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Survival of the most cooperative?

Is evolution evolving? A column by David Brooks in the New York Times points to a growing number of books about a fresh take on evolution. Move over “survival of the fittest,” make room for survival of the most cooperative – or maybe survival of the kindest, or the thriving of the kindest, or of the most collaborative? In one such book, The Righteous Mind, the authors “argue that natural selection takes place not only when individuals compete with other individuals, but also when groups compete with other groups,” Brooks reports. “Both competitions are examples of the survival of the fittest, but when groups compete, it’s the cohesive, cooperative, internally altruistic groups that win and pass on their genes.” He goes on to write that, compared to other animals, “humans developed moral minds that help them and their groups succeed. Humans build moral communities out of shared norms, habits, emotions and gods, and then will fight and even sometimes die to defend their communities.” I would argue that this is exactly what we humans are in the middle of doing online: creating the social norms we need for the digital part of our world to be a truly viable place of operation (of sociality, commerce, production, etc.) and to integrate well with the offline part of our lives.

This online “social norming,” which is by its nature protective (i.e., ups the level of online safety), needs to be a conscious effort on the part of an increasing proportion of humanity, including governments and industry (the providers of social media environments). It has to be a collaborative, multidisciplinary process or it won’t work; all forms of expertise are needed. Diversity is essential. As film director Tiffany Schlain put it here, in her 2010 commencement address at University of California, Berkeley, let’s “declare interdependence” and, I suggest, start building global consensus around a 21st-century online/offline citizenship that connects, empowers, protects, and promotes the social good – both online and offline, naturally. [See also author, theorist, and professor Howard Rheingold on this very subject in a video talk, “Why digital citizenship’s a hot topic” and this on the guild effect of social networking.]

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