Discussion Questions about Does Altruism Exist?
Commentary authors were invited to respond to three questions in addition to their open-ended commentaries.

1. Global pundits often note multiple factors, and manifold emergent developments across many fields, appearing today to be bringing the world into a new conversation toward transformative change that “works for all.” How, for you, is the new “altruism discussion” in evolutionary biology one of these convergent points for important, new, and urgent international discussion?

Doug King and Mike Morrell: Absolutely. Waking up to the ‘web of life’ that connects us all is crucial if humanity is going to grow from our collective adolescence to a mature humanity. Adolescence is often by design self-involved and self-oriented – and rightly so. We’re consuming a lot of resources as we grow and develop; there’s no use condemning ourselves for being the collective age we’re at.

That said, Wilson’s understanding of altruism as truly others-focused is what happens on the other side of deeply-felt connection: An orientation on the level of ideas and action toward acting on behalf of others, even if this involves a loss to ourselves.

Kurt Johnson: There is no doubt to me– since Does Altruism Exist? is not simply a new book but describes a major paradigm shift in science– that the altruism/ group selection/ multi-level selection discussion cannot be left out of any global discussion of transformative change. This appears true even if such discussions may include opinion from vastly different cultural perspectives and also across the spiritual/ reductionist divide that is also so prevalent and divisive today.

Rev. Mac Legerton: Dr. Wilson emphasizes that human groups, societies, and humanity as a species have the capacity to effectively function as an “organism” that places the welfare of the whole at the core of its practice and policies. He provides insights into the processes, patterns, and principles that we need to adapt and adopt in order to implement effective planetary action. He ends his book by saying: “As far as our selection criteria are concerned, we must become planetary altruists” (p. 149).

Barbara Marx Hubbard:  I think the important question is what the relation is between altruism at the strictly biological level and at the human level.  A further question is how this is discussed in scientific language on the one hand, and more subjective or even spiritual language on the other.   Can we say that the billions of years of nature have been selecting toward greater complexity, consciousness and freedom?  Does nature select for what cooperates, toward greater “love” in the sense of allurement, particles joining to co-create more intelligent life from quarks on to us?  How does one name or describe the “force” that activates this tendency?

David Korten: The “new” altruism discussion is an important contribution to the growing acceptance within science of three observable truths that many scientists acknowledge in their personal lives, but generally feel compelled to deny in their professional lives.

  • Life involves conscious intelligence and cannot be explained or understood in purely mechanistic terms.
  • Life exists only in community and depends on the community’s ability to cooperate in creating and maintaining the conditions essential to the existence of life—including the lives of all the community’s individual members. The most advanced expression of this cooperation is found in superorganisms that function as of a single mind to create capacities far beyond those of any of the superorganism’s individual members. The human body is one of the most advanced examples of a superorganism comprised of tens of trillions of individual living/decision making cells acting as if of one mind.
  • Individualistic competition plays a role in life’s evolutionary processes. Far more critical to the evolutionary process, however, is life’s inherent drive to learn, create, and cooperate.

Richard Clugston: For me at least, that phrase “a world that works for all” originated in United Nations discussions over the last years as the UN’s new development agenda (the  Sustainable Development Goals) and all the work toward the Paris World Climate Summit has unfolded.   With near unanimity, global delegates have agreed that “business as usual is not an option and real transformative change is necessary”, a quotation I often use in public presentations.  Many have also acknowledged that on a global campus like the UN, it is much easier to have this unanimity than elsewhere. Thus, many delegates say “how do I sell this at home?” Part of that process—the “selling”– is the global discussion process, and that is certainly served by Roundtables such as this.

2. How do you think institutions and organizations should increasingly exhibit Elinor Ostrom’s “Design Principles” as they pursue this transformative change?

Doug King and Mike Morrell: As we continue to align our spirituality and governance ideals to loving what is rather than fighting against it, principles like Ostrom’s design principles seem increasingly self-evident. Local communities crafted with intentionality, mutual respect, bottom-up group modifications, and clearly understood consequences for violating shared agreements is both necessary and desired. This vision matches Presence’s own understanding of our ancient prophetic texts containing symbolic language unveiling the spiritual significant of everyday events. From this vantage point, we see the New Jerusalem envisioned by conventional religion as a future hope, only to be realized after a cataclysmic, futuristic end-time scenario. In our understanding of the Story, the New Jerusalem is instead a here-and-now reality, a city descending “from heaven” to right here on earth. It can be seen as the archetypal permaculture community whose borders are nowhere and whose center is everywhere: a place where the divine and human co-create our path together.

Kurt Johnson: I think David’s book has further triggered this conversation. Thus future attention to Ostrom’s principles is inevitable. The fact is, as David’s book implies, it has been the prevalence of self-interest politics and economics, that has stalled widespread attention to Ostrom’s work.

Rev. Mac Legerton: Institutions and organizations need to learn how to act together in a more coordinated way on the local, regional, state, national, and international levels.

We need more horizontal and vertical coordination to garner our collective influence for transformative change.

Barbara Marx Hubbard: Where this becomes important is in answering a larger question.  If altruism and social group synergy are both natural and difficult for humanity, yet vital to the future of human life on Earth, what can we learn from how nature does it so we can do it better?  Ostrom’s “Principles” appear key to unlocking this question.

David Korten: Ostrom sought to identify the cultural and structural characteristics of human organizations that facilitate human group function in co-productive partnership with the rest of nature to enhance Earth’s ability to sustain life. Further advancing this line of inquiry and its application to the organization of human societies may be the most important work of our time. David Sloan Wilson’s work is an essential contribution.

Richard Clugston: Certainly, alongside the point of “Altruism” itself, it is Ostrom’s “Design Principles” that stood out to me in the book.   As I have said, the United Nations development community, as it has heightened its call for real transformative change, not only looks to understanding what is dysfunctional in current global systems but wants to know about new models that might address this.  It is likely that most are simply not aware of Ostrom’s important contribution.  Future discussion of her “Design Principles” will be very important, especially as specifically applicable to particulars of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their 169 Targets.

3. If we may use these terms, many commentators worldwide suggest we are trying to move humanity from just “intellectual intelligence” toward a “heart intelligence”, and, that together these might more effectively serve the collective human future. Can you comment on that in light of your reading of Does Altruism Exist?

Doug King and Mike Morrell: It seems that the latest research, popularized by groups such as the Heart Math Institute, really does bare out: we not only contain multiple forms of intelligence, but they seem to be localized, quite literally, in different parts of the body. Intuition, intelligence, and guidance in “the heart” and “the gut” are more than quaint metaphors, they’re embodied ways of understanding that trauma and insight are stored in our very DNA. Guided by the twin flames of evolutionary biology and on-behalf-of-all spirituality, we at Presence hope we can recover somatic experiencing and thinking through our planet’s most pressing challenges not only with a keen brain-based intellect, but with heart and guts. It’s high time to move past our collective failure of nerve and move together into the beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

Kurt Johnson: We have to be honest that it’s been hard for terms like “heart intelligence” to gain traction in the global conversation because so much of the current intellectual paradigm is dominated by the idea that detachment (or even acting or being “separate”) has some kind of over-riding value. Of course, detachment has an important methodological role—as in science. But, as has been pointed out in many UN discussions, it is the massive implosion, and failure, of the materialist/ consumerist, exploitive aspects of world culture that seems to have finally woken people up to the importance of this other sensitivity, and that it is paramount.

Rev. Mac Legerton: While Dr. Wilson’s book is highly theoretical with multiple concepts and insights, there is an underlying current and care for our human capacity to utilize our distinctive gifts garnered through our evolution and meet the challenges we face from our local communities to our planet and to our survival as a species. Altruism is rooted in the heart of our evolutionary core. Dr. Wilson understands that “teamwork is the signature adaptation of our species” and that we have the evolutionary provisions that we need, including our knowledge, creativity, and altruism, to meet the challenges and solve the problems that confront us.

Barbara Marx Hubbard:  I’ve recently written a book The Evolutionary Testament of Co-Creation.  In the introduction, I said, “This is the last trump of this phase of evolution. We cannot continue to fight, pollute, overpopulate and destroy our environment because we remain trapped in the illusion of separation.  We’re already being changes by our new capacities, as well as our new crises.  We will either evolve toward a higher level of love and creativity, or we will self-destruct.”   As stated in my essay herein, Wilson’s book is one that says it is conscious evolution from here on out.  We must consciously orchestrate the future of the planet and the biosphere.

David Korten: Some of the most joyful moments we humans experience come when we enter into a flow state in which our own boundaries dissolve and we experience ourselves functioning as contributors to something larger than ourselves. The flow state experience is not born of the intellect and the cold mental calculation of personal gains and losses. It is born of the heart and our innate desire to be part of and contribute to something larger than ourselves. Examples include high performing musical ensembles, sports teams, and work groups.

We observe in the unfolding of the universe a continuing process of competition/differentiation and cooperation/integration by which life advances to every greater complexity, beauty, awareness, and possibility. It is an expression of life’s deeply inborn drive to create, cooperate, and evolve.

Western science has tended to focus on the competition/differentiation dimension of creation to the neglect of the cooperation/integration dimension. This was a standard accepted frame of Western science. When operating at the elemental level of this pure competition/differentiation analytic frame it is relevant to ask whether an individual act of cooperation is motivated by self-interest or altruism. This frame was sufficient to produce impressive advances in human understanding.

This limited level of inquiry, however, remains dangerously partial. Our future—perhaps our survival—depends on joining our knowledge of the processes of competition/differentiation with an advanced understanding of the role and processes of cooperation/integration in the creative evolution of the cosmos.

Richard Clugston:  Any of us who are people of conscience welcome discussion where the more human, indeed more humane and personal, aspects of this wider discussion can be included. Many at the UN point out that only this year has the Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, issued an official statement using the word “spiritual” and casting the landscape of these deep ethics and values issues in that manner.   Interestingly, this has paralleled a new interest in – and several new books about– the founding Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold’s vision, which to a great degree was cast also in those terms.