Opinion
July 06, 2015

Lessons From Charles Darwin on Promoting Philanthropy

Adam Niklewicz, for The Chronicle

It’s a jungle out there for nonprofits. Like an organism, a nonprofit must acquire resources to stay alive and accomplish its mission. It must carve out a niche in a crowded ecosystem of other organizations. Every year witnesses the birth of new groups and the death of old ones. To stay alive, a nonprofit must adapt to its ever-changing environment at a dizzying pace.

Most readers can probably grasp the Darwinian imagery in that description. But many might be surprised to learn that evolutionary thinking can do more than just describe biological processes. It can also provide insights into the human condition to help philanthropic leaders accomplish their missions.

In fact, based on my research and experience running my own nonprofit, I can offer a policy prescription to help solve a range of social problems, from dysfunctional families to dysfunctional governments, from blighted neighborhoods to degraded global environments.

Before I reveal what that is, let me say a word about evolution. Philanthropic organizations need to think of themselves as inhabiting a Darwinian world more deeply than they have before. What does that mean? It does not mean we are controlled entirely by our genes or that human social life is invariably "red in tooth and claw."

These are old presumptions that color the term "Social Darwinism" to this day. The modern ecological and evolutionary perspective is kinder and gentler, linked to philanthropy through a concept known as "prosociality," which is defined as any attitude, behavior, or institution that is oriented toward the welfare of others or society as a whole. Insofar as philanthropy means "love of humanity," philanthropic organizations are prosocial by definition.

A great deal of scientific research shows that people who inhabit highly prosocial environments have multiple assets, while those in environments with low prosociality have multiple deficits. But if prosociality is so good, why is it not more common? This is where evolutionary thinking becomes useful.

Natural selection is relentlessly comparative. It doesn’t matter how well an individual survives and reproduces, only that it does so better than other individuals in the vicinity. A group composed of highly prosocial individuals might function well over all, but the members who care more about themselves than about the broader welfare will capture more than their fair share of the benefits. Natural selection perversely favors such people, even if the group collapses as a result.

But this is only half of the evolutionary story. Natural selection consists of competition among groups as well as among individuals. And groups with a high number of prosocial members have a robust advantage over those that do not. The simple logic behind that explains an impressive range of biological phenomena, some of which stray into philanthropic territory.

Consider animal welfare. Suppose that you want to increase egg-laying productivity and you select the most productive hen from either a flock or a cage to breed the next generation of hens.

This experiment has been done, and it perversely leads to a decrease in egg productivity. How can this be? The most productive hen in each cage or flock is one that achieves success by beating up on the other hens; in other words, she has low prosociality. These aggressive traits are heritable, and selecting them results in groups of psychopaths that pluck each other’s feathers and murder each other. No wonder their egg productivity goes down and their suffering goes up!

The smart strategy, the one followed by the poultry industry, is to use the hens from the most productive flocks or cages to breed the next generation of hens — between-group selection, not within-group selection — resulting in hens that are both productive and nice to each other.

Once after I gave a lecture that included the chicken example, a woman rushed up to me and exclaimed: "That chicken example describes my department! I have names for those psychopathic chickens!" Evidently, her department had a policy of rewarding its members for their personal accomplishments, selecting for individuals who ignored all the cooperative activities required to maintain a good department.

This illustrates another key concept that links philanthropy to evolutionary thinking: The Darwinian contest is not just about genes; it is also a contest of culturally derived traits throughout human history — of traits that develop over an individual’s lifetime and of social strategies employed by behaviorally flexible individuals on a moment-by-moment basis, either consciously or unconsciously.

Let’s take a real-world example. I manage an effort called the Binghamton Neighborhood Project, which has mapped out small geographical variations in prosociality in my home city. In some neighborhoods, most of the residents are high in that characteristic, in others most are them are low. If you drop a stamped and addressed envelope on the sidewalk in one of the "high-prosociality" neighborhoods, for example, someone is likely to pick it up and mail it. If you drop it in one of the "low-prosociality" neighborhoods, it is likely that no one will bother.

Not all differences are geographically based. Our research has demonstrated that other social environments play a key role as well — that is, families, schools, churches, and extracurricular activities, in addition to neighborhoods.

What happens if you are a person who cares deeply about social welfare and you are surrounded by others who don’t? You would have four options: 1) leave; 2) try to convert your social partners; 3) defensively turn off your own prosociality; or 4) remain as you are and suffer the consequences. This is a contest not of genes but of social strategies. Many people with low prosociality got that way because they chose the third option, like snails that have wisely withdrawn into their shells. They can return to caring about the broader welfare, but only if they are provided with a safer and more secure social environment.

In one natural experiment, we conducted the same survey measuring the prosociality of Binghamton public-school students at three-year intervals. A sizable fraction of students who took the survey both times had moved within the city limits. We were able to show statistically that the level of prosociality of a new neighborhood rubbed off on them.

In a much stronger test, we created a school for at-risk high-school students that richly rewarded prosocial behavior. We worked to create a social environment that offered, for example, a strong group identity and sense of purpose, student involvement in decision-making, fast and fair conflict-resolution procedures, teaching methods that offered short-term rewards for long-term learning outcomes, and an atmosphere of safety and playfulness. Such principles are needed for most cooperative enterprises but are lacking in many schools.

The result: Students who had flunked three or more courses during their previous year blossomed within the first quarter and for the rest of the year. Not only did they greatly outperform a comparison group in a randomized, controlled trial, but they even performed on a par with the average high-school student in Binghamton on the state-mandated exams. Their non-academic well-being improved as well, including their confidence in themselves and their family support.

So getting back to my policy prescription: Social problems are perversely adaptive in the evolutionary sense of the word­­ — ­like psychopathic chickens. We need to change the social environments that select for the problem behaviors or the behaviors will be difficult or impossible to change. It is even unethical to counsel someone to become more prosocial when this would expose that person to harm.

If we do change the social environment in the right way, then people might well start caring more about society’s welfare without needing to be told. The challenges of finding "the right way" might be formidable, but a sophisticated knowledge of modern ecological and evolutionary science can only help, especially when nongenetic evolutionary processes are taken into account. To be effective philanthropists, we must become wise managers of evolutionary processes.

David Sloan Wilson is president of the Evolution Institute and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. His most recent book, Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others, was published by Yale University Press and Templeton Press in 2015.