Do our group struggles have an evolutionary origin? 

Today, at every level of society, we are struggling with the question of how to live and work better together. Many individuals are struggling to find their footing amidst burnout, fake news, and flaring culture wars. Many organizations are struggling to reconfigure the workplace for a work-from-home future. Many societies are struggling to overcome vaccine refusal and the collapse of public trust. 

How to live and work better together: it’s a complex question. Throughout most of human history, we’ve treated it as a philosophical or political debate. One side of this ancient debate has viewed our collective behavior (i.e., how we interact with one another) as something that self-corrects toward goodness, given the chance. 

In his book Politics (4th-century BCE), Aristotle argued that all free people are born with the potential to become virtuous and wise. These good-natured qualities naturally come forth, given a healthy environment in which to develop proper habits and practical experience.

The other side of the debate has maintained that how we interact needs to be actively managed and guided by a strong hand. Otherwise, our bad-natured and chaotic qualities will run amok and ruin peace. 

Hobbes expressed this view in his Leviathan (1651) : “In the State of Nature, without rules or contracts, the idea of fairness has no place and people are in a relentless game of survival.” 

To Hobbes’ thinking, contracts between people would only be honoured if backed up by the threat of force: “Covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.” 

In an interdisciplinary paper that generated lots of conversation globally among big-name academics, Joseph Bak-Coleman, Mark Alfano, Wolfram Barfuss and many others advocate a paradigm shift. What if “how we should live and work together” is not a debate at all? What if it’s a result of natural selection? 

We have a second, social brain. It evolved in us over millennia. 

And now we’ve suddenly plopped ourselves into an alien social environment. 

Rethinking our present struggles with one another in evolutionary terms helps make sense of a lot of things. It also opens up a brave new horizon of unexplored opportunities — and risks — for individuals, organisations, and humanity.

Our hardwired ways no longer fit our world 

We already know that other animals have social brains.

Think of a school of fish that exhibits a higher-order intelligence to avoid predators (like in this awesome video). Or a “murmuration” of starlings that flies like a single swirling liquid mass.

Early 20th-century scientists, unable to figure out how animals managed to coordinate complex movements far beyond the capabilities of the best military column, reluctantly concluded that they must possess some form of telepathy. But gradually, science found a better answer: natural selection doesn’t just favor useful individual features. It also favors individuals whose social tendencies produce useful group dynamics. Over time, very complex patterns of collective behavior get hard-wired into group members. This helps the whole group to thrive together in their ecological niche. 

Today, many animal species look confused. The natural environment is changing fast, and their group behaviors no longer fit it.

Bak-Coleman et al reason that it’s the same for us humans — only worse, because with our big brains we don’t just live in the natural environment. We live in the information environment — and that world is even more alien from the world our social brain was built for. 

Modern humans have been around for about 150,000 years. For the first 140,000 of those years, we existed as small hunter-gatherer groups. Our ways of working together evolved to solve local problems with grunts, words and gestures. Then about 12,000 years ago we discovered agriculture, and in the blink of an eye our small social groups ballooned into cities and states. 

Evolution works slowly. Twelve millennia is too short a time for hard-wired aspects of our social intelligence to adapt to this new, larger scale. As small groups, we got good at competing for scarce resources. As a large group we’re struggling to get good at not competing for them. 

We’ve had far less time — mere decades — to adapt to the telephone, tv, email, and social media. When information networks were biological (speech, gestures, memory), we could rely upon noise, signal decay and the passage of time to dampen false alarms and kill off bad ideas. Now digital information comes at us instantly and losslessly from any distance, regardless of accuracy. The natural costs and filters we used to rely on to limit the spread of low-quality information have completely disappeared, but our in-built intuitions haven’t changed much at all. 

Result: Behavioral adaptations that used to guide us can now lead us astray (e.g., Trust the people with the most followers; they’re the best sources of high-quality information. Does that intuition still make sense?)

In the pre-media age, groups had to forage for information themselves. We hard-wired whichever processes improved our chances of survival. Today, we are offloading information-foraging onto algorithms. Most of them are wired to maximize shorter-term goals, like profit. 

The upshot, Bak-Coleman et al conclude, is that our social brain is a complex system — in the same way that the climate is a complex system. But we fail to recognise it as such. Meanwhile we are making giant changes to both the mechanics of that system and the environment in which it functions, without much understanding of the consequences of doing so. 

Opportunities for Action

The moment we do recognize that we possess this second, social brain, a whole new horizon of unexplored possibilities for growth, value creation, and progress opens up.

→For individuals

For us as individuals, the biggest growth opportunity is probably to seek dissonance. If algorithms are skewing collective behaviour in a way that’s bad for us personally, it is because we are evolved to seek friendly social environments. We like consonance. We like to be surrounded by people who affirm us and ideas that confirm us. Algorithms that are tuned to maximise profit tune into this aspect of our nature. They expose us over and over to whatever we most prefer, and the more we choose these choices, the narrower and more extreme our preferences become. 

Those of us who relearn how to forage for ourselves will be more resilient and resourceful than those of us who don’t. 

Good dissonance can be hard to find these days. Public incentives to conform are very strong. Signal your virtue and you can make influential friends; speak out and you risk a public shaming. That is why public spaces that prize dissonance (like Neue Geo!) are becoming so important. Here, diverse people meet in small-group, campfire settings, in order to explore big questions from different perspectives. When a tension emerges, everyone gathers around to learn from it. When no tensions emerge, everyone leaves disappointed. 

Such sites are where we can work with the social brain that nature gave us to help us better navigate this new world we find ourselves in.

→For organizations

In our businesses and organizations, the big opportunity for fresh value creation is to reimagine work. An organization’s productivity depends on how well information and behaviors flow among the group. How would the workplace look different if it were designed to leverage better the hard-wired features of our social brain? 

The truest answer today is: we don’t know. Yet right now, CEOs are taking turns confidently declaring their companies’ post-pandemic back-to-work setups. The new buzzword is “hybrid.” Is “hybrid” the future of work? Or is the hybrid workplace half-stuck in industrial-age thinking? That line of thinking originated way back in the steam-powered factory, where all workers physically needed to be in order to get anything done. Are visions of the hybrid workplace free from that logic — or anchored in it? 

What if we stepped off this line entirely? What if, as a thought-exercise, we tossed out everything we've learned since the advent of industrialization about how to separate “work” from “life”? What if we rebuilt the organization around a new model of how we evolved to function best in groups? (To go deeper down this path, read our article on the New Geography of Work.)

Leading 20th-century anthropologists who studied pre-modern societies, like Victor Turner, noticed that individuals knit themselves into well-functioning groups at points of integration. These points of integration are defined by three parameters: a site, a ritual, and a drama. Say the site is a pub or bar. The ritual is the scripted activity (“buying a round”). The drama is the unscripted talk that happens. What would your organization look like if your design principles were:

  1. Individuals work best wherever works best for them, and 
  2. The mothership's job is to curate points of site, ritual, and drama, to create healthy context for our in-built processes of group formation, information processing and behavioral transfer to happen? 

Would you arrive at the same organizational design you have today? Would you arrive at the “hybrid” workplace that you, your boss or your peers are advocating? Or would you arrive at something different?

Exploring these questions might unlock significant new value in even the best-built organization today. 

→For society

For policymakers, politicians and citizens, our social brain is a complex system that we need to care about and care for. What are the most important indicators of a healthy human hive mind? We don’t yet know. What are the best and worst levers to change our social dynamics? We don’t yet know. 

Without better answers to these questions, present-day public choices — e.g., Should we regulate social media companies? — get decided on philosophical and ideological grounds. We used to decide environmental policy the same way. (Some would say we still do.) But for the past 50 years, we’ve been gathering evidence about climate change to enable more evidence-based policy decisions. 

In the same way, we need to gather better evidence about how our social brain works. Puzzle pieces from anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, economics, management, communications, computer science and other fields all need to knit together to form a better picture of the whole system so we can keep it healthy in a modern, technologically connected world.