Can humankind consciously evolve away from archaic ways of exploitation and dominance toward a more collaborative and fruitful way of life?
What is ProSocial Spirituality?
It’s a beautiful partnership, especially for those who recognize the reunification of science and spirituality as one of the hallmarks of human evolution. This convergence—demonstrated in the work of 20th-century outliers like Albert Einstein, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jane Goodall, Thomas Berry, and countless lesser-known polymaths—has yielded breakthroughs and benefits that change the way we look at humanity’s role in shaping the future.
ProSocial Spirituality merges the groundbreaking work of two such outliers, Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom and interspiritual pioneer Wayne Teasdale.
Over decades of extensive global field studies, political economist Elinor “Lin” Ostrom discovered Eight Core Design Principles (8 CDPs) linked to specific traits that allow groups to flourish. Her observation of the ways groups manage natural resources such as forests, pastures, fisheries, and irrigation systems effectively dismantled the previously-held economic theory known as the “tragedy of the commons.” The assumption that overuse of vulnerable resources would always occur unless prevented by top-down regulation or privatization stood without challenge for decades. Then Ostrom compiled a worldwide database of common-pool resource groups that showed that some groups actually do avoid the tragedy of the commons on their own—but only if they demonstrate the specific factors she enumerated in the 8 CDPs. In a research program that was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics, Ostrom uncovered evidence pointing to a more hopeful evolutionary model in which human adaptations benefit the good of the whole.
Recognizing the significance of Ostrom’s work, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson collaborated with Ostrom and her postdoctoral associate, Michael Cox (currently a professor of Environmental Science at Dartmouth College), for three years to develop the original ProSocial change methodology. Together, Ostrom, Cox, and Wilson showed that these 8 CDPs could be generalized and applied to groups of any kind.
David Sloan Wilson’s collaboration with educator/psychologist Paul Atkins led to Atkins developing a comprehensive facilitator training program that has trained hundreds of skilled facilitators globally through the ProSocial Institute. And so, Lin Ostrom’s breakthrough research on how successful groups manage resources is now being applied to ProSocial World training that helps groups of all sizes and types establish infrastructure and apply methodologies that help them thrive, cooperate, and evolve together.
For more about ProSocial, please watch this 6-minute video.
Interreligious pioneer Wayne Teasdale’s research and writing, as well as his lived example, has had an equally profound impact on religious thought. Ordained as both a Catholic monk and a Hindu sanyasi, Brother Wayne coined the term “Interspirituality” and enumerated Nine Elements of a Universal Spirituality (9 Elements) in his seminal book The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions. Not only are these 9 Elements present in all authentic spiritual traditions, Wayne asserted that intentionally cultivating them leads to what he called “mature spirituality.”
Wayne Teasdale’s 9 Elements emerged after over thirty years of interreligious exploration among dozens of faith leaders, clergy, spiritual teachers, and contemplative practitioners. Universally-embraced spiritual qualities such as humility, gratitude, simplicity, non-violence, self-knowledge, and respect for all life—when intentionally cultivated through deep engagement—foster inner transformation both individually and collectively.
Humanity is entering an evolutionary phase that corresponds with Teasdale’s 9 Elements, especially his prescient emphasis on the need for systems that support greater awareness of the inherent unity among all people and our shared responsibility to care for the planet. Indeed, our very survival may well depend upon our personal and collective ability to recognize and reflect upon the interconnected nature of all creation. Wayne Teasdale’s collaborative relationships with other spiritual pioneers such as the 14th Dalai Lama and Trappist monk Thomas Keating, as well as his role as a trustee for the Parliament of World Religions, placed his work at the crossroads of many religious lineages. Himself steeped in Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions, Teasdale embodied the Interspiritual model of human evolution.
For more on Brother Wayne and the Nine Elements of a Universal Spirituality please watch this 5-minute video.
Lin and Wayne’s Posthumous Partnership
While these two outliers might seem an unlikely pairing, their groundbreaking work in their respective fields has inspired complementary discoveries that, together, gave rise to ProSocial Spirituality.
ProSocial’s deep roots in evolutionary theory apply not only to the groups ProSocial serves, but to ProSocial itself. And so, ProSocial Spirituality emerged as a next-generation collaboration between Wilson, Atkins, and Jeff Genung, who is both co-founder of ContemplativeLife.org and Chief Architect of ProSocial World, as well as a close friend of Wayne Teasdale. Simultaneously another close friend of Wayne’s, Kurt Johnson, penned an article in Kosmos Journal entitled Evolving Toward Cooperation that spells out the same inspired union of Teasdale’s and Ostrom’s work.
By cultivating change on both outer and inner planes, ProSocial Spirituality offers groups an opportunity to not only embrace change, but to change the way they invite and implement change. ProSocial Spirituality has been incubating throughout this time of global pandemic with the needs of individuals, groups, and the world at the very heart of the program. With an interspiritual curriculum created by co-facilitators Kate Sheehan Roach (Director of ProSocial Spirituality) and Diane Berke (founder of One Spirit Learning Alliance), ProSocial Spirituality training is available at no cost to participants as part of a research initiative funded by the John Templeton Foundation. All ProSocial Spirituality participants are invited to opt into a research initiative conducted by ProSocial lead researcher, Ian MacDonald. Participation is entirely voluntary, and data is collected and analyzed anonymously to protect the privacy of the people and groups who choose to opt in.
ProSocial Spirituality is a collaboration between ProSocial World and dozens of groups, and groups of groups, and global networks interested in catalyzing change for the better. Secular, religious, and spiritual groups can all benefit from ProSocial Spirituality programs.
Humanity is at the threshold of a new era. Old hierarchical and competitive power dynamics are giving way to more complex and collaborative collective action. Simultaneously, a tremendous wave of previously untapped potential is being released as people bring their entire being more fully to their workplaces, to local and global community action, to non-profit engagement and social activism, to the arts, science, and medicine, to family dynamics and religious life—all of which are part of a global sea change of cultural evolution.
From the introduction of Wayne Teasdale’s The Mystic Heart:
“We are at the dawn of a new consciousness, a radically fresh approach to our life as the human family in a fragile world [in which] interdependence is an inescapable fact… ”
If humankind is ready for a new consciousness to emerge, we must ask ourselves what will replace the old systems and structures that are crumbling before our eyes. What’s next for our species? Will we come together in unity and compassion or fall apart along the deep fault lines that threaten to divide us? ProSocial Spirituality addresses these questions in the context of an evolutionary model in which human behavior must move away from pure self-interest toward greater emphasis on collective interest.
Survival of the fittest was only part of Darwin’s story. Survival of the species whereby creatures instinctively act in the best interest of their kin has always been central to Darwinian evolutionary theory. Misperceptions surrounding Darwin’s findings have held disproportionate influence for generations, but recent breakthroughs in evolutionary science recognize the important role groups play. Darwin wrote in 1871, "Although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe...an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another." Nearly one hundred and fifty years later, ProSocial Spirituality recognizes the shift away from individual self-preservation to group flourishing found in multi-level evolutionary theory.
“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”
~David Sloan Wilson in Does Altruism Exist?
In this Hillel-inspired quip on multilevel selection theory, David Sloan Wilson invites us to apply scientific findings to cultural evolution as we explore how we can move away from purely self-interested motivations toward a more altruistic “good of the whole” approach to life.
With this approach gaining momentum in evolutionary circles, so has interest in the moral codes of spiritually-grounded groups that have fostered altruism for millennia. Simultaneously, spiritual groups are seeking better scientific methods and metrics to guide their evolutionary trajectory toward a more inclusive, integrated, Interspiritual future.
It’s fitting that cooperation between groups of leading-edge scientists and spiritual pioneers would be central to the study of how cooperation within and between groups impacts human evolution. ProSocial Spirituality represents one such cooperative venture that both embodies and propels human evolution toward greater unity on the local level and on a global scale.