrificial. And the one to me that perhaps shines brightest is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I’ve recently… I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve been reading the biography, which is called, interestingly enough, Traitor to His Class.
WILSON: Yeah, I’ve read that book too. It’s a great book.
WALKER: How concerned are you for American society at the moment?
WILSON: Well, to first of all, dwell on that book a little bit. Things got so bad during the first Gilded Age that some of the elites … and a lot of what Peter Turchin writes about is competition among elites. It’s really fascinating. Elite overproduction, competition among the elite. When there are too many elites and then none of them want to give up their lifecycle, they start competing with each other. That means that if there’s a constituency that will support them, then they’ll become revolutionaries, even though they’re elites. I mean, the whole business with Donald Trump, I mean, it’s just there for everyone to see. But when things get bad enough, then-
WALKER: Dave, sorry.
WALKER: Can we just dwell on that for a moment-
WALKER: … because I think it’s a super interesting point. I think what most people think when they think of the relationship between inequality and social unrest is that you have the masses setting off some kind of like uprising where they overthrow the elite. But Peter’s insight is the conflict actually arises within the elite itself because, for example, there are only so many Senate seats or so many seats in the House of Congress. Yet we have a multiple of more lawyers than we did in the past. And so the elite is fighting amongst itself for the same amount of spoils. They’re able to enlist the masses to join their cause because, obviously, there is some smouldering unrest among the masses, and that’s actually the source or the genesis of conflict.
WILSON: Yeah. And even when you look at the New Deal, as good as it was for some people, it was terrible for others. I mean, there are some people that have been cut out of it all the time, forever. I mean, none of this is truly egalitarian, never has been. We hope that it will be in the future. But even among the elites … I mean, something that’s enough in the past so that young people might find it curious is prejudice against not only Jews, but against Catholics in America. And so basically there was competition among the Protestant elites, the Jewish elites, and the Catholic elites. And so that kind of discrimination was basically economically based. Protestants as a cultural bloc excluding other ethnic groups at that time, including Catholics.
WALKER: Yeah, Peter uses the number of lawyers as a percentage of the general population, I think, as a proxy for elite overproduction. I actually tried to find some data on this in the Australian context recently. I couldn’t really find anything, but there’s a study that Urbis did for the national … They looked at the number of solicitors practicing in Australia nationally, and that number increased by 33%, so a third, between 2011 and 2018, whereas I think the general population grew by about half that rate. So …
WILSON: Well, basically, college education is part of this. It’s lower now, but basically Peter will say that they’re trying to grant everyone at college education, sounds good, but now you have everyone that wants to basically live like they think a college-educated person should look like, and there’s just not enough of that kind of job to go around. And so you have all these people that are in despair because they’re not succeeding according to their expectations, and then that becomes a kind of a breeding ground for one kind of conflict or another.
Well, in any case, things can get so bad that some of the elites will say, “I mean, this whole ship’s going down, folks. We really have to make decisions on behalf of the whole ship, not just my class, my aristocratic class.” And FDR was among them, and so he was a traitor to his class because he was now making decisions on behalf of the whole nation. And thank heavens that he was somewhat successful at doing so.
And that’s, of course, what’s needed for today. And it’s needed not only at the national scale, but at the worldwide scale. This is the moment, I think, for people to decide that their primary social identity should be citizen of the earth and that all their other identities don’t go away, but need to be subordinated to being a citizen of the earth. That’s not at all new. It’s what the Pope is calling for, it’s what the Dalai Lama’s calling for, it’s what environmentalist’s call for, it’s what economists like Kate Raworth call for.
It only makes sense that all of us are first and foremost human beings sharing much more in common than their are cultural differences, although those cultural differences can be huge, as Joe Henrich will tell us. And citizens of the earth, we have to be stewards of the earth, all of that, that has to be the primary social identity.
And then other things below that will fall into place, or need to, all the way down to the local level. A point to make here, when we talk in highfalutin terms about global welfare and so on, that doesn’t nearly substitute for the need to exist in small, nurturing, cooperative, meaningful groups. And that’s another theme of Robert Putnam, who you mentioned, with his most recent book, his earlier book, Bowling Alone, mourning the decline of small groups of all sorts.
And so a big part of this, which we haven’t talked about, is the need to create a cellular level of human society with the cells being small, functionally-oriented groups. And that’s a strong theme in Atlas Hugged, where village-sized societies are described as, as close to a utopia as we’ll get, are small groups of people that are appropriately structured, doing meaningful things together.
WALKER: Yeah. I mean, without that, we can’t really be happy and live satisfied and meaningful lives. Right?
WILSON: Yeah, exactly. And it’s there that the pandemic, I think, can have a silver lining. If it results in the permanent establishment of electronic communication for long-distance and person-to-person communications locally, wouldn’t that be great? If we decided that we’re not going to globe-trot any more than we have to, we’re going to have our conferences online. That’s something that’s worked out amazingly well, by the way. All of these national and international conferences that could not take place as physical conferences, people thought, “Oh, my god, what’ll happen?” So they took place online.
And do you know that they were really great, and that the attendance was like three, four, ten times the attendance? All the meetings were recorded. You could visit them at any time. Clever ways for interactions were developed for kind of side talk that conferences are so good for. I never want to go back to … And think of the climate footprint, the carbon footprint that was saved with all that travel that didn’t take place. Let’s continue that. And then let’s nourish ourselves with our face-to-face interactions locally. Locally, where we don’t have to travel to do that. So that would be a double benefit, and I think that that would be a great outcome, I think, of the pandemic.
WALKER: Dave, one last evolutionary question. You can answer this as extensively or as briefly as you like. Did Ed Wilson make a mistake in trying to dismiss kin selection?
WILSON: [Laughs] Yes and no. There is this thing called equivalence, which is that all these theories of social evolution which sprang up, mostly as alternatives to group selection … So here’s a bit of history that’s not often told. Group selection came first. The theory of group selection came first, beginning with Darwin. There was other theories-
WALKER: In The Descent of Man.
WILSON: In The Descent of Man, and then there’s a long history, I tell it with Elliott Sober in my book Unto Others. There’s the fathers of population genetics. There’s Sewall Wright, Ronald Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, so on. And even G. C. Williams wrote an article on group selection. And then that came under criticism. And then these other theories, kin selection, inclusive fitness theory, game theory, were all advanced, in the 1960s for the most part, as alternatives to group selection. And Ed Wilson, although he was as sympathetic as anyone could be to group selection at the time, did in that time sort of favor kin selection and reciprocity, so on and so forth.
What we know now is that these other theories … Actually, the various theories of social evolution have a lot more in common than was known at first. In fact, they all require the same basic logic of multilevel selection. Social interactions in all cases take place in groups that are small compared to the total evolving population. Cooperative behaviors are vulnerable to selfish behaviors within each and every one of those groups. Therefore, there has to be some differential contribution of those groups in order for cooperative and altruistic behaviors to evolve. That’s true for all of them.
And so that’s called equivalence, basically. The idea that these theories are somehow inner-translatable. They might still be useful for the perspective that they provide, so you might still continue to have more than one, but you must recognize them as like speaking different languages and so on and so forth.
So I think Ed was … starting with me in our 2007 article, ‘Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology‘, and then with his collaboration with Martin Nowak and … I’m not pronouncing her name right. Tarnita? What’s the coauthor of the Ed’s paper with … With apologies, I’m not … Basically reasserted this logic of multilevel selection as the appropriate theoretical foundation for sociobiology.
But on top that he never was comfortable, and to this day is not comfortable, with the idea of equivalence. And so he wants to say that there’s something about kin selection that’s just plain wrong and misguided, and that’s a little bit unfortunate. And a bit like Ayn Rand, you have to go back and realize that Ed, now in his 90s I believe, in his late 80s or 90s, was present through the whole period.
And if you go back to the very beginning, for example, kin selection, what was new about it, was that it explained altruism towards collateral relatives. The idea that parents would benefit their offspring, well, that was just natural selection. It was benefiting siblings or other relatives, that’s the part that was new.
And also, it was about genealogical relatedness. Kin selection at first was about identity by descent, but then it became generalized, and that coefficient of relatedness, for example, became any correlation between the phenotype of the actor and the phenotype of the recipient for any reason. It became a correlation coefficient. But not to Ed.
Ed was saying there’s something more than genealogical relatedness. And so it was at this point that I think there’s a lot of confusion … And it remains very, very confusing all the way at the top. It’s been a source of frustration for me. It’s not the case that there’s some uneducated people, and then the experts are all on the same page. It’s not like that at all.
And perhaps a final thought, although never say never in a conversation like this, but something that I’ve come to appreciate is that … and it brings us back to individualism, which began this conversation. When we think of it as an intellectual tradition that has long roots, but it only became dominant in the middle of the 20th century and dominated most economics, the social sciences, everyday life, and my field of evolutionary biology, it begins to make sense of this zeal with which group selection was rejected in favor of individualistic explanations.
The answer to that, I think, is not just what was taking place within evolutionary theory. It was what was taking place much more broadly across the board. And so evolution’s individualistic swing, explaining everything in terms of individual self-interest and their selfish genes, was really part of this broader tradition of individualism.
And just as we’re, I think, exiting from individualism across the board and should be … and that explains, I think, why multilevel selection is now being revived. Again, that’s something that has to be seen more systemically. So it gives me more insight into why group selection was rejected with the zeal that it was. The final sentence of G. C. Williams’ book Adaptation and Natural Selection, published in 1966, was, “I believe it is the light and the way.” Something’s going on there.
WALKER: That’s a red flag.
WILSON: Yeah. Michael Ghiselin during the same period said, “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed.” Richard Alexander caused the selfish gene movement to be the greatest intellectual revolution of the 20th century. So there was this feeling of triumphalism that was mirrored in economics and the like. So seeing all this in a very broad context, I think, is important for all of us.
On 2020 and beyond
WALKER: Yes. Dave, I have three final questions because I want to be respectful of your time. But you’re well known as the champion who resurrected group selection back in the 1970s. Did you have a sense of yourself as an outsider? And what’s it like championing an unpopular idea for so long?
WILSON: Well, in the first place I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t as if I was the Lone Ranger. It was a heretical position, that’s for sure. For me, it was an opportunity. I was ambitious. I thought I could make my name, and did. So I rushed towards it in that sense while other people were running away from it. And for the most part, I had a pretty good time in the process. So I think that science should be a process of constructive disagreement. And for the most part, it was.
I got good jobs, I got grants, I got publications. I mean, I got rejections also, but it wasn’t as if I was being persecuted or anything like that. So that might be my personality, but for the most part, it was the good fight, and it was a positive experience.
WALKER: Glad to hear it. So it wasn’t particularly traumatic then.
WALKER: That’s good. What has 2020 been like for David Sloan Wilson, and have all of the events of this tumultuous year done anything to either change or affirm your priors?
WILSON: Well, I think personally I’ve weathered 2020 embarrassingly well. I used to do a lot of globetrotting, and it was like over 30 trips a year. And when I didn’t do that, I just stayed at home, I realized how lovely that was and how much I could do. And also I’m very lucky that almost all of my major projects have been able to continue. Almost none of my projects were actually terminated by the pandemic because so much can be done on online. So on all of those ways, I’m blessed.
I’m getting very tired of it as well as everyone else, and of course it’s surging everywhere, so I could get it at any time. Here in Upstate New York, it’s been a pretty low incidence until recently, but now my neighbors have it. And so I’m at as much risk as anyone else.
There’s much to reflect upon, and I think that the main thing is that what the pandemic has done is it’s revealed all the other inequities and problems that existed beforehand. And so I hope that, as they say, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, that this is kind of a wake-up call. And that as we work together at a worldwide scale to solve one thing, we can work to solve all of these things. And so in a sense, because everyone is so desperate for change, that that is an opportunity for better change methods, which is the fundamental message that I’m working towards in all my work, fiction, plus non-fiction.
So in the book, there’s actually worldwide transformational change that takes place in a hundred days, and that’s not going to happen, but I do have a sense of catalysis. The concept of chemical catalysis is that there can be a substance that when you add it to a chemical reaction, it increases the rate of that reaction by orders of magnitude. That something like that can take place for cultural evolution so that positive change can take place in a matter of years, not decades, at a large scale in addition to a small scale.
All of that, for me, is in the realm of the possible. And all of the things taking place around us creates a receptivity for that, as well it should. As well it should. So I think that the message, not just the method, but the practice has a better chance of being implemented. And so in all those ways, I remain motivated, highly motivated, and despite everything that’s terrible about the pandemic.
WALKER: Dave, I might be a bit biased here, but I think I have the best audience in Australia, although we do have a lot of listeners in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and around the world as well. They’re an audience of doers, they’re optimistic, they’re altruistic. At the dawn of 2021, what final piece of advice would you give them?
WILSON: Well, it’s going to sound self-serving, but I do think that there are … Actually not, because what I’m doing through Prosocial World, which is a new organization that spun off from my previous organization, Evolution Institute, is in partnership with many, many other positive change movements. We talk about a collaborative landscape, not a competitive landscape.
And as part of the ‘Third Way Series’ that we talked about earlier is that best practices have been converged upon again and again and again. So actually, there’s many successful change efforts. Their problem is, is that they’re all encapsulated within some island of an archipelago of knowledge and practice. And so what’s genuinely new is to have some kind of general formulation that can be something that can be useful for any group, any size, any place, any context. A set of tools that can be used for them not only to function better internally, but also to hook up with other groups to build that worldwide superorganism.
And however they want to enter that, whatever their entry point is to it, then that’s what I hope that they will do. That they will basically go into action mode in a way which is not encapsulated, but which is part of this general framework. And the two entry points that I would suggest would be … I’ll suggest just three.
The one that’s not my own is Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, because she has a real vision of what economics should be and a multilevel way of getting there. So with Doughnut Economics, what you’ll see is that the outer edge of the doughnut is the planetary boundaries, the inner edge is the social equity issues. We have to remain within the donut. And then of course, all of that is global, but it must also be local.
And she’s in the process now of implementing that. Amsterdam is a Doughnut city. You could be in the Doughnut neighborhood, so on and so forth. So I love that, and I work with Kate. That’s complementary with Prosocial, so I’m very happy to encourage your listeners to get involved in that.
And then my own two entry points are Prosocial World. Type in “Prosocial World,” and you’ll get there. That provides opportunities to get involved. But any group that you’re currently working with, any group that’s doing good work, then we can help you work better, and we can connect you to other groups. So please contact us at Prosocial World. You could get trained to be a facilitator, so you could work with groups.
Over 500 have been trained in 34 countries. Australia is a hotspot thanks to my colleagues, such as Paul Atkins and Robert Styles. Awesome people. So actually, I would love for there to be a strong branch of Prosocial in Australia, and that could happen like that. Paul knows other organizations that are like-minded, so that would be a great outcome.
And then finally, maybe your easiest entry point is through a novel and not through non-fiction. And I think that if you do read Atlas Hugged, then hopefully the storytelling will be good. And then it’s written to cross over. The very last sentence, let me read it, and this will be probably the end of our interview.
In the epilogue is, “I hope that my excursion into the world of fiction has given the sense of possibility to readers of Atlas Hugged. I now invite you to cross over to the world of non-fiction to make the vision of Atlas Hugged a reality.” So your entry point could be a story, or if you want that non-fiction version, then This View of Life.
WALKER: Links to Prosocial World and Dave’s new novel, Atlas Hugged, will be in the show notes. David Sloan Wilson, it is always a pleasure speaking with you. Happy new year, and thanks for joining me.
WILSON: Okay, great. Keep it up. Until the next time.