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Managing Evolution in Response to the Pandemic and Beyond

by David Sloan Wilson

People use words such as “evolve” and “adapt” all the time to express their need for positive change, but seldom think to consult the actual science of change—evolutionary science—to accomplish their prosocial goals. This is because most people associate evolution with genetic evolution, not cultural or personal evolution except in a loose metaphorical sense.

The coronavirus pandemic provides a teachable moment in this regard. Everyone looks to evolutionary science to explain the origin, spread, and adaptation of the virus to its new host, which is a matter of genetic evolution. Scarcely anyone looks to evolutionary science for guidance about how we can adaptively respond to the pandemic, which is a matter of personal and cultural evolution.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what our Rebuilding Macro project “Managed Evolution” is designed to do. It was written and funded with other challenges in mind, such as the economy and climate change. The pandemic merely increases the urgency of applying the same principles.

What do genetic, personal, and cultural evolution share in common? They all share the three basic ingredients of variation, selection and replication that comprise an evolutionary process. Also, they can all result in outcomes that take us away from, rather than toward, our prosocial goals—benefitting me but not you, us but not them, or our short-term but not our long-term welfare. Genetic, personal, and cultural evolution will take place whether we want them to or not. Unless we learn how to become wise managers of evolutionary processes, then evolution will take us where we don’t want to go.

Fortunately, we humans are masters at socially constructing both our mental worlds and our exterior worlds. We can formulate prosocial goals, orient variation around the target of selection, and identify and replicate best practices. We can implement certain core design principles within our groups to help everyone function in teamwork mode rather than self-dealing mode. And these principles are scale-independent—as relevant to nations and corporations comprising the global village as to individuals comprising a real village.

The first practical cultural change method informed by modern evolutionary science is called (Prosocial for short). The easiest way to begin managing your own evolution is at the small scale—you as an individual and the many groups in your life—your family, your friends, your business, your neighborhood, your church, your child’s school, your passion project. To get you started, we have created a “speed” version of Prosocial oriented toward helping you adapt to the pandemic. Like speed dating, speed Prosocial jumpstarts a relationship that merits much more exploration. But even the speed version is likely to make you and the groups in your life more adaptable to change and more likely to function in teamwork mode rather than self-dealing mode.

In our Rebuilding Macro project Managed Evolution, teams representing major national and international organizations, along with a sample of communities within the UK, are taking a 10-session online training course that will be followed by a widespread implementation phase. A managed process of personal and cultural evolution can be fast—maybe even as fast as viral genetic evolution.

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