By what follows I may reveal a curiosity sufficiently wide-ranging as to border on the suspicious, but so be it.

When I was in college I took all the introductory-level, and many intermediate-level, science courses I could get into.  Math through multivariate calculus, physics, biology, chemistry, you name it. The same was true, by the way, of art history, architecture, comparative religion, Asian and medieval history, and much more—I was “catholically” curious, not vertically curious in just science, just the fine arts, or just the humanities.

This rather omnivorous curiosity has continued to this day.  As Dorothy Parker supposedly remarked, “The cure for boredom is curiosity; there is no cure for curiosity.” Suffice to say I’m never bored.

Which brings us in a roundabout way to how it might have been that I found myself reading the essay “Evolution and Our Inner Conflict” which Edward O. Wilson (Emeritus Professor at Harvard, recipient of the National Medal of Science, two non-fiction Pulitzers, etc., etc.) published a few days ago, posing the timeless question, “Are human beings intrinsically good but corruptible by the forces of evil, or the reverse, innately sinful yet redeemable by the forces of good?”

Good evolutionary biologist that he is, Wilson begins his answer thus:

Scientific evidence, a good part of it accumulated during the past 20 years, suggests that we are all of these things simultaneously. Each of us is inherently complicated. We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners — not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal — but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.

Following the trail of “the way our species originated” leads Wilson to ask how we passed from “pre-human social behavior to the human level,” or, in other words, from every man for himself (or every gene for itself, as Richard Dawkins would have it) to cooperation within groups.  Wilson posits the leading explanation for this transition—more and more astonishing the more you actually think about it—is “multilevel selection,” meaning the mechanism “by which hereditary social behavior improves the competitive ability not of just individuals within groups but among groups as a whole.”

The theory rivaling multilevel selection is kin selection, which has been around for decades and was hitherto believed to be the leading explanation for why we could behave in ways that might benefit others but harm ourselves.  Kin selection holds that altruistic behavior is favored by evolution when the self-sacrificing altruist is closely enough related to the beneficiary/recipient by common descent so that the odds are very high that the (surviving) beneficiary will have offspring whose genes closely resemble those of the (dead) altruist.  But kin selection seems to have taken a hit below the waterline:

[Kin selection] seems plausible, but in 2010 two mathematical biologists, Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, and I demonstrated that the mathematical foundations of the kin selection theory are unsound, and that examples from nature thought to support kin selection theory are better explained as products of multilevel selection.

A strong reaction from supporters of kin selection not surprisingly ensued, and soon afterward more than 130 of them famously signed on to protest our replacement of kin selection by multilevel selection, and most emphatically the key role given to group selection. But at no time have our mathematical and empirical arguments been refuted or even seriously challenged.

Aside from math, Wilson finds support for “multilevel selection” in the plain old common sense of what we know about how humans interact.

Research psychologists have found that all normal humans are geniuses at reading the intentions of others, whereby they evaluate, gossip, proselytize, bond, cooperate and control. [and]

[A] peculiarity of human behavior is the overpowering instinctual urge to belong to groups in the first place. To be kept in solitude is to be kept in pain, and put on the road to madness. A person’s membership in his group — his tribe — is a large part of his identity. It also confers upon him to some degree or other a sense of superiority.

What godly relevance to law firms could this possibly have, you may be asking yourself by now.  Stick with  me; we’re almost there.

Between two million and half a million years ago, our ancestral species began to inhabit single sites as groups, rather than randomly foraging the trees and the savannah.  Once groups came together in crowds, there would have been an evolutionary tug of war between individual-level selection, with individuals competing with other individuals in the same group, as opposed to group-level selection, with competition among groups (emphasis mine):

The latter force promoted altruism and cooperation among all the group members. It led to group-wide morality and a sense of conscience and honor. The competition between the two forces can be succinctly expressed as follows: within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.

Sounding familiar now?

Within firms self-seeking behavior can vanquish selfless behavior, if it’s permitted to do so.

But firms of selfless individuals beat firms of self-seeking individuals.

Or, as Francis X. Musselman, visionary leader of Milbank during the ’70s and ’80s, put it to me once, “We spend too damned much time competing internally, and not nearly enough time competing externally.”

It’s a lesson that’s about 3 million years old.

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