The evolution paradox, and what it means for the workplace

This is my hypothesis: humans will struggle to create the kind of society we know we need because we can’t get past who we are now.

This is because evolution has hard-wired our weaknesses into our nature.

Intellectually we understand that the short-term pursuit of fat, sugar and sex is not a great long-term strategy, but this doesn’t stop our economy and society being built around this counter-productive engine of short-term selfish gratification.

This is what I call The Evolution Paradox.

Any animal which is able to evolve into intelligent life is fundamentally unsuited to do so

Look, there is some logic behind this:

Any animal able to evolve intelligence must be in an environment that favours the evolution of intelligence, and these environments have inevitable negative consequences.


For intelligence to evolve, there must be a direct relationship between having more brains and having more offspring.

This is a two-step process: first there’s the competition for access to reproduction, and then there’s the competition for resources to ensure the survival of the offspring so that they too can reproduce – in other words, succeeding in the game of life is about having grandchildren.

In both cases, there is a direct relationship between success in genetic reproduction and success in the competition among peers (for mates and resources). Those who win will be those who are best at dominating their group, the most selfish, the most scary and violent, and the most ruthless and determined.

It’s not all bad.

Human society has stabilized around a generally collaborative strategy, at least for now*. Everyone’s survival chances are improved when we collaborate, and the ability to collaborate both acts as a further spur (crane) for the evolution of intelligence and  dulls the sharp blade of aggressive individual competition … but even with this playing to our advantage (for the moment), the individual is still driven to protect the short-term selfish interests of themselves and their families … and oh no, we’re into an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game.

And this is the problem.

We seem to assume that we’ll somehow evolve past this massive show-stopper, that we’ll just grow out of our primate past, and become all mature and sensible and “cooperate” because our basic resource needs will be taken care of, leaving us to focus on – as Maslow would put it – “self-actualization” in a generally collaborative way.

There’s no evidence that this will happen, and in fact the theory (here) suggests that the opposite is true, that we’ll tend to “betray” each other to try to game the system for our own short-term advantage, meaning everyone will lose.

Perhaps this more optimistic interpretation is based on the assumption that Star Trek in our inevitable future.

In the show, we see the mature broad-minded sensible collaborative workplace of the future. Those working onboard the Enterprise are all hard-working, studious experts who work together responsibly and respectfully. There’s no office politics and silly unhealthy competition distracting the gang from their objectives. They don’t even complain about the crappy uniforms.

We imagine that we can get to this kind of idealised futuristic environment just by waiting for the technological advances, like it’s the technology that’s missing.

It’s not the technology that’s the problem, it’s the people!

If we had that sort of technology now, we’d just piss about with it like we do with the internet. Friends would teleport banana skins into our paths and distribute the subsequent videos on all hailing frequencies. Number One would be slagging off Picard behind his back and Scotty would have a day when he just couldn’t be bothered beaming anyone up.

If we want to evolve toward that bright Star-Trek-style future, we’re going to have to  help people become much better operators of their own brains so they can build positive habits, overcome bias, and use their instincts wisely – this is not going to just happen by itself.



* The Evolutionary Stable Strategy (see here for more details) – or ESS – is about how society finds stability between those who collaborate (doves) and those who don’t (hawks). If, as in today’s human society, access to reproduction is not connected to doveness or hawkness, then I’d argue that the ESS model is bound to break down at some point.

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