(5 minutes reading)

In my previous RPD-posting I suggested my readers to read Evolution’s Other Narrative by Bradford Harris published in the The American Scientist. While the article is aiming on (biological) evolution and most notably the symbioses between species it contains insights and explanations crucial for my inquiry into ”Collaborability: a theory on human collaboration”.

Harris neatly describes how prevailing notions as “individualism” and “survival of the fittest” are entrenched in our popular views and that they need to be supplemented with views on the role of collaboration, interdependency and symbioses as to be able to explain the complexity and the dynamics of evolution. This is the same type of supplement one needs to be aware of if one is to understand (the contribution of) collaborability.

I have taken the liberty to summarize Harris’ article for the part that is directly relevant to my endeavour to show the relevance of (human) collaboration as driver of our societal development, respecting and crediting his literal text as much as possible. (NB Emphasis added by RPD)

Popular appreciation for life’s complexity has far outpaced the popular interpretation of the evolutionary source of that complexity, which has remained stuck in 1864, when Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

When it comes to the story of evolutionary science, people know the name Charles Darwin, but most do not know the names Ivan Wallin or Lynn Margulis—two more recent, ground-breaking evolutionary theorists. Over the past several decades, these and other researchers have revealed that organisms’ cooperation and interdependence contribute more to evolution than competition. Such insight has failed to gain traction in Western minds because of cultural history traceable back through the popularization of Adam Smith’s individualist philosophy.

By the time Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the Western European and American mind had long been intellectually primed to interpret complexity by reducing perspective to the individual.

Adam Smith’s publication of The Wealth of Nations 83 years earlier had set the tone of philosophical and scientific approaches to understanding complex systems. Fundamental to Smith’s philosophy was the notion that large organizations like the economy were to be “comprehended in terms of self-interest or maximization of personal well being.” The appeal of this philosophy was twofold: it morally liberated people to be selfish, and it intellectually liberated them to interpret a range of complicated questions in terms of simpler individual parts.

When Darwin presented his theory of evolution in 1859, he stood firmly on the platform of Smith’s individualist philosophy. As the renowned evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould surmised, the essential “Darwinian theory advocates no higher principle beyond individuals pursuing their own self-interest . . .

[for] Darwin grafted Adam Smith upon nature to establish his theory of natural selection.” If mid-19th-century readers struggled with the unseen mechanism of evolution, then they could do as Darwin did and conveniently borrow Smith’s economic concept of the “invisible hand.”

For most naturalists and laypeople alike, the logical extension self-interest was endless combat. Since Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan in 1651, Western Europeans and later Americans had struggled to reconcile ideals of self-government with social stability, often violently. Humanity’s social institutions might separate it from the violent chaos of nature, but nature’s violent chaos was assumed. The theory of natural selection grew out of and reinforced this assumption, and the most successful circulating English phrases to distill Darwin’s tome depicted violence, not harmony. Similarly, T. H. Huxley tapped the psychological nerve well when he portrayed the history of life as “a continual free fight…the Hobbesian war of each against all.” The English political theorist Herbert Spencer best captured the concept when he defined natural selection as “survival of the fittest.”

Simple and cleanly fused with the entrenched political ideal of individualism, Darwinian natural selection totally dominated the Western perspective on evolution [and hence their political views, RPD] for more than a century.

The Russian naturalist, evolutionary theorist, and political philosopher Peter Kropotkin was highly critical, especially of Huxley’s “Hobbesian war of each against all.” In his most popular work, Mutual Aid (1902), Kropotkin wrote that “mutual aid is as much a law of animal life as mutual struggle, but . . . as a factor of evolution, it most probably has a far greater importance.” He explained that “it favours the development of such habits and characters as to insure the maintenance and further development of the species.” According to Khakhina’s notion of speciation, if “symbiosis is the author, natural selection is the editor.”

Throughout the first half of the 20th century in Western Europe and America, the individualist school of thought continued to dominate.

The classic image of evolution, the tree of life, almost always exclusively shows diverging branches; however, a banyan tree, with diverging and converging branches is best. To this day, many scientists and most laypeople remain ignorant of this way of imagining evolution, which profoundly constricts how they imagine themselves.

Despite Margulis’s legacy, early 20th-century concepts of “survival of the fittest” continue to determine how evolution is taught and, therefore, how it is understood even by most scientists.

Recovering the story of evolution goes a long way toward understanding how to maintain the integrity of a living organism. Wherever symbiotic ideas spread, they lead to important new practical insights.

Exploring the history of scientists’ attempts to understand evolution reveals neglected insights into the associations between individuals, associations at least as meaningful as the individuals themselves.