Collective Intelligence in the Holocene – 6: time perspective can enhance our understanding of the evolutionary process

Collective IntelligenceIf our aim is to understand ways in which collective intelligence might evolve to support the survival, adaptation, and flourishing of Homo sapiens in the Holocene, we need to consider the fullness of the world we live in, and the wonderful complexity of our living system.

We might assume, particularly when we’re younger, that some form of radical cultural evolution—some upheaval and overthrow of existing cultural systems—is needed to advance our capacity to resolve societal problems. But culture and cultural evolution never stand alone as discrete, all-powerful influences on human systems. For example, there is no ‘evolution of cultural consciousness’ that can occur outside of the constraints of our evolved biological and psychological make-up, just like there is no new ‘organisational culture’ that can magically overwrite the existing organisational and societal structures Homo sapiens have already put in place. If our goal is to work together to ‘evolve culture’, ‘transform organisations’, and ‘resolve societal problems’, it helps to develop a birds-eye view of the cooperative landscape we’re dealing with. We need to develop a solid sense of perspective and act to transform systems in medius res—in the middle of things.

We will think about evolutionary processes in two ways, across time and space. Across time, I will highlight four timescales of analysis and how different timescales prompt us to think about different aspects of teamwork and the action of individuals and teams that are seeking to leverage their collective intelligence to survive, adapt, and flourish in the Holocene. Across space, I will highlight four worlds across which collective intelligence activities need to be coordinated. These worlds cross the subjective and objective spaces where intelligence operates and are populated with everything that evolves and develops over time.

Time perspective is primary, and thus we start here. Time perspective helps to open our awareness to the fullness of the world we live in, and the wonderful complexity of our living system. For example, we can begin to understand how cultural evolution—as a relatively recent phenomenon—relates to the broader timescale of biological evolution, and life evolving on Earth. And from this expansive vantage point, we can zoom back in and work to understand how cultural evolution, unfolding from generation to generation, shapes shorter timescales of human development and human activity, including lifespan development from birth to death, and the critical, proximal, and, often, all-too-fast timescale of everyday social interactions, where cooperative behaviour and learning unfold in real-time in response to our current problem situation.

Hope springs eternal, but the way a baby lamb springs is different from the way a mature adult springs. As we develop across the lifespan, and as we explore more of our world, our perspective and our action may change. All perspectives and actions—those of the young and old team player alike—are part of a dynamic, collective exchange. We do well to talk with our teammates.

Situating our development in time

Consider four nested time scales in the analysis of living systems (see Figure 1).


Figure 1.  Nested time scales in the analysis of human systems.
Source: Michael Hogan

  • Living systems. The broadest timescale of analysis is the period within which living systems have been evolving, circa 3.5 billion years [i]. In looking to this timescale of analysis we remind ourselves that, genetically-speaking, Homo sapiens are united with all other living systems. An eye to the long history of living systems can enhance our general understanding of survival, adaptation, and flourishment. It can open our awareness to the intimate relationship between living systems and their environment, the common features of life evolving, the range of activities pursued by different species, and the actions that Homo sapiens are uniquely capable of. An eye to the long history of living systems can also help us to appreciate why resilience, sustainability, and well-being are basic notions that apply to all living systems, and ecosystems, and, understandably, why these notions emerge as common themes across multiple scientific disciplines. From a general systems perspective, living systems are often described open, ‘self-organizing’ systems [ii]. But how good are we at ‘organising ourselves’ in efforts to resolve societal problems and sustain our well-being and resilience? It not always easy. Like much else in the broad territory of life evolving, variation and change is a given, and in the context of this variation and change, there are many different ways to ‘self-organise’ an adaptive response to a shared societal problem. Teams need to figure out how to self-organise in different ways, depending on the problem they are facing. At the same time, the range of intellectual capacities that have evolved in the Homo lineage constrains our ability to understand and influence dynamic living systems. The complexity of systems can often befuddle us. Homo sapiens can organise themselves, for sure, but complex societal problems invariably put a strain on evolved intellectual capacities. Biological constraints place a limit to what Homo sapiens can perceive, attend to, remember, learn, and transmit.  Furthermore, evolved group-level behavioural tendencies constrain any ‘radical’ utopian re-engineering of our current cultural designs, including our political and educational systems. Collective intelligence methods and any associated technological innovations need to function well within the constraints of the current evolved system. This is the only way that collective intelligence can be reasonably used to change the system.  We change the system in medius res—in the middle of things.
  • Gene-culture co-evolution is the process whereby information that has been transmitted from generation to generation has altered biological systems. Gene-culture co-evolution is unique to human systems and by some estimates, it is a process that only really started about 2 million years ago[iii]. As such, it represents the second broadest timescale of analysis in Figure 1. Thinking about gene-culture co-evolution offers us some additional perspective in relation to human adaptation and human development. Although the effect of culture on biological evolution through means of natural selection has likely come to an end, culture continues to shape the overall ‘intelligent design’ of living systems. Cultural evolution—specifically, the emergence of new ideas, values, skills, tools, and artefacts of culture—can be viewed as essential to advancing our collective intelligence skills and our ability to work well together in teams. But we need to appreciate that cultural evolution is driven in part by imitation, conformity to the majority view, and a tendency to follow ‘successful’ members of any given cultural group. As such, redefining the leading edge of what it means to be ‘successful’ is important in shaping the majority view and the dominant trajectory of cultural evolution. At the same time, there are many different cultural groups and many different ‘leading edges’ and trajectories of cultural evolution. We need to be realistic as regards our capacity to coordinate across these different groups, resolve conflicts that naturally arise between competing groups, and influence higher-order coordinated and cooperative trajectories of cultural evolution. You might think that conflict within yourself, within your family, amongst your friends, or in your work organisation is challenging, but you can scale it up further, beyond the individual and beyond the team, and you’ll see another reality—the reality of inter-group conflict. Across the broad fields of science, technology, and governance, inter-group conflict is an evolutionary given that influences the broader dynamics of cultural evolution. Of course, conflict and cooperation co-exist and both are essential to the ‘creative’ potential of living systems.
  • Ontogenesis or lifespan development is the primary focus of modern developmental psychology. Traditionally, developmental psychologists focus on individuals, not groups or teams, and the main reason a developmental psychologist might choose to consider the two broader timescales of analysis above is to facilitate a deeper understanding of ontogenesis, that is, the process of individual human development from birth to death. Collective intelligence in a team or group emerges when the intelligence of individuals is coordinated in some way. Of course, individuals develop in characteristic ways from birth to death, and it’s important to understand this if your goal is to coordinate the intelligence of individuals in a team setting. As such, in order to understand collective intelligence we need to develop a solid understanding of individual intelligence and its development over time. Unlike other living systems, Homo sapiens are very slow learners[iv] and this is somewhat understandable given the types of skills that support successful adaption in modern human environments.  Biologically, Homo sapiens have a longer period of dependency on carers than any other species, and unlike other species they have mountains of culture to assimilate before they can be classified as fully ‘independent’ or ‘mature’. Many of the most important component skills supporting individual and collective intelligence—perception, attention, memory, reasoning, problem-solving—are acquired over months and years. And because we’re not robots, this path of individual and collective intelligence development involves a process of social and emotional development in addition to a purely ‘cognitive’ path. All components—the cognitive, social, and emotional—are intimately related in human systems. As such, if our goal is to facilitate collective intelligence in the Holocene, it’s important to understand the process of skill development in toto, as a whole. If we attempt to isolate, separate, or elevate any one component of intelligence over others—like economists mistakenly did for decades when they assumed that Homo sapiens behave like purely rational robots—we’ll ‘fall foul of the system’ in our collective intelligence applications. Furthermore, intellectual skill development cannot be understood in simple terms as the ability to effectively execute specific ‘operations’ or ‘component’ skills (e.g., recognising patterns, calculating probabilities). An important feature of lifespan intellectual development for Homo sapiens is the growth of their knowledge, which is part-and-parcel of the way we measure individual intelligence (e.g., using our standard IQ measures). We don’t just measure component ‘operations’.  In real-world situations, component intellectual operations (e.g., calculating probabilities) are applied in a knowledge context, and knowledge can grow within individuals and teams. Moving forward, our collective intelligence (CIQ) in the Holocene will require the building of new knowledge structures and new artefacts of culture that support the work of collective intelligence teams. Having arrived at this point in our biological and cultural evolution, we can reflect upon our path of development to date, consider the influences that have shaped our development, and leverage our understanding to influence new paths of skill development. We can acquire the types of cooperative and collective intelligence skills needed for successful teamwork. Naturally, to do this, we must come together in the present moment and begin working together. We only learn together if we work together, and we work together in real-time.
  • Microgenesis. Analysing behaviour as it unfolds in real time—over seconds, minutes, hours, days, and so on—is very important for understanding the ongoing state of human systems. Microgenesis is where the action is in the ‘self-organising’ system. The dynamics of behaviour as it unfolds in real-time is the essential fabric of sustainable cooperative groups and high functioning teams, and it is the essential glue that supports problem-solving and resilience and well-being in groups. Lifespan developmental science seeks to identify and understand the mechanisms that link microgenetic variations to ontogenetic change[v]. The microgenetic lens of enquiry brings us into the present moment, where acts of collective intelligence unfold in real time. Immersing ourselves in this space, we can begin to understand acts of perspective-taking, knowledge exchange, reasoning, decision-making, and learning. This is where a team comes alive, develops a shared understanding of the problem they face, and develops a strategy for working together in response to the problem. In this context, the cooperative path and pattern of behaviour that emerges from collective intelligence work represents one pattern from the countless possibilities that are present in the problem situation. Of course, these possibilities only open up to us when we take the time to think and explore together. It may come as a surprise to many people how rarely we take the time to think and explore together, and how rarely we engage in quality collective intelligence work. Time perspective and a deeper sense of human evolution and development can transform our sense of surprise into a deeper reflective understanding.
  • Developing a solid sense of perspective need not be too difficult. Indeed, it can be a deeply enjoyable, wonderful, and awe-inspiring experience. We know this, and we know that we need to cherish life on the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

© Michael Hogan


[i] De Duve, C. (2002). Life evolving: molecules, mind, and meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[ii] Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968).  General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications

[iii] Richardson and Boyd (2005).  Not by genes alone: How culture transformed human evolution. The University of Chicago Press.

[iv] Fischer, K. W., & Bidell, T. R. (2006). Dynamic development of action, thought, and emotion. In W. Damon & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Theoretical models of human development.  Handbook of child psychology (6th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 313 – 399). New York: Wiley.

[v] Lindenberger, U., & Von Oertzen, T. (2006). Variability in cognitive aging: From Taxonomy to Theory. In E. Bialystok & F. I. M. Craik (Eds.), Lifespan Cognition: Mechanisms of Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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