Using evolution science to build a prosocial world

Freddy Jackson Brown, Paul Cooper, Emma Balfour and Mary Stanley-Duke.

23 August 2021

We now understand evolution to be much more complex than just genetic change. For social species like humans, evolution is taking place within and across four interacting inheritance streams – genetic, epigenetic, learning and cultural. And to make matters even more complicated, evolution is also operating on different levels of complexity, such as between individuals within groups and between groups in a multigroup population, at the same time.

This new understanding provides insights into some of humanity’s unique characteristics, like our extraordinarily high levels of cooperation and altruism. Today, psychologists are using this wider appreciation to tackle some of society’s more pressing challenges, such as how we build a more prosocial and sustainable world.

Defining evolution
Long before Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution was already a popular topic. Studies from natural history suggested life on Earth was not fixed in its current form, but constantly changing. People were asking how.

Darwin’s great insight was that a natural process operating over long periods of time could explain these evolutionary changes. He called the process natural selection and it involved three basic components – variation, selection and heredity (i.e. the retention of traits – why offspring look like their parents). Individual organisms in a population naturally vary, Darwin argued, and traits that increased an organism’s chances of survival and reproduction were more likely to be passed onto the next generation. Favoured traits accrued across the generations and over time led to diversification and later speciation. For Darwin, evolution was a ‘struggle for existence’ between individuals, and only the traits of the winners made it to the next generation.

Heredity was widely accepted at the time Darwin was writing – it was well known that selectively breeding plants and animals could accentuate or favour certain traits. However, it was not clear how this process worked until Mendel’s studies with peas clarified the units of inheritance, later called genes. By the 1930s, Darwinian theory and Mendelian genetics had combined into what came to be called the Modern Synthesis (Huxley, 1942). From that point on, genetics took centre stage and became what most people meant by ‘evolution’.

Four streams of inheritance
It’s now believed there are four distinct evolutionary inheritance streams in organic life (Jablonka & Lamb, 2005). The first and best-known of these is indeed genetic. Mutations and changes in DNA (variation) that support survival and reproduction (selection) are more likely to be passed onto offspring (retention). Individual organisms live and die, and species evolve as they adapt to their local environments.

The second inheritance stream is epigenetic. Every single cell in our body – skin, liver and blood cells etc. – contains exactly the same sequence of DNA and yet they all have different structures and functions. This is because different cells use, or express, different parts of our genes, depending which are turned on and off by epigenetic modifications. DNA is like an instruction manual for how to build a body, and epigenetics is like highlighting which bits of the text to pay attention to at different times with coloured marker pens.

One type of epigenetic process occurs when molecules called methyls attach themselves to DNA sequences, thereby deactivating them. Methylation follows in response to the organism’s experiences (like starvation or trauma) and it can lead to changes in cell structure and functioning. This matters in evolution because epigenetic modifications can be (though are not always) passed across the generations – our grandmothers’ experiences or childhood diets can impact us today. Epigenetic modifications are a distinct hereditary system from genetic evolution.

The third inheritance stream is learning (i.e. behaviour change). The psychologist B.F. Skinner was one of the first to understand that natural selection was operating in different inheritance streams, which he identified as genetic, learning and cultural (epigenetics had not yet been discovered). Most of his work centred on learning, which he described as ‘selection by consequences’ (Skinner, 1981). Operant learning, he argued, involves behavioural variants being selected (i.e. reinforced) by the consequences they produce, hence becoming more or less likely to occur again in the future (i.e. the heredity of learning). Just as individual organisms live or die and the species evolves, individual behaviours are selected or deselected and the operant evolves. This is how practice works – feedback selects and shapes our skills, from playing the piano to orthopaedic surgery (Konkel, 2016). Learning enables the organism to adapt to the local environment more quickly than genetic or epigenetic evolution, with clear survival advantages. It probably emerged for that reason.

The fourth inheritance stream, cultural evolution, is the transmission of behaviours between individuals within and across generations. In essence it involves one individual copying (i.e. replicating) the behaviour of another. When this includes offspring, the behaviour becomes transgenerational. Examples include chimpanzee tool use and human Christmas traditions. Direct imitation is an important vector of transmission within a group, but human cultural evolution really took off with the emergence of symbolic systems and generative language (i.e. language without a direct learning history). Symbolic systems allowed the accumulation and rapid transmission of ever more complex knowledge that in turn opened up new opportunities (see Yuval Harari’s Sapiens for an excellent account of this journey).

While occurring independently, the four evolutionary inheritance streams also interact with each other, creating an extraordinarily complex process that enables human beings to adapt swiftly to hugely different ecological niches. Today, human evolution is like a braided river with four intermingling inheritance streams meandering through the Earth’s landscape, speeding up, slowing down, separating and reforming over and over again through time.

Multilevel selection and cooperation
Evolution also occurs at different levels of biological organisation, from cells to individual organisms to groups of organisms to multigroup populations (Wilson & Wilson, 2007). We typically think of evolution as only operating on single organisms, but in fact it can take place wherever units vary and are selectively retained.

Our immune system is a well-known example of the evolutionary process operating within individuals. B-cells in our blood produce a wide variety of antibodies. The ones that latch onto a pathogen stimulate other B-cells to produce more of those antibodies. In effect, antibodies are selected and replicate, thereby adapting to and eliminating the pathogen. On a larger scale, honeybees, wolf packs and businesses on the high street are examples of groups of individuals functioning as single units that succeed or fail together (i.e. are selected). Even individual organisms are collections of genetically unrelated organisms functioning as a single unit (e.g. our microbiomes).

Once we move beyond seeing the individual organism as the only unit upon which the evolutionary processes of variation, selection and retention can act, a new way to understand our extraordinarily high levels of cooperation and prosociality emerges.

If evolution is all about individual competition in a struggle for existence, why do humans seemingly waste time and energy, or even put themselves at risk, helping other people, particularly if they are genetically unrelated? Darwin’s answer presaged our contemporary understanding. He argued that groups of individuals who helped each other would outcompete groups of individuals who did not. He understood that groups could function as units that compete against each other much like individual organisms do, and that this between-group competition could produce a selection pressure for within-group cooperation. In other words, groups whose members showed higher levels of cooperation would do better than groups with lower levels of cooperation. Today, this idea is called multilevel selection theory (MLS; Wilson, 2015) and while still the source of considerable debate, it does offer useful insights into the basis of human cooperation.

Critics of MLS argue that group selection cannot occur because groups do not make copies of themselves or have traits that are independent of the individual members (Pinker, 2012). Proponents of MLS would agree that groups do not exist independently of their members. But it is not the individual or their traits that are selected. What is selected is cooperative behaviour. And when cooperation is supported and replicated by other individuals, a cultural process emerges that affects the overall success (or survival chances) of the whole group. Learning and cultural replication (inheritance streams three and four) are both distinct from and related to the genetic and epigenetic processes upon which they are based and as such they cannot be reduced to them. The relationship is analogous to the way computer software is both distinct from and related to the hardware on which it runs.

MLS has particular relevance for humans as we evolved and continue to live in groups of varying size alongside other groups in the wider population. How groups function in relation to external targets (e.g. erecting a tent) or in competition with other groups (e.g. sport or business) matters for almost everyone. And here’s the rub – because behaviours that are good for the individual are often bad for the group, if the group is to be successful then it is in its members interests to promote cooperative and prosocial behaviours above self-interest. So how do groups achieve this?

Ostrom’s core design principles
Cooperation is part of the human potential, but it needs a specific social context or more self-interested behaviour will predominate. What are the contextual variables that support cooperation? Elinor Ostrom was a political scientist who in 2009 won the Nobel prize for economics for her work on how individuals cooperate to manage common resources sustainably. Ostrom (1990) studied groups around the world, and from meticulous and painstaking observations distilled eight core design principles (CDPs), which encourage cooperation and sustainable resource management:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries and membership
  2. Locally adapted rules for equitable distribution of costs and benefits
  3. Collective choice arrangements that include everyone in decisions
  4. Effective monitoring of agreed rules and behaviours
  5. Positive and negative consequences for following or transgressing agreed rules
  6. Fast and efficient conflict resolution
  7. Local self-determination without interference from higher-level authorities
  8. In the case of larger systems, groups relate to other groups using principles 1-7, producing multiple layers of networked cooperating groups

Individually, each of Ostrom’s CDPs are straightforward. Many people will recognise them (perhaps by their absence) in their groups and organisations. Ostrom found that groups who implemented the CDPs more had higher levels of cooperation, collective effectiveness and overall wellbeing. Conversely, when they were not fully implemented, group functioning broke down and individual self-interest took over. This meant that some individuals did substantially better than others and the group’s effectiveness at managing common resources dropped.

A great example of effective cooperation comes from health care in the Netherlands. In 2006, four nurses had become disillusioned by the impact of Government health care ‘reforms’ on their relationships with clients. They founded an organisation called Buurtzorg, seeking to simplify the care system and build teams that put clients at the heart of everything they do.

The Buurtzorg model is based on self-managing teams that have ‘professional freedom with responsibility’. The teams are small, usually around 12 people (CDP 1) and through open, shared decision making (CDP 3) they self-organise to deliver agreed services and outcomes. For example, new teams find their own offices, decide their internal responsibilities and governance, set their own pay and get to know the local community and care networks (CDPs 2, 4, 5 & 6). Everything is self-organised, and problems are addressed in the level they occur, not by higher management (CDP 7). Teams cooperate with other teams using these same principles to produce the overall organisation – a network of cooperating individuals in cooperating teams in a single corporation (CDP 8). This type of bottom-up self-determination contrasts with the centralised management structure and decision making of most large organisations. As well as producing high quality person-centred care, Buurtzorg is popular with staff. Its success has seen it grow to over 15,000 professionals in 850 teams in communities across the Netherlands and spread into 24 countries.

In effect, Ostrom’s CDPs describe how groups culturally maintain practices that manage self-interested behaviours that are detrimental to the group. The evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson stated, ‘In groups that strongly implement the CDPs, it is difficult for members to benefit themselves at the expense of each other, so that the only way to succeed is as a group’ (p.121, 2019). But if the CDPs are so critical for groups, why aren’t they universally implemented? The reason is that selection not only operates at the group level, but also operates on individuals within the group. This leads to a constant seesaw struggle between the expression of self-interested behaviours on the one hand and cooperation on the other. Sometimes the conditions favour the former and at other times the latter.

Towards a prosocial world
Prosocial behaviour is everyday cooperative behaviour that benefits other people or the wider group. It includes win-win interactions and also altruistic behaviour that benefits others more than the individual engaging in it. Examples are volunteering, giving directions to a stranger, donating to a charity, random acts of kindness, or just following social norms like standing in a queue or opening a door for someone. In evolutionary terms, prosocial behaviour involves an individual giving up time and/or resources for no immediate benefit, so why do people do it? MLS argues human groups culturally evolved high levels of cooperative behaviour because it gave them a competitive advantage over groups that did not behave in this way. Groups encourage and support prosociality with their language, values, stories, social rules, laws and reward systems, or what we broadly refer to as culture.

Sloan Wilson understood how the CDPs were part of the MLS story, as they described how groups could organise themselves to tip the balance in favour of greater internal cooperation (Wilson, Ostrom & Cox, 2013). The challenge was how to change people’s behaviour to implement the CDPs and once again Wilson turned to evolution science. In partnership with Paul Atkins and Steven C. Hayes, Wilson combined Ostrom’s CDPs with techniques from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT; Hayes et al., 1999) to develop the Prosocial training programme (; Atkins, Wilson & Hayes, 2019).

Evolution science tells us we respond to the environments we are in and that we can also change those environments. We can shape our niche and this in turn shapes us. The challenge Prosocial has embraced is how to use our understanding of evolution science to do this on a planetary wide basis to create a fairer and more sustainable global society (Wilson et al., 2013). Prosocial aims to train thousands – in time hundreds of thousands – of groups to use ACT processes to implement Ostrom’s CDPs. Each of these groups can then build cooperative relationships with other groups using the same CDPs as they scale the principles from groups to groups of groups to create extended prosocial communities.

Robert Styles, for example, used Prosocial to increase the use of Ostrom’s CDPs by leaders at two state run organisations, the Museum of Australian Democracy and the Property and Construction Division of the Australian Finance Department. Pre-post employee census data (independently collected by the Government) showed significant increases in perceived levels of service performance and functioning as well as increased staff morale and wellbeing. In fact, every questionnaire item showed improvement over the course of 12 months and this was sustained 12 months later (Styles, 2018).

Essentially Prosocial can be deployed wherever we want to improve team functioning. In Bristol, we are using it to support cooperation and improve outcomes across a range of settings, such as in schools, multi-professional liaison and CAMHS family network meetings. To take one example, we delivered it virtually via four 1.5-hour sessions to help a specialist sensory support team respond to an Ofsted review requiring them to better evidence their impact on children’s learning. We’ve also built it into in a regional pilot for supporting care teams to implement Positive Behavioural Support with up to 60 people with complex mental health and behavioural needs. And in Scotland, clinical psychologist Dr Jim Lemon and his team are using Prosocial across the whole NHS Trust to support staff wellbeing and team performance.

The Covid-19 pandemic shows how quickly prosocial behaviours can emerge when the situation demands. When the crisis began, incentives for self-interested actions held sway and we saw some people ignoring social distancing rules, hoarding toilet rolls and vital supplies. But very quickly our cultural messages and sanctions changed and prosociality increased. In 48 hours, more than 750,000 people volunteered to support the NHS and across the country community groups sprang up to support more vulnerable people. Within a week a ‘clap for carers’ campaign began to recognise and thank those in frontline services and the news was filled with reports of fundraising and acts of kindness. This is exactly what we’d expect based on MLS – external challenges changing the internal selection pressures to increase prosocial behaviour.

The philosopher Francis Bacon said, ‘Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed’. By observing the rules of nature described by evolution science, Prosocial is using them to increase the levels of cooperation and altruistic behaviour in an effort to build a more prosocial world.

- Freddy Jackson Brown and Paul Cooper are with Avon and Wiltshire NHS Trust, Bristol. [email protected] or [email protected]

- Emma Balfour and Mary Stanley-Duke are with Trading with Schools, Bristol City Council, Bristol Prosocial

Illustration: Napal Naps

Key sources
Atkins, P., Wilson, D.S. & Hayes, S.C. (2019). Prosocial: Using evolutionary science to build productive, equitable, and collaborative groups. Context Press.
Hayes, S.C., Strosahl, K.D. & Wilson, K.G. (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. Guilford Press.
Huxley, J. (1942). Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. George Allen and Unwin.
Jablonka, E. & Lamb, M.J. (2005). Evolution in four dimensions: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic variation in the history of life. MIT Press.
Konkel, L. (2016) Positive reinforcement helps surgeons learn. Scientific American, 9 Mar. 2016,
Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press.
Pinker, S. (2012). The false allure of group selection. Edge, 18.06.2012.
Skinner, B.F. (1981). Selection by consequences. Science, 213, 501-504.
Styles, R. (2018). Solid evidence for prosocial within government agency settings.
Wilson, D.S. (2015). Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. Yale University Press.
Wilson, D.S. (2019). This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Pantheon.
Wilson, D.S., Ostrom, E. & Cox, M.E. (2013). Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 90, S21-S32.
Wilson, D.S. & Wilson, E.O. (2007). Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology. Quarterly Review of Biology, 82, 327-348.