Corporate Groups and Natural Selection

Corporate Groups and Natural Selection

In recent years there has been an unfolding attempt to understand group dynamics in terms of a combination of evolutionary science and behavioural science.  This attempt typically involves an appeal to the concept of group selection. In our ancient evolutionary past what groups were selected would have been simply a matter of what group practices would make it more likely that group x would have survived as opposed to group y or group z. Today we are in a position to design our group practices explicitly and to reflect on what type of groups we want to flourish and what types of group behaviour we would prefer to be culled from our environment.

But when thinking about these issues it is important to reflect on what constitutes a group. We all have intuitive understanding of things we group together. Thus we can group together people who were born and brought up in the same town, people who were born and brought up in the same country, people who share the same religion, people who share the same political views etc. Now if we think in terms of sets we will note that some of these groups will intersect. All people who are born in the same town will make up a subset of people who were born in a particular country. While only some people who are from the same country will be members of the group of people who are from the same town. Trying to pick out which groups will be salient enough to be selected-for, or selected against, by the environment is a tricky task.

It makes little sense to speak of people from a particular country being selected. Humans have populated most environments on the planet and hence have spread to all land masses on the planet. It makes more sense to speak of groups of cultural practices being selected. A group of people on a land mass may have a variety of cultural practices and be exposed to another group with different cultural practices. It is possible that one group of cultural practices will be more effective than the other group of practices, and it will be passed on to the next generation while the other group of practices dies out. Or as is more typical the group practices may merge with the best of both being preserved by the environment.

Above when I spoke about practices being selected I spoke about the best of both groups surviving and being passed on to the next generation. But the word ‘best’ in this sense is ambiguous. To argue that one cultural practice is better than another has normative connotations. But from a strictly evolutionary perspective all that is really implied is that one set of practices survives and another doesn’t. ‘Best’ means nothing more than the practice that is passed on to the next generation.

Thus far I have been speaking breezily enough about group practices being selected. The idea of group practices being selected is of course a very controversial one. Evolutionary theorists such as Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne etc have argued strongly against the concept of group selection. While on the other side of the aisle theorists such as David Sloan Wilson, E O Wilson, and Bob Sapolsky, Boyd and Richerson, etc have argued that group selection is a real force in evolution that is as powerful as selection at the level of genes. Sloan-Wilson makes the point as follows:

“Multilevel selection theory tells us that something similar to team-level selection took place in our species for thousands of generations, resulting in adaptations for teamwork that are baked into the genetic architecture of our minds. Absorbing this fact leads to the conclusion small groups are a fundamental unit of human social organization. Individuals cannot be understood except in the context of small groups, and large-scale societies need to be seen as a kind of multicellular organism comprising small groups.” (David Sloan Wilson ‘This View of Life’ p. 114)

In his 2007 paper ‘The False Allure of Group’ selection Pinker was highly critical of the concept of Group Selection. He argued that the concept was of little use in trying to understand human behaviour, and if we want to understand such behaviour from the point of view of human evolution we are better off sticking to the level of genes being selected. However, Pinker’s arguments failed to convince a lot of his critics.

Linguist Dan Everett argued that a key example of group selection is language. He argues that the function of language is to build communities. If one group of homo-sapiens has language and the other doesn’t then the group with language will be the group selected. Everett also mentions the selection of genetic mutation by cultural pressures (dual inheritance theory) as a paradigm example of group selection (e.g. some group’s ability to digest milk beyond infancy, or dyslexia).

Archaeologist Peter Richerson argued that a pro-social psychology arouse as a result of group selection (groups containing mainly selfish members would be at a disadvantage to more co-operative groups). While evolutionary Biologist Sloan Wilson noted the question that the Darwinian needs to ask is how can traits that evolve which are good for the group, when they are disadvantageous for members within the group. Traditionally this question was answered in two ways firstly by noting (1) Selection among groups is weak compared to selection within groups, (2) Other mechanisms can explain pro-social behaviour in ways that do not invoke group selection. Sloan-Wilson argues that neither of these can be considered true anymore based on recent findings in evolutionary psychology. Traits can evolve as a result of between group selection even if they are disadvantageous at in group levels. And attempts to explain pro-social behaviour without invoking group selection typically (implicitly invoke the concept of group selection).

                             Some examples of Group Designs

Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for her work on the tragedy of the commons. She studied many different groups who had overcome the problem naturally and abstracted out 8 core design principles that are useful in overcoming the problem:

Elinor Ostrom’s Core Design Principles (CDP):

(1) CDP1: Strong Group Identity and Understanding of Purpose:

(2) CDP2: Proportional Equivalence between Benefits and Costs:

(3) CDP3: Fair and Inclusive Decision-Making:

(4) CDP4: Monitoring Agreed-Upon Behaviours:

(5) CDP5: Graduated Sanctions:

(6) CDP6: Fast and Fair Conflict Resolution:

(7) CDP7: Local Autonomy:

(8) CDP8: Polycentric Governance:

In his book ‘This View of Life’ David Sloan Wilson discussed how he implemented these core design principles in an experimental setting in a school (using appropriate controls) and were the design principles were shown to be very effective. He recommends that people working in various different groups; such as, small businesses, schools, universities etc should try to implement these core design principles to increase their effectiveness.

Getting businesses to adopt these scientifically justified design principles will be extremely difficult. A lot of corporate groups like to invoke concepts such as corporate cultures they practice. However these slogans don’t typically represent the actual culture of the corporation, but are rather just ways of branding the organisations. In his ‘Dark Matter of the Mind’ Dan Everett noted that if a company really wanted to decide what their culture is they would need to ask the following questions:

“What are the roles of employees? Who is hired? How are they hired? What tasks and roles are most rewarded (with salaries, bonuses, commissions, stock options, etc.)?What are the relative roles of shareholders vs. stakeholders? What are the company stories in the boardroom, the washroom, parties, and the lunchroom? We cannot understand culture through questionnaires and public pronouncements alone. We must engage in intense participant observation, as in Karen How (2009), or in careful analysis of intended results, as in LiPuma and Lee (2004).” ( Everett ‘Dark Matter of the Mind’ p. 171)

Everett warns us that close observation is needed to distinguish between the culture that is claimed and the culture that is evident from observing the behaviour of the corporation. He uses his rank value theory of culture to evaluate various different cultural practices. His advice to businesses on what questions to ask about what type of culture they are advocating, and on rank preferences within the overall culture, is a necessary first step in implementing Ostrom’s core design principles. First the business (or corporation) needs to establish what culture they are advocating, then, they need to use the core design principles to give the culture its best chance of flourishing.

Reflection on what the overall aims of a company are can help companies face difficult choices head on. It is doubtful that heads of Alcohol or Tobacco industries explicitly aim to kill people or make them sick. The death and illness are a consequence of a culture that values profit (and perhaps creating employment) above the health of their consumers. If our overall society favours this profit first perspective there is no reason for the company to change its behaviour.  It is here that the concept of group selection comes into play. If we create an environment that selects for groups which place profit above all else; the groups that will be selected are the ones that maintain profit better than their rivals. These groups could be a disaster for their consumers, for the environment of the planet etc. This is analogous to breeding a dog for a particular trait such as having a particular head shape. With constant selective breeding one ends up with a dog with a particular head shape selected for and a series of other free riders that came along with the selected for trait (reduced ability to smell, auto immune disorders etc). With the profit at all costs model you select for profitable groups, but as free riders you get a systematic lack of concern for the wellbeing of society and its members. Here it is up to society to decide what type of groups it wants to select for. If we don’t want to select for organisations that maximise profit at all costs we need to create as system of punishments and rewards that selects for the traits we want the groups to exhibit.

The psychologist Anthony Biglan’s work exhibits some of the strengths of this approach of selecting for certain group practices as opposed to other ones. He proposes that we treat organisms as entities whose behaviour we can modify in terms of selection by consequences. He argues that testing the impact of selection by consequences on corporate practices would give citizens and policy makers the tools to select the type of corporations we want (Biglan ‘The Nurture Effect’ p. 177). Although Biglan is aware of the power corporations have to resist such changes he cites his work with the Alcohol industry and the Tobacco industry to show that such change is possible. He suggests that positive reinforcement of good corporate practices may be a better tool than either negative reinforcement or punishment.

With the work of Biglan, Everett, Sloan-Wilson, and Ostrom we have tools for individual groups to make explicit what their actual culture is and why, we have tools to effectively design this group to succeed, we have an understanding of the dynamics of evolution to, as a society, create selective practices to select for groups with particular traits that will benefit society. This will create a feedback loop where corporations will have a Everett type worked out cultural self image, but will also have to compete in a world that is designed to select for practices based on an ethical world view based on more than just profit. If the checks and balances society is implementing on the particular corporation are impeding their growth they will have to modify their worked out self interest relative to the interests of the societies’ selective practices.

Obviously, a fear with the above is that what is being proposed is a form of top down governance in the mould of communism. However, that is not being argued for, rather what is needed what Biglan calls a more nurturing form of capitalism.

One criticism of my claims above is that corporations are too powerful for any governmental body to select for or against their behaviour. In my next blog-post I will evaluate how corporate power can be modified from within using the conceptual tools provided by Blanco’s set theoretic understanding of the mind and naturalizing his conception in terms of contextual behavioural science.

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