To understand ways in which collective intelligence can evolve to support the survival, adaptation, and flourishing of Homo sapiens, it helps to think across different timescales of analysis—and the broadest timescale of analysis we have identified here is the period within which living systems have been evolving, circa 3.5 billion years.
Notwithstanding the uniqueness of human beings—the uniqueness of you and me and every other person on the planet—a focus on the broadest timescale of analysis reminds us that, biologically speaking, evolution unites Homo sapiens with all other living organisms. By virtue of being a species, Homo sapiens are unique for sure, but not as unique as was once believed. In the past, Homo sapiens have devoted many words to describe how unique they are and have sometimes omitted to mention the commonalities of life evolving on Earth. Genetic commonality and variation across species is not a common topic of conversation on the streets. And yet, this commonality and variation is fascinating. For example, Homo sapiens and chimpanzees share 98.8 percent of their DNA sequences[i] and possess very similar neural and behavioral functions. On one level, we recognize this, but we also recognize, and perhaps pay more attention to the fact that, chimpanzees do not possess the same linguistic, graphical, and mathematical capabilities as Homo sapiens. After all, we are the ones who called ourselves sapiens. We love to talk about how intelligent we are. Certainly, the gene pool of interbreeding Homo sapiens holds the potential, from generation to generation, for the developmental emergence of uniquely human forms of linguistic, graphical, and mathematical intelligence. At the population level, across individuals, these unique forms of intelligence can manifest in an infinite variety of ways, as evidenced by the awesome, ongoing process of cultural innovation. The best-trained chimpanzees will never be biologically capable of the combinatorial intellectual complexity and innovation potential of well-educated Homo sapiens. Fair enough.
And yet, it is the common core of life evolving and the likeness of being across species that prompts our deep affinity to the whole of life on Earth. It is an affinity and empathy that prompts a profound (and potentially unbearable) sense of responsibility to sustain the diversity, well-being, and resilience of our living system. When our view of collective intelligence in the Holocene expands to embrace the broadest timescale of analysis, issues of (1) sustainability, (2) resilience, and (3) well-being naturally rise to prominence. These are issues for the whole of life evolving and, unsurprisingly, issues that orient our collective intelligence. Sustainability, resilience, and well-being are general features of living systems that emerge as prominent and pertinent, in one form or another, for collective intelligence teams, regardless of their working context (e.g., in business settings, in community settings, in government settings). The work of living and the work of collective problem solving rarely strays too far from a focus on these fundamental issues.
At the same time, collective intelligence teams don’t necessarily think about this broad timescale of analysis. Why should we bother? Similarly, people don’t always see themselves as part of a living system. What’s the point? But I’ll argue the point: within and beyond the gene pool of interbreeding individuals that make up Homo sapiens as a species, there is a likeness of being across all living systems that are important to understand. Failure to understand this likeness of being can result in a major gap in our knowledge and perspective, and a failure to understand some of the common goals and common processes that influence collective efforts to survive, adapt, and flourish in the Holocene.
Certainly, in our recent cultural history, we have become increasingly aware that the future of our living system is uncertain. Sustainability is a well-established focus of inquiry, problem-solving, and collective action both within and outside of academic and governance circles. The people on the street now talk about sustainability. Collectively, we now recognize that the future is uncertain, even if we don’t always see the long history that has taken us to this point. Our orientation to the future has changed. Looking into the distance and scanning the horizon, individual members of our species may ponder different future scenarios. Where is life taking us? How long do we have to live? How will our story play out? How will the story play out for our family and friends, the people of our tribe, our nation? And if we have a tendency to think big – on a global or even cosmic scale – we might ask, how will the story of life itself unfold?
Of course, when we think about it, down here on planet Earth, we soon recall that our story, as individuals, is part of a bigger story. In this story, we’re all related. And yet, we’ve only been granted an opportunity to understand this biological reality fairly recently in the history of our cultural evolution. Evolutionary science, like many other branches of science, is relatively new on the scene.
Evolutionary Science is truly a revelation. There’s a wonderful quote from the Nobel Prize-winning Belgian cytologist and biochemist, Christian De Duve, in his book, Life Evolving[ii], which illustrates the revelation:
“All the known living beings that subsist, grow, and reproduce on this planet – the trees and the flowers, the fungi and the mushrooms, the extraordinary richness of animal life, in the waters, in the air, and on land, including human beings, together with the immensely varied world of invisible bacteria and protists – all maintain and propagate themselves by the same mechanisms, no doubt inherited from a common ancestral form. The revelation is awe-inspiring. So is the realization that the unrelenting human urge to understand has, just in our times, disclosed life’s secrets for us.”
Life is one. According to Christen De Duve, simple awareness of this fact may produce awe sufficient enough for a spiritual awakening. Indeed, some commentators who have embraced a broad, evolutionary perspective have experienced such spiritual insights[iii]. But the biological fact remains: everything that lives is made of one or more cells, and every living cell evolved from cells that lived on our planet some 3.5 billion years ago.
The key to understanding the commonality and variety of life evolving is in our cells and in our genes. The development of complex multicellular organisms unfolds with a characteristic pattern. In particular, development is marked by a series of cell divisions. During the embryonic development of mammals, for instance, the cells, as they divide and multiply, become progressively differentiated and organized into tissues and organs. Before a cell divides, a copy of the organism’s deoxyribonucleic acids (DNA) is created. Notably, humans and horses differ not by virtue of the basic cellular mechanisms that sustain their life, but because the DNA within their cells codes for a species-specific and individual-specific hereditary blueprint that shapes the unfolding structure, process, and function of their developing life form. Humans and Horses simply followed a different evolutionary path. As noted by De Duve, by examining differences in the amino acid sequences of proteins that exist in all living organisms microbiologists studying cells have confirmed what paleontologists studying fossil records have previously judged true: humans and horses are derived from a common mammalian ancestor from which they diverged some 80 million years ago[iv].
Naturally, when our time perspective expands to embrace biological evolution we immediately transcend a simple focus on the individual, and a simple focus on Homo sapiens alone. We focus instead on populations of interacting species and our collective intelligence naturally extends to consider the sustainability, resilience, and well-being of ‘all’ living systems. We embrace the fullness of our ecosystem – that great community of living organisms that interact with one another and with sunlight, air, water, soil and other aspects of their non-living environment. We begin to perceive the complexity of social-ecological systems[v] and the challenge of system change. We accept that Homo sapiens are not alone in the ongoing challenge to sustain their life and uphold some semblance of resilience and well-being. In fact, it’s has been estimated that there are over 8.7 million species on planet Earth[vi], and this might well be a radical underestimate[vii]. One way or another, we recognize that we are immersed in a great web of life, with complex interdependencies connecting us with other species. The challenge of survival, adaptation, and flourishing plays out at a population level across species in the ecosystem.
Having said that, population thinking is relatively new on the scene, even for biologists. Before Darwin altered our perspective in 1859, there was a tendency to view species as fixed, unchanging types, and there was a tendency to privilege Homo sapiens as somehow separate, unique and even ‘divine’ beings (e.g., by virtue of the various magical ways they appeared on Earth from various heavenly starting points). Slowly but surely, Darwin’s analysis and synthesis[viii] altered our perspective and transformed our culture. Darwin’s approach to population thinking transformed biological science, and it was also foundational for the emerging social sciences, in particular, those branches of social science that focused on groups and populations. Rather than view species as fixed types, Darwin viewed species as populations that carry a variable pool of inherited information through time. Rather than ask how individuals interact with their environment, Darwin asked us to consider how a population of individuals interact with their environment and each other over time. Long before the gene was identified as the structural unit marking variation and long before mutation, segregation, meiotic drive and other processes shaping populations were understood, Darwin documented variation at the population level and identified a pattern: specifically, he argued that if individuals carrying some variant are more likely to survive and have more offspring in a particular environment, these variants can spread in the population through a process of natural selection. The key issue is whether or not individuals can survive in a particular environment, and of course, the environment can change in dynamic ways. Ultimately, the process of natural selection shaped the kinds of genetic information that fostered adjustment to and survival within different environments. Over time, many different species emerged, each adapted to specific environmental niches. In structure, process, and function, the collection of organisms on our planet unfolded like an expanding series of branches and leaves on a tree[ix].
An awareness of natural selection and biological evolution resulted in some Homo sapiens averting their gaze from Heaven and other forms of divine navel-gazing, to focus instead on the world around them and the powerful significance of their natural environment. Having survived so long as a species, Homo sapiens were already inherently and intuitively ‘tuned into’ their environment, but the scientific significance of the environment in shaping species was a genuine revelation to post-1859 sapiens. Some of the long-standing, historical delusions that had arisen in culture through the misapplication of linguistic, graphical, and mathematical capabilities were slowly dissolving. If the source of change in human systems could not be observed and studied directly, that source was now doubted by default and any inferences linked to the ‘unknown’ were treated with skepticism. Scientific thinking and critical thinking increasingly served to ground the run-away imagination of Homo sapiens. With an expanded time perspective, Homo sapiens began to think about history, cultural evolution, and human development in different ways.
The analysis of living systems and system dynamics has generated a number of unifying frameworks that cross biological, social, and environmental sciences, much of this inspired by the general systems view developed by Ludwig von Bertalanffy[x]. From a ‘general systems’ perspective, some of the features common to all living systems are worth noting. For example, it is commonly noted that all living systems are open systems, that is, open to the exchange of energy with the environment. Living systems support their life by exploiting external energy forms. By gathering energy and using it in ways that maintain itself, a living system can achieve requisite stability, consistency, order, and adaptive flexibly within a changeable environment. As Nobel-Prize winning physiologist, Charles Sherrington described it, life operates as a delicate energy-system, a system whose energy is partly used to maintain itself, for example, through nutrition, growth, excretion, mass movement of its parts, and reproduction[xi].
Ludwig von Bertalanffy highlighted the importance of stability, consistency, and order in a particular way, introducing new terminology and language that supported a deeper inquiry into the nature of systems. As noted by Bertalanffy:
“An open system is defined as a system in exchange of matter with its environment, presenting import and export, building-up and breaking-down of its material components…Under certain conditions, open systems approach a time-independent state, the so-called steady state…The steady state is maintained in distance from true equilibrium and therefore is capable of doing work.” (Bertalanffy, 1969: 141-142)
Within every living system, there is ceaseless construction work of all sorts taking place. Energy must be won such that the work of living can be sustained—work that maintains ‘order’ in the system, work that offsets the ongoing and variable degree of ‘disorder’ and decay within the system. Stated another way, a living system maintains a delicate balance between the gain and loss of energy and order, between negentropy and entropy. Living systems move through different states of energy and order over time, and although no one state of energy and order is maintained for long, living systems are constantly working to maintain a state of dynamic equilibrium[xii].
Like other living systems, Homo sapiens can die in any number of different ways, but in the natural course of events, with normal aging of individuals, there is movement from a state of order to a state of disorder in the living system before it dies. Consider the immune, endocrine, and nervous systems of Homo sapiens, which interact with each other by means of cytokines, hormones, and neurotransmitters, and which are similar in many respects across mammals[xiii]. The functioning of each system is dependent on the functioning of the other systems, and thus changes to one system will lead to changes in the other systems. The normal process of biological aging is a process of immunosenescence, endocrinosenescence, and neurosenescence[xiv], the functional relations between the immune, endocrine, and nervous systems become increasingly disorganized with age, and eventually, the individual dies.
For individual organisms, dynamic equilibrium cannot be sustained forever. Naturally, individuals will die, but members of their group, their species, may survive, and their species may evolve from generation to generation. When we focus on the evolution and sustainability of living systems, our thinking about sustainability invariably leads to a parallel focus on the resilience (i.e., capacity to sustain equilibrium) and well-being (i.e., sustained ability to pursue valued goals) of both individuals the groups. When thinking about these issues collectively—sustainability, resilience, and well-being—the issue of sustainability will naturally rise to prominence as a primary concern because if we can’t sustain life, resilience and well-being become irrelevant. There is no enquiry into well-being if we’re all dead.
At the ecological level of analysis (i.e., when we study interactions among many different organisms and species and their environment) the term sustainability is used to describe the ability of biological systems to remain diverse and productive indefinitely. Sustainability is an ideal state that is never achieved per se. Also, sustainability is a state that only Homo sapiens can conceive of. The bees may be under threat of extinction, and this, in turn, may result in the extinction of Homo sapiens given that of the majority of crop species that provide us with food are pollinated by bees[xv], but the bees have no linguistic, graphical, or mathematical conception of the problem of sustainability and no capacity to launch a global, coordinated response to the threat on their existence. Only Homo sapiens can develop an understanding of this threat and a collective response to the threat.
Sustainability may be an ideal state, but efforts to understanding the ideal state are important. Models comparing existing states and ideal states can be conceptualized, and the consequences of any deviation from an ideal state can be reasonably predicted. For example, further declines in the bee population are predicted to have very real, negative consequences[xvi].
Cooperating groups of Homo sapiens can work to design a strategy of interacting with one another and with other organisms and their environment in an effort to approach an ideal state of sustainability. At this point in our history, it is evident that the design of sustainable ecosystems is no easy task for Homo sapiens. Sustainable development involves thinking beyond the individual level of analysis, to the group level of analysis, and multiple, interacting groups. It involves an understanding of ecology, economics, politics, and culture. It involves some effort to understand, predict, and control our own individual behavior and the behavior of other members of our species, who, in efforts to maximize their well-being, run the risk of growing too fast and consuming too much, possibly destabilizing the ecosystem and destroying the environment in the process. For Homo sapiens, there is a balance to be struck between our well-being now and our sustainable well-being into the future. Negotiating the details of a sustainable design implies a dialogue between our current and future selves. It’s a dialogue and negotiation that also needs to include other species on planet Earth, assuming some of us are willing to speak on their behalf, and assuming others are willing to listen.
As sustainability is an ideal state, definitions and models of sustainable development are open for debate, and conflicting models often highlight different strategies for human interaction design [xvii]. Establishing some shared understanding entails a dialogue between all stakeholders who care to exercise their collective intelligence to think about sustainability issues. This need for dialogue and collective intelligence design work applies to any other ideal state of a living system we care to influence, including ideal states characterized by ‘well-being’ and ‘resilience’ of any system we’re working with. The definition of these states is always ‘open to definition’ and inherently ‘contestable’ and some shared understanding needs to emerge through dialogue, that is, if our goal is some form of coordinated, collective action designed to influence the state of a system.
Related to the notion of sustainability is the notion of resilience. At a certain level of abstraction resilience is a term that can be applied to individuals (as biological systems), groups (as social systems), and even intersubjective entities such as ‘economic systems’ and ‘education systems’, which are alive in the minds, and the behaviour, of groups who interact within their idea, skill, and artefact structures. A resilient system is a system that maintains a degree of equilibrium and stability in its internal action dynamics and can return to a state of equilibrium after perturbations. In other words, a resilient system can return to a state of dynamic equilibrium after environmental changes, challenges, or stressors that have resulted in its temporary disequilibrium – much like a person might return to a state of stable postural control and normal blood pressure after slipping and almost falling over on the ice, or much like a group operating within an economic system might regain stability and order in their production and consumption, trading and investment patterns after a war between major trading nations.
Some systems are more resilient than others. More resilient systems can deal with more powerful, violent, or larger shocks, changes, challenges, or stressors and can return more swiftly to a state of dynamic equilibrium. Much like our individual resilience can be seen as important for the maintenance of our well-being—including our ability to recover quickly from stress and return to a state of contentment [xviii]—so too can resilience be seen as important for the well-being of groups, and even ecosystems. For example, recovering from a state of radical inequality in the distribution of wealth amongst the billions of people on planet earth (i.e., a situation where 62 people possess the wealth of half of the world’s population [xix]) will be critical for the well-being of populations, as whole nations suffer lower well-being as a result of poverty [xx], and even groups living in nations where national wealth is growing are, on average, less content if wealth inequality in their nation is high [xxi]. One might think a resilient economic and psychological system would be able to recover from this radical state of inequality, but the problem here is that a singular economic and psychological system, an intersubjective derivative of the Homo sapiens biological system, does not exist in the first place, in the sense that economics and psychology are not coordinated in any meaningful way inside and outside of the academic community. As such, we have no way to easily recover from this radical state of disequilibrium, that is until we design a coordinated system. More generally, notwithstanding variation in resilience levels, some shocks to a system can be so powerful, violent, challenging, or stressful that the system cannot recover, for example, when an individual’s body temperature goes too high[xxii], when a group’s food supply is cut off[xxiii], or when the temperature of the Earth and acidification levels of the oceans are too high for too long[xxiv].
Across different levels of analysis—for individuals, groups, and ecosystems—resilience, well-being, and sustainability are related. Resilience supports well-being by allowing a system to recover from extreme, non-optimal states; and maintaining well-being now and into the future is a core part of what we mean when we talk about sustainability. Sustainable development, in turn, implies the design of ecosystems that support the resilience and well-being of individuals and groups. If human changes to the ecosystem test the limits of resilience beyond the point where a system can recover, well-being will be damaged. If the world freezes over, more and more of us will fall over and injure ourselves, more and more of us will get cold and sick, be unable to feed ourselves, and die. In simple terms, our resilience, well-being, and sustainability are inter-related and, importantly, open to the dynamics of human (collective intelligent) design. But as we’ll come to see, we need to help teams to work out a better science of design.
Importantly, living systems are often described as self-organizing, self-regulating systems (Bertalanffy, 1968; Kauffman, 1993). But this doesn’t mean, of course, that individuals or groups are either ‘aware’ of how their system is self-organizing, or are necessarily good at ‘organising themselves’ or ‘regulating themselves’ in explicit and transparent ways in efforts to deal with specific challenges. For example, in maintaining a stable stance on an icy surface, thousands upon thousands of nerve-fibers and muscle-fibers co-act, or self-organize, each neurochemically and neuroelectrically controlled, and our awareness tells us little about how this happens. Our cardiovascular system may also respond swiftly and automatically to the potential threat of a slippery surface by increasing cardiac output to the brain and major muscles, and psychologically we may experience distress or eustress in response to the icy surface. We may even feel some overall sense of stability, instability, and stability in our ongoing sensory-motor experience as we slip and slide across the icy surface—but we understand little of the overall ‘self-organising’ process as it unfolds. We only understand these processes if we study them directly, which of course requires some ‘objective’ analysis of other’s physiological and psychological states during the event. We don’t arrive at this understanding through reflection on our own subjective experience.
Also, just because of the human body instinctively self-organizes and self-regulates a variety of physiological control mechanisms that help us maintain dynamically stable postural control, cardiovascular control, temperature control, and so on, does not mean that we understand how to self-organize, self-regulate or be dynamically stable at other levels of human system operation. For example, it’s often unclear to us how to self-organize, self-regulate, and design a response to group conflict or warfare, the collapse of an economic or monetary system, or the collapse of psychological well-being as a result of some new emergent technology.
Our confusion is often notably observed in a return to metaphorical, imaginative, speculative and delusional thinking that is not rooted in observation, scientific and critical thinking. For example, it is notable when psychologists have attempted to use general systems metaphors to describe what it means to be psychologically well, their thinking is often unclear and not always scientifically useful—usually because they fail to develop any reliable or valid measure of the things they are (metaphorically) describing[xxv]. When it comes to the design of a psychological well-being intervention, in the absence of clear measurement, is not scientifically useful to say vague things, like ‘humans naturally seek to maintain dynamic equilibrium’ and ‘our intervention is designed to support dynamic equilibrium’. These metaphors can, at best, be translated into some measurable property of human systems, and an understanding of these measures may prove useful in specific problem-solving contexts, specifically, in contexts where we can understand and control the conditions under which these measurable phenomena change. Of course, even when we know how to measure the things we’re interested in, and even when we have some degree of control over these measures, we need clarity as regards ‘why’ we want certain measures to change. We need to think about the goals our living system is pursuing, and why.
Certainly, it requires some form of critical, reflective, systems thinking to address problems that pertain to our ‘resilience’ or ‘well-being’ as a group. For example, we need to think carefully about what we want to do and what we need to do in efforts to move from conflict to peace, or in efforts to combat the negative effects of some new emergent technology. Similarly, we have to think carefully if we want to understand what sustainability means to us and what we need to do to support the sustainable development of our living system. Without some thinking, a group will have no idea what these abstractions mean to them, much like they might have no idea which ‘variety of system goals’ will help keep them alive and well. Without some thinking, we cannot presume to establish any reasonable opinion as regards how we might ‘self-organise’. Critical, reflective and systems thinking at the level of the individual or group is not inherent to human systems—some education and learning is required. Beyond the automatic and largely unconscious self-organizing biological dynamics that are ongoing all the time as we jog around town in the rain, human systems are unique amongst all other living systems in terms of ‘having a view’ or a ‘perspective’ on what goals and actions are important for their system to pursue. When it comes to intelligent design, whatever we call collective intelligence is a function of the view or perspective that emerges whenever a group chooses to ‘think’.
It might help if we think a little more about the unique ‘evolutionary transition’ of Homo sapiens and, in particular, the evolutionary emergence of cooperation. After all, it’s some form of cooperation that will form the basis of any team-based systems thinking design effort. And remember, it’s the evolutionary emergence of high-functioning teams we’re pushing for here. Let’s stay focused on our goal.
[vii] Locey, K. J., & Lennon, J. T. (2016). Scaling laws predict global microbial diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(21), 5970-5975.
[viii] Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species. 6th Edition. Project Gutenberg
e-book. Release date, November 23, 2009. https://buff.ly/2x9Fp0L
[ix] Mayr, E. (2002). What evolution is. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. xv, 318.
[x] Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968). General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications
[xi] Sherrington, C. S. (1955). Man on his nature. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
[xii] Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968). General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications; Kauffman, S. A. (1993). The origins of order : self-organization and selection in evolution. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[xiii] Withers, P. C., Cooper, C. E., Maloney, S. K., Bozinovic, F., & Cruz-Neto, A. P. (2016). Ecological and Environmental Physiology of Mammals: Oxford University Press.
[xiv] Straub, R. H., Cutolo, M., Zietz, B., & Schölmerich, J. (2001). The process of aging changes the interplay of the immune, endocrine and nervous systems. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, 122(14), 1591-1611.
[xvi] Koh, I., Lonsdorf, E. V., Williams, N. M., Brittain, C., Isaacs, R., Gibbs, J., et al. (2016). Modeling the status, trends, and impacts of wild bee abundance in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(1), 140-145
[xvii] Howarth, R. (2012). Sustainability, Well-Being, and Economic Growth. Minding Nature, 5, 2: https://buff.ly/2xYokvk
[xviii] Hu, T., Zhang, D., & Wang, J. (2015). A meta-analysis of the trait resilience and mental health. Personality and Individual Differences, 76(Supplement C), 18-27.
[xxiv] Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Mumby, P. J., Hooten, A. J., Steneck, R. S., Greenfield, P., Gomez, E., et al. (2007). Coral Reefs Under Rapid Climate Change and Ocean Acidification. Science, 318(5857), 1737-1742.