Gavin’s Friday Reads: This View of Life by David Sloan Wilson

How are we going to get through this pandemic?  How are we going to put this country together again?  How are we going to ameliorate racial and financial inequality.  How are we going to collaborate globally to deal with climate change?  How are we going to deal with the next global crisis after that?!!  We can be sure there will be more and we need to develop our skills and be capable of dealing with them effectively.  

David Sloan Wilson is an Evolutionary Biologist.  His book “This view of Life” has an answer.

It is what he calls the third way.  THe third way is based on his work in evolutionary biology  and Elinor Ostrum’s “Core Design Principles” for successful human groups.

Ostrum is the Nobel Prize scientist who studied groups that did not have a tragedy of the commons.  They managed their water resources or their fisheries effectively and sustainably.  She found that there were 8 key principles embodied by these groups.  She called them “Core Design Principles.”

This book is about a whole lot more than this but I am pulling this nugget out because it seems the most relevant now.

I sometimes think it is just going to be too hard to put this country back together so maybe we should just split up and go our separate ways.  Unfortunately we can’t afford to do that.  In fact we need to develop even stronger relationships within our country and between all nations if we are going to succeed as a species.  We will not overcome this pandemic unless everyone on the planet works together.  Same goes for all of the other major crises we face now and in the future.

Originally life was single cell organisms, then multi cell organisms evolved.  Multi cell organisms had advantages over the single cell organisms so more of these developed over millennia.  Each of us is a combination of billions of cells working together.  Every one of our cells does a job.  Some, like the cells in our immune system, sacrifice themselves for the good of the whole. If our cells work together the whole survives.  When one cell starts to take too much and ignores the good of the whole it is what we call cancer.

Laissez Faire does not work.  We see this in capitalism run amok.  Selfish individuals taking too much. Cancerous, homoeconomicus behavior.  Financial inequality.

Central control ie. Communism does not work either.  It is too slow to respond and the world is too complex.  (many large corporations try to run themselves through tight central control, Information travels up and approvals travel down the chain of command, instead of being agile they are slow and ponderous)

“The group evolves to be so cooperative that it is transformed into a higher-level organism in its own right.”


What does work is a third way.  A society (or a company) based on Ostrum’s Core Design Principles (CDP’s)

There are 8 of them.  Here they are in brief.

  1. Strong group identity and understanding of purpose
  2. Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs
  3. Fair and inclusive decision making
  4. Monitoring agreed upon behaviors
  5. Graduated Sanctions
  6. Fast and Fair conflict resolution
  7. Local autonomy
  8. Polycentric Governance. (Groups of Groups within Groups)

Here are the design principles through the lens of a Conscious company or B Corp.

  1. Employees are proud and passionate about their work.  They know they are a group and they know their mission.  Their Higher Purpose
  2. People are paid generously and are appreciated for their work. It is not a work life balance thing.  Work itself is fulfilling.
  3. People are included in decision making.  Stakeholders’ interests are represented when decisions are made, not after the fact as window dressing and greenwashing.
  4. They care about and monitor their company’s performance in areas of social responsibility.  They monitor behavior within the organization to make sure it is consistent with their principles.
  5. When there is a transgression of principles, they first of all gently remind the individuals involved before escalating sanctions, if needed.  Most people want to do the right thing and just need a gentle reminder.  They may even be unaware of the inconsistency in what they did.
  6. When things get out of hand, when transgressions escalate, then respond quickly and fairly to fix the problem.  This could mean disciplinary action, demotions or dismissals.  If it is not addressed the group will begin to fall apart.  If someone is allowed to commit  sexual harassment and get away with it everyone will become demoralized.
  7. Give people and groups autonomy in how they get their work done.  Trust them to find new solutions and to try them.  The more experiments we run the better.
  8. Join forces with other individuals and groups on the same mission.  Whether they are suppliers or customers or competitors it does not matter.  It is the mission that is critical.  Even our competitor is our partner when we are working to solve the same issue.

This works on all levels.  It works on the level of the small group of 5 people working together.  It also works on a global level.  

First of all recognize that what is good for me may not be good for my group.

What is good for my group may not be good for my… company, organization etc.

  • What is good for my Company may not be good for my community.
  • What is good for my community may not be good for my state
  • What is good for my state may not be good for my country
  • What is good for my country may not be good for the global community and environment.

At what level are we engaged?  Are we being selfish for ourselves, our company, our nation, or are we putting the good of the whole larger group first?

Here is what I think it looks like through the climate change lense.

  1. We are all of humanity.  Climate change due to human behavior is a fact.  We have only one planet, one ecosystem, and we have to protect it.  This is the mission.  Everything else comes after this.
  2. We need to treat each other fairly. Economically, racially etc.  This needs to go into our decision making on how we address the crisis.
  3. We need to be democratic.  We need to hear each other out. We need to respectfully discuss the issues and share ideas based on factual evidence.  Where there is no evidence we need to get it ASAP.  The planet’s voice is the main voice we are representing and hearing from.
  4. We will monitor each other.  We will agree on what will be effective solutions to the climate crisis and what we will do.  
  5. When we fall short others will first gently remind us of our responsibility and what we agreed to do.  (This happens at all levels.  The level of the individual person right up to the level of a nation.)
  6. If there are repeated and severe violations (at any level) there are swift and measured pre agreed upon consequences and solutions.
  7. Allow autonomy to achieve the goals in the way the local community thinks best.  The more experiments we run the more good solutions we will discover and the more we can refine them.  Complex issues can not be solved by central control.  It requires diverse experimentation.
  8. We are all in this together.  Our generation may not see much in the way of benefits for ourselves but future generations will be depending on us to do the right thing for them NOW.

I am sure you can see now how this can be applied to racial justice, economic inequality, the pandemic,  and putting our country together again.

I can’t help myself so I will go on a bit more.  

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”


I want to point out that doing things to disenfranchise people, or just to make it difficult for them to vote is a violation of CDP #3 fair and inclusive decision making.  

I think it is also worth mentioning that some people have been observed fostering misinformation CDP#4 monitoring behavior, 

They have been gently reminded that continuing to sow the misinformation about the last election is a violation of our republic’s democratic principles CDP#5.

If they persist in these transgressions then the result must be a swift, just, and definitive response to that behavior if our country is going to be effective for its people and even for our republic’s continued existence. CDP#4

Cheers for Friday,

Gavin Watson, Chair, Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter

Gavin Watson & Associates

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