Beyond Individualism

by David Sloan Wilson


The hardest thing for a fish to see is water. This adage aptly expresses the difficulty we have understanding our own cultures. We spot the foibles of other cultures--even our own cultures in the past--but are blind to our current foibles.


What is the water of our current culture, which we can scarcely see? Individualism, the unquestioned assumption that the individual person is a fundamental unit and that all things social can only be understood in terms of individual thought, preferences, and action. Individualism exists in a number of forms, which tellingly are not always consistent with each other. In economics, it takes the form of Homo economicus, a fictional being who cares only about maximizing his personal “utility”, which is uninfluenced by anyone else’s preferences. In the social sciences it is called Methodological Individualism. In my own field of evolutionary biology, it is called the Theory of Individual Selection and Selfish Genes. In everyday life, it is captured by former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that “There is no such thing as society; only individuals and families”.


Even the concept of mindfulness, derived in large part from Buddhist and other contemplative traditions, ironically can succumb to the assumptions of individualism, as if the main goal is for the individual to achieve peace of mind, with scant attention to what this might mean in terms of social action.


Our culture was not always this way and also is not homogenous in the present. A hundred years ago, society was conceptualized as something in its own right that couldn’t be reduced to individual psychology or biology. Often that “something” was described as itself an organism, which made individuals part of something larger than themselves. The concept of society as an organism stretches back to antiquity in religious and political thought and is represented by words and phrases such as corporation (derived from the Latin for ‘body’) and the body politic. In fact, it was so common and unquestioned that it was the water that our predecessors couldn’t see. When it was questioned in the middle of the 20th Century, it was largely rejected as too axiomatic, as if all aspects of all societies must always have an organ-like function, with little scope for individual agency. It was the rejection of organicist views of society that led to our current Age of Individualism. The word “largely” is important because social histories are not as clear cut as I am able to relate in a short essay. The roots of individualism stretch back centuries and the concept of society of organism persists here and there to the present.


Is our culture destined to swing back and forth, like a pendulum, between organicist and reductionistic views of society? No. Advances in evolutionary science have reached a new plateau of understanding that is permanent and provides a foundation for improving well-being at all scales, from individuals to the planet.


To begin, it is important to distinguish between two kinds of causation, which evolutionists call proximate and ultimate. Proximate causation refers to the material basis of life and its study is reductionistic. Not only does proximate causation reduce societies to their individual members, but it reduces individuals to their cells, genes, and molecules. There is nothing privileged about the individual organism as far as proximate causation is concerned.


Ultimate causation refers to the environmental forces that shape the properties of organisms by the process of selection—artificial selection in the case of domesticated plants and animals and natural selection in the case of all other species (even domesticated animals are shaped by natural in addition to artificial selection). When a poultry breeder selects individual hens to produce as many eggs as possible, the hen becomes an egg laying machine and the parts of the hen, right down to its molecules, become coordinated to achieve that end. The hens might interact in groups, but those social interactions will be byproducts of how they were selected to lay eggs as individuals. In other words, even though hens can be studied from molecules to society, the individual hen becomes a privileged unit as far as ultimate causation is concerned because it is the unit of functional organization. Realizing this is essential for studying everything both below and above the individual level.


But this is only because the individual was the unit of selection. Imagine what would happen if poultry breeders decided to select whole groups of hens to produce as many eggs as possible. Now their social interactions would be shaped by artificial selection, in addition to their individual physiologies. The social group would become the unit of functional organization and therefore the privileged unit of analysis as far as ultimate causation is concerned. The actions of individuals could be understood only in terms of their contribution to the common good, defined by the poultry breeder as the total number of eggs.


These two artificial selection experiments are not hypothetical. Both have been conducted and resulted in very different outcomes. The individual egg-laying machines that resulted from the first experiment achieved their productivity in large part by suppressing the productivity of other hens. That’s not what the poultry breeders had in mind, but it is what resulted from selecting at the individual level and led to a collective decline in productivity. The group egg-laying machines that resulted from the second experiment resulted in sociable hens who didn’t interfere with each other. Needless to say, poultry breeders learned from these experiments to select hens at the group level, which is where the eggs in your refrigerator come from.


This example is fascinating in its own right but has broader significance for our discussion of individualism and its alternatives. Privileging a given unit, such as an individual or a group, need not be axiomatic. There are principled reasons for deciding whether a given unit qualifies as a unit of functional organization on a case-by-case basis. It all depends upon whether it was a unit of selection.


Combine this insight with the fact that natural selection takes place at multiple levels throughout nature. That everything we call an organism is a highly cooperative group that evolved by group-level selection. That the eusocial insects (ants, bees, wasps, and termites),

famed for their collective efficacy, qualify as superorganisms because they evolved by colony-level selection; that humans are largely (although by no means entirely) a product of group-level selection, first at the scale of small groups throughout our genetic evolution and then at the scale of ever-larger groups during the last ten thousand years of cultural evolution. That all of the fast-paced changes currently swirling around us and even within us, as evolvable entities, can be understood in terms of multilevel selection. That knowing this, we can begin to manage the cultural evolutionary process to achieve cooperation at the global scale.


Welcome to the Post-individualism Age.




David Sloan Wilson is President of the Evolution Institute and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. More on the subject of this short essay can be found in his latest book, This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution.

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