As my search continues for research and useful references on the design of more human friendly technology, I came across this book by Pulitzer Prize winning biologist Edward O Wilson: Genesis — The Deep Origin of Societies
In it, Wilson describes the evolving nature of human behavior within groups based on a lifetime of research on different animal societies. The book goes into the origins of human societies through our distant past and how the behaviors in different animal groups have evolved alongside. I didn’t have much background knowledge on the subject and had never read any of Wilson’s other books but it felt like a good idea to look back at our history and that of successful animal societies for insights into human behavior and technology and in particular our behavior online.
Some highlights that stood out for me:
Modularity — This is the tendency of all biological systems to divide into semi independent but co-operative groups for division of labor and organization. The common reasons for co-operation are kinship (close genetic ties but could also include strong friendships), direct trade of goods or services, indirect trade e.g. a future promise of return or for reputation.
Eusociality — In this type of colony, it is split into a worker caste that performs labor on behalf of the colony and a royal caste that is specialized for reproduction. Insects often exist as a eusociality with ants and bees among the most well known examples of supreme organization and communication among large populations that carry allow the colony to carry out impressive tasks. The author talks about there being a case for it appearing in humans through some indirect evidence (although I’m not sure how strong the evidence is).
Group selection — Natural selection is at odds with altruism; the behavior of a human or animal that benefits another at its own expense. At an individual level it fails to make sense why a person would do something that could affect them negatively if we assume that there always is a desire to survive, why then would an individual sacrifice themselves? It can be explained by looking at the group level when it can occur if the greater good is sought i.e. by doing an altruistic act, the group is saved. Wilson refers to another biologist to sum up what he describes in more detail in his chapter:
‘Within groups, selfish individuals win against altruists, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals’.
In this lies a good, scientific reason for us to work together for the better good.
Why is this interesting in relation to human behavior and technology?
Firstly it reiterates the things that successfully drives co-operation in groups. It doesn’t come as a surprise that people need to be driven by something and the strongest cause naturally is kinship. However as we have the ability to ‘know’ more people online than we ever did in the past, the net for kinship has grown much wider than just those people genetically close to us — it opened the door for our ‘online kin’ such as the groups we are affiliated with, the people we work with, etc. We can see this from how fast online social networks grew when they first appeared — the opportunity for trade, indirect trade and kinship of group sizes never before available and the ease with which it could be done, gave way for a new level of cooperation.
Secondly it leads us then to think about how our online networks may need to evolve as our usage and the size of the networks has changed over time. Cooperation was easier while the networks were smaller and while we had a tighter group to feel close to. It encouraged us towards altruism because we knew we were aiding the group and the people in it.
Now that our networks are large and unwieldy, and in many cases full of contacts that we no longer feel a kinship with, do we need a new way to organize? Something that encourages more cooperation and that has a different modularity i.e. do we need to completely rethink the design of online societies? Every system needs to change over time to better serve the people in it, so it would seem the answer is yes.