Can evolution explain human nature?

neighbourhoodI’ve just read a fascinating book that has put the whole question of human nature into an evolutionary perspective. David Sloan Wilson’s view of the world is that evolution operates at every layer in human existence, our cellular level, us as individuals, the way our brains work, the group processes that we have constructed to make groups work and culture – including religion.

Apart from the fact that I’m still amused about religion being explained by evolution, I do like the idea that if we understand evolutionary principles, we can understand some of the principles that have guided human progress and human development. It’s a huge topic and Wilson acknowledges from the outset that religion and literature have also tackled this topic with gusto – he simply sees himself as adding an additional dimension filled with scientific rigour.


Wilson tells the parable of different species to help us understand evolutionary processes in practice and then recounts numerous human level studies that demonstrate evolution in action in our anthropocentric world. He has an interesting TED talk and a new book, reviews of which led me to his work in the first place. Not every professor of evolution agrees with the extent to which we should consider evolution at the higher levels, such as the level of culture. I love the idea because we can understand it in theory, after all we see things succeed and fail all the time and we see the successful methods replicated and changed again – what’s not to like about giving these processes a strong scientific underpinning?

My main attraction to Wilson’s work was his measurements of successful group processes and his explanation of our innate pro-socialness. I say innate because he argues, quite a bit in the book, about the cultural level eventually affecting the genetic level so after many generations you would think we were born with it. let me take you through the little lessons that this book contains:

Successful – regardless of goodness

Wilson’s first parable involves the water strider – those little insects that can walk on water. He goes into immense detail to demonstrate one of the rules we strongly associate with Darwin’s work – the detailed ways in which species adapt to and reproduce in their environments in order to succeed. But he includes a second message – there is no good and evil. Outcomes you might consider good and bad are equally likely if they contribute to species success, in the striders case, Wilson pointed to the aggressive mating behaviour of the successful males.

Solo vs the Group

In the parable of the wasp we are introduced to group behaviour. Not all wasps form colonies, some are solitary, but the species that do, have evolved the group processes that best work for their survival. There is no question about the role of different actors in the social group, the success of the colony is the key and each member acts in the interest of the colony’s success. As such insect colonies have evolved to think and listen as collectives just as in a solitary species, an animal needs good skills for detection and understanding. Survival requires good decisions and as a species adapts to its environment some decisions become innate. In a collective, innate decisions involve innate interactions between units – in this case individual wasps in a colony. In fact any organism is a highly integrated collective. Just as we humans are a collective of individual cells making sense of how to operate our bodies, a colony of wasps behaves in such an integrated manner that it can be thought of as a single organism.

Social evolution

The parable of the immune system is provided to teach us about our capacity for behavioural and cultural change. Parasites and diseases may only be a small part of an environment but they provide very complex problems for survival. The way in which our immune system protects us is ‘profoundly behavioural and social’.

It’s important at this stage to understand ‘rigid flexibility’. Some things can floor a response system because it simply wasn’t built to manage that sort of environmental change. One experiment showed that moving a locational signpost (a ring of stones) for a wasp even just a metre or so meant the wasp could not find its way back to the nest. Evolution is based on adaption to an accustomed environment (it even has an acronym EEA) and the flexibility stops short when the environment changes in an unexpected way. The rigid flexibility of the immune system has led to backfiring when the immune system turns on its host due in part to a lack of diseases and parasites – asthma for example is an immune system challenge. One solution to this is to wait for genetic evolution to adapt to the new environment – a long wait and a reminder that our EEA is significantly different to the environments we find ourselves in, explaining some of the issues our bodies react to in ‘modern life’.


A fourth lesson comes from the ‘variation and selection’ processes of the immune system – a way to create many solutions and then select the antibody that appears most successful. In this way the immune system can potentially fight disease it has never experienced before. Our bodies have evolved a process that relies on evolutionary principles – neat huh?. Much of this process is innate but an adaptive component also exists to tackle diseases and parasites that trick the innate system. There is a parallel in this system to the adaptive and innate parts of our own behaviour. We can be taught and some of our responses are instinctual. Learning is an adaptation and an evolutionary process in its own right.


Finally, the immune system is profoundly cooperative. Wilson strongly believes that cooperation was a foundational point in human evolution and that our ability to evolve successful forms of cooperation is akin to the variation and selection of the immune system. To a point though – our cooperations systems suffer from rigid flexibility and can easily be dumbfounded by changes to our adaptive environment.

Self Interest

One of the fascinating parts of the story was a comparison of people in our society who are only pro-social when it suits them. Apparently there is a cohort who display no embarrassment at rating themselves as “high Mach” (for Machiavellian). The chapter is labelled ‘street smart’ and highlights that the rules of engagement for some ‘streets’ do not work on others – nevertheless some individuals are quite overt about learning the rules and playing them to suit themselves in quite a self interested manner. This is worth remembering when most of the book is repudiating common beliefs about self interest and demonstrating the many ways we act for the interest of our groups and the cultures we have built to enforce pro-social behaviour.


When we move to the parable of the crow we really are studying social behaviour. The culture of city crows is different to the culture of country crows. Crow culture can be described in terms that we can understand – who feeds the kids, when they leave home, who they pair up with and how etc. Crows learn and adapt to the city environment – they learn, for example, to drop nuts at an intersection when the lights are green and retrieve the cracked shells when the lights are red after the cars have cracked the nuts. Learning is dangerous and time consuming so learning from others becomes an efficient strategy. Wilson demonstrates that culture evolves and genetic evolution follows. Access to a rich food source using sticks to hook grubs out of trees leads to an evolution in the bill shape of the New Caledonian crows and young crows raised in captivity will probe holes with sticks showing that the evolutionary process has led to an innate trait in that species.

Human neighbourhoods

And so with crows, and wasps and water strider showing us how to understand evolution, we move firmly into the human domain and look at cultural expressions and that eternal question about why some people do better than others in the lottery of life. Wilson travels the ‘Ivory Archipelago’ as he likes to refer to academia and he finds many disciplines that could do well to listen to each other. He himself discovers the island of preventative science and is astounded by their ability to develop techniques for society wide cultural and behaviour change that actually works. One of the book’s themes is the importance of measurement and truthfinding, the scientific method. He claims this as the most useful addition evolutionary science brings to religion and literature.

He shows why his various neighbourhood projects can be used to map the town as hills and valleys of pro-social behaviour. In his TedX talk, the BNP project had found that students moving to a more pro-social part of town became more pro-social themselves – Yay for encouraging urban diversity. He shows that our genetic code can be used to understand deep cultural changes in our ancestry – such as the move from nomadic to settled lifestyles – and gets excited about interviewing the elderly residents of Binghamton, who have made most of their life choices and comparing those choices with the stories encoded in their genes.

Path dependence

Genetic evolution is a pathway with many forks and one principle is that “you can’t get there from here”. So much of the story telling seems to be about knowing how to trace the path back to the original fork. Two similar adaptations to a modern environment might be arrived at from completely different ancestral paths and for that reason will have their differences. Cultural evolution is not quite the same – the ability to disrupt, stopping one thing and starting something completely different is not so path dependant, but ask any designer and they will tell you that the we often fail to innovate because of the preconceptions in our mind – our inability to look at something in a completely new way. So there is still come path dependence.

And finally he tells some interesting stories about religion and economics – a chapter dedicated to each. I was fascinated by the theory about Christianity spreading further than Judaism because of the accessibility beyond “the chosen people”. The great Christian narrative of heaven and hell didn’t come from Jesus but developed as Christianity established itself – evolved if you will. I loved the stories about religions evolving and the comment that, because they are evolved for a niche, Seventh Day Adventism is shrinking in Berkeley but growing in underdeveloped countries. Wilson criticises the New Atheism movement as being just as preachy and dogmatic as religions. What we really need to understand about religion is that facts don’t matter – it is what people believe that counts. The best religions reinvent themselves every time a foundation belief falls over (eg return of the saviour on an exact date). Religion fails time and again on evidential processes, some religions in more obvious ways than others. Being accountable for one’s opinions in the scientific world is highly regarded and good scientists welcome challenge, debate and allow for changing their minds. By contrast, religions that change their mind are either rejected, or they do a good job of helping followers believe the reasons for the mind change and hence the new world order. Religions are more likely to evolve in subtle ways so the change of mind is not so obvious.

Economics fails a number of the science tests that evolution advocates. Evidence for one. Economic models tend to oversimplify a complex set of interactions and Wilson feels that the fundamental economic model is the wrong starting point altogether. He looks with hope at emergent themes in behavioural economics but concludes that everyone is trying too hard to explain the world with only small adjustments to the original economic model of rational man. to paraphrase… “Norms!, 2007 and they are only just considering a little thing like societal norms. Who left these people in charge for 50 years!”. Economics needs a disruptive renovation is Wilson’s conclusion.

Governance of the commons

The Chapter on economics also covers a very interesting Nobel Prize winner. Elinor Ostrom was a political scientist rather than an economist and her work demonstrated time and again that groups of people could work out ways to govern, “the commons” and shared resources would not be destroyed just because the powers that be were nowhere to be found when a resource had to be allocated fairly. Each community that Elinor studied had found quite different ways to share their resource and had a variety of versions of “fairness” between them too. For the record, I’d like to document Ostrom’s governance rules:

  • Clearly defined boundaries: rights and obligations of group membership are clear as are resource boundaries;
  • Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs: unfairness and inequality poisons group efforts;
  • collective-choice arrangements: rules and decision making by consensus – working for “we”;
  • monitoring: cooperation must be guarded, lapses and transgressions must be detected;
  • Graduated sanctions: tougher measures such as punishment and exclusion may not be needed but must be held in reserve;
  • Fast and fair conflict resolution: impartiality and equitable decisions;
  • Local autonomy: autonomy to groups to govern themselves even within larger societal settings;
  • Polycentric governance: to ensure groups within larger societies are all engaged fairly to govern society.

At the end of the day, the book charts the story of numerous evolution studies in the human domain and particularly in the author’s town of Binghamton, New York. You can find out more at the website but I note that it hasn’t been updated since the book was written so I can only assume the energy to see it as a whole thing came from Wilson.

My takeaway is that evolution can be an extremely useful lens for understanding changes and success in the face of changes.


About Heather

I am an energy and climate change specialist with a background in industrial energy efficiency and climate change policy.
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