Managing Cultural Evolution in Rugged Adaptive Landscapes

by David Sloan Wilson


One of the most venerable visual metaphors of evolutionary theory is the multi-peaked adaptive landscape, where altitude is fitness. Natural selection is envisioned as a hill-climbing process, causing evolving populations to climb smoothly to the top of a given peak. Getting from one peak

to another is challenging, however, because it requires crossing valleys of low fitness. The visual metaphor of “basins of attraction” in complex systems theory is an inversion of the adaptive landscape metaphor, where gravity takes a complex system to the bottom of a given basin, making it difficult to move between basins.


Beware of visual metaphors! They are useful to a degree but often fall short of capturing the full complexity of what they strive to visualize. In the case of adaptive landscapes, frequency-dependent selection can turn them into wavescapes, with peaks flattening into valleys the more they are occupied. The theoretical literature even talks about “tunneling” through adaptive peaks, which for me destroys the utility of the original metaphor. If you can tunnel through an adaptive peak, what’s the point of calling it a peak in the first place?


One practical take-home point conveyed by these images is that evolution is not always a smooth process. You can select for a given phenotypic trait and it will fail to budge based on countervailing forces of one sort or another. While this is well known for genetic evolution, it is equally true of personal and cultural evolution. How many times, as an individual or as a member of a group, have you tried to move in some desired direction, only to become stuck? Getting from here to there cannot be taken for granted!


A good example is 311, a three-digit telephone number that can be called to report minor dysfunctions in a city such as a pothole, failed trash pickup, or graffiti. As Daniel T. O’Brien relates in his book The Urban Commons: How Data and Technology Can Rebuild Our Communities, 311 began as a cultural mutation in the city of Baltimore to handle calls that were inappropriate for 911, which needs to be reserved for emergencies. Soon it became apparent that 311 could be useful in its own right as a kind of perceptual organ, providing information to city service departments without them needing to gather it for themselves. It has spread to over 400 cities, including Boston, where Dan has studied it in detail as director of the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI). Then the state of Massachusetts made it available to all the towns and cities in Massachusetts and Dan was on hand to study which ones were able to take advantage of the opportunity. For all of them, implementing a new innovation such as 311 required a number of people and organizations coming together to coordinate their activities. Sometimes this happened and the town or city succeeded in implementing 311, but more often it did not. The failure of will or coordination was idiosyncratic in any particular case. One is reminded of Leo Tolstoy’s immortal sentence “All happy families are alike; all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way”.


It turns out that effective techniques have been developed in the applied behavioral sciences for helping individuals and groups navigate around obstacles to reach their valued goals. Prosocial World (PW), the practical change method that I have helped to develop for over a decade, employs one such technique called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy/Training (ACT, which is pronounced as one word) (1,2). The T in ACT can stand for either therapy or training. On the bell curve of human functioning, you need therapy if you’re on the extreme low end but can benefit from training no matter where you are on the curve. Even elite athletes benefit from training. To a large extent, the principles of ACT work along the entire spectrum. ACT is so widely implemented and studied that there are literally hundreds of randomized control trials for constellation of problem behaviors such as OCD and depression (associated with therapy) and academic and sports performance (associated with training)(3). In fact, this literature is so large that the number of meta-analyses is approaching 100 (4).


Thanks in part to my collaboration with Hayes and his colleagues, ACT is increasingly being seen as a way to navigate across rugged adaptive landscapes in personal and cultural evolution (5,6,7). But there is another level at which managed cultural evolution can take place. Whenever there is a choice of individuals or groups with whom to work, then if all else is equal, it is best to begin with the ones that start out more responsive to change. Their progress can help to improve the adaptive landscape for the ones that follow.


That is the strategy that we employed for my “Managed Evolution” grant from the ESRC’s Rebuilding Macroeconomics program, in two stages. Stage one was the recruitment of organizations to become involved in the project, which required assembling a team of 3-5 people to attend a ten-session online training course. By casting our net widely during the recruitment phase, we were able to select the organizations most eager and able to take part.


Phase II was the funding of action projects that each team formulated by the end of phase I. This selection process was especially instructive for me and my co-instructors, Paul Atkins and James Dyke, because we had grown to know each of the teams and their respective organizations so well. All of them were eager to put their training into action but they varied in their ability to do so. Some of the obstacles were external (especially given the pandemic); other obstacles were due to the organizations represented by the teams; still other obstacles were mental. All were idiosyncratic and would be difficult to predict beforehand. Thanks to the variation among teams, however, we were able to select the ones best able to hit the ground running with their action projects. This, coupled with the flexibility allowed for each team to utilize the funding, resulted in far more effective use of the grant’s resources than if more rigid planning had taken place.


One project has resulted in approximately 40 facilitators working with groups in the Bristol area, centered on the school system but extending throughout the community. Another project has contributed the formation of a new specialty within the National Health Service in the Dumfries and Galloway area of Scotland, titled “Prosocial Development and Staff Support”, with funding from the NHS. A third project facilitated the creation of a branch of Prosocial oriented toward educational applications worldwide (8). A fourth project introduces Prosocial to the Transition Network, which originated in the UK and now consists of hundreds of communities worldwide.


No one could have predicted that these would be the most fertile projects to support beforehand. A variation and selection process was required at the project level, just as it is required within each project to navigate through rugged adaptive landscapes at a smaller scale.


Elsewhere (9), I have argued that all forms of positive change, at all scales, require a managed process of evolution. Since it is the only thing that can work, it is the only thing that ever has worked. We do it without knowing that we are doing it. Or, if we are aware of what we are doing, we describe it in ways that become trapped within disciplinary boundaries and are unknown beyond their borders. What’s new is a general theoretical framework for thinking about managed evolution and applying it across all contexts and scales. I look forward to building upon the success of the ESRC grant to continue spreading Prosocial through rugged adaptive landscapes.

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