Evolution has been a cornerstone of the biological sciences for the better part of a century. Rarely, however, has evolutionary science been considered valuable in understanding contemporary human problems and human culture. A new paper published in the prestigious scientific journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), by leaders across the physical and social sciences including Foundation Professor of Psychology Steven C. Hayes, explores major developments in understanding human cultural evolution and how these new concepts can be applied to effect positive change and the development of a more cooperative world.
“Evolutionary science, which is the one field without which all the life sciences make no sense, now clearly applies to modern problems in human behavior,” Hayes said. “You can apply evolutionary ideas to public policy, organizing your business, empowering your life, raising a family, or just figuring out how to be happy.”
The paper, titled “Multilevel cultural evolution: From new theory to practical applications,” explores how humans have evolved as a highly prosocial species. While individual success alone drives evolution in many other species, prosocial behaviors became stronger in humans, because social adaptations evolved for the good of humans in small bands and groups when the selfishness of individuals were somewhat constrained. Altruistic groups will eventually outcompete selfish groups. This cultural evolutionary selection for prosocial behavior operates not just among individuals within a geographic community but also at the small group and multi-group levels, from couples to families all the way up through governments or large corporations to nations and the world.
“It’s not just genes that are driving evolution. It’s not just the individual that is key to evolutionary selection. It’s small groups all the way up through larger social systems,” Hayes said.
The article describes case after case in which this multilevel understanding of evolution has led to practical solutions to human behavioral problems in engineering, business, mental health and global change.
Much of the publication’s ideas presented were founded in the research of the late political scientist and 2009 Nobel Prize recipient Elinor Ostrom who proved through her research that groups can self-manage complex resources like forests, fisheries or groundwater if they follow eight core design principles. This Nobel-prize-winning research in economics contrasted with what was the widely accepted belief that either privatization or top-down regulation was the only way to avoid the resulting overexploitation of resources. Ostrom’s eight core design principles, according to this new paper, can be applied to groups at all levels trying to achieve a common goal. Groups that follow these principles, Hayes describes, foster the kind of safe social environments in which cooperation and trust can gradually take hold as individual selfishness and greed are gradually constrained, tipping selection toward the more altruistic, cooperative group. The groups most likely to be successful must have:
- Clear group identity and shared sense of purpose
- Equitable distribution of benefits and resources
- Inclusive decision making
- Transparency of behavior
- Graduated responding to helpful and unhelpful behavior
- Fast and fair conflict resolution
- Autonomy and authority to implement the above core principles
- Ability to apply the above principles in relation with other groups
As a behavioral psychologist known for his work in the field of positive behavior change, Hayes is confident in the possible applications of this new understanding of multilevel cultural evolution and its ability to improve the human experience. On the date of the publication’s release, he Tweeted a message of hope.
“I think the deep message of our work is that every voice matters – as a ‘me’ and as a multiple ‘we’. Multilevel evolution carries with it an ethic and we should build on that ethic as a community in everything we do.”
The paper’s first author and Hayes’ collaborator is evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson (State University of New York – Binghamton). Other contributors include biomedical engineer Guru Madhavan (U.S. National Academy of Engineering), behavioral psychologist Michele Gelfand (Stanford University) and others.
About Foundation Professor Steven C. Hayes
Hayes is a Nevada Foundation Professor in the Behavior Analysis program at the Department of Psychology. He is the developer of Relational Frame Theory, an account of human higher cognition, and has guided its extension to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a popular evidence-based form of psychotherapy that uses mindfulness, acceptance, and values-based methods. He was the University’s Researcher of the Year in 1997; the Nevada System of Higher Education Regents' Mid-Career Researcher of the Year in 2000; and the Nevada System of Higher Education Regents' Distinguished Career Researcher in 2022. An author of 48 books and nearly 700 scientific articles, his career has focused on an analysis of the nature of human language and cognition and the application of this to the understanding and alleviation of human suffering.