Can we evolve? Part 2.

Gunnar Rundgren, originally published by Garden Earth
Sheep grazing on Castlemorton Common by Philip Halling, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Apr. 2, 2024

In the first part of the article I discussed how evolutionary thinking can be useful for understanding why we have ended up like we have as well as the fact that there are historic precedents for one species causing mass extinction bringing itself down in the process.  Here I continue the discussion, but with a focus on how human societies could be organized to tame its expansionist tendencies as well as how to manage the inherent contradiction between the striving for individual self-expression and the well-being of the group and further how a multitude of groups can overcome their differences.

Admittedly, it is a lot easier to demonstrate why the current global capitalist civilization is dysfunctional and will not last, than to describe how things should be and even more how we reach there. It is always easy to find weaknesses or flaws in alternative realities. I guess it is an effect of the Anna Karenina principle: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” i.e. there are many ways things can go wrong. Having said that, I am not really convinced of this rule, I believe there are also many paths to happiness and what makes people happy (a lifelong relationship, dancing all night, a Barbie doll or a sense of community with nature) is culturally determined.

Evolution at individual, group and species level

Teenage revolt, competition, aggression, a quest for status and innovations (as discussed earlier) are all part of being human. But importantly, humanity has developed norms and methods to keep them at bay. Successful regulation, but not suffocation, of those individualistic and self-interested tendencies is essential for successful human cultures.

On the next level, we have a the complication that strong group identities have a tendency to be gained, or at least upheld, by prejudice or even dehumanization of other groups. Humans have a basic disposition towards groupishness at the expense of members of other tribes or groups which has been good for group cohesion. There are many ways that this xenophobia is explained and discussed but considering that it is clearly identifiable for a long time back in history it is likely to have strong evolutionary cultural origins (Peterie and Neil 2020). Clearly, this is not conducive for the level of cooperation needed when resources are shared among groups. This problem is repeated on multiple levels as discussed by Wilson et al (2023), i.e. smaller groups for tribes that forms nations, nations that form alliances and alliances that often are hostile to other alliances or regional groups. The arms race that has just restarted is a clear example of this. Here humanity has not been very successful in developing regulating mechanisms. Regional bodies such as the EU or international bodies such as the UN have not really managed to control developments or deal with xenophobia. Having said this, we should perhaps not exaggerate the importance of between-group xenophobia, rivalry and violence, it seem to me that there are many situations where groups have managed to live peacefully side-by-side over longer periods and a further exploration of what are the main principles for peaceful coexistence would be needed.

It is even more challenging to redesign our relationship with other species and the rest of the living. It is nothing strange or inherently bad in that we forage or hunt other species, or in its modern form that we grow plants and raise livestock. It is nothing strange or inherently bad that we strive to expand our numbers and occupy a larger space. Other species do the same. Before the advent of industrial revolution and fossil fuels, the limits to human expansionism were more direct and obvious. Still, we managed to exterminate a number of species as well as changing many ecosystems fundamentally. With the industrial revolution, fossil fuels and capitalism, constant expansion became not only an opportunity but a mandate. What is problematic is that we are too successful, we have eliminated food supply as the main limiting factor for survival, we have more or less exterminated the predators that could eat us, we are engaged in an arms race with pathogens and have so far had the upper hand even if long-term success in no way is guaranteed. Being poisoned or infertile by our own waste products is an obvious threat and even a bigger threat is the damage we cause to the biosphere by reduced bio-diversity and global warming.

Correcting feedback is essential

So the million dollar question is how we organize human societies so that they have sufficient checks and balances and correcting feedback when they go astray on any of these levels. I write societies in plural intentionally as I am convinced that we all benefit from pluralism in how humans are organized, both because the ecological conditions in which human societies are embedded vary and because diversity has a value in itself as one of the fundamentals of development (for the better or the worse).

I don’t have all the answers but, thankfully, others have been thinking about this. I believe we can find much valuable guidance in Elinor Ostrom’s Core Design Principles as well as Donella Meadow’s brilliant 12 leverage points. Transparency and accountability are important principles to apply on various levels and an active locally-based democracy is essential. Clearly, norms and culture will play a major role. We need to assign status to and in other ways stimulate pro-social behaviors within groups but also between groups.

In particular, we need to establish negative (correcting) feedback loops and eliminate positive (self-reinforcing) feedback loops for those aspects of human society that are most prone to get out of control, including the use of violence (which equals war on the between group level), inequality (between individuals and groups alike) and economic growth (which equals war on other species).

Some put their faith in the establishment of a global government to establish the rules for this. While well intended, I still think it is misguided. We know that a centrally planned economy doesn’t work very well and it is contrary to any evolutionary approach. As conditions vary and things are dynamic, global rules can never be either sufficient or flexible enough to guide humans all over the globe. Despite all their flaws and shortcomings, weak global bodies such as the UN and various other global organizations are the best we can get on the global scale (clearly they should be reformed and improved but not by giving them executive powers).

Ecosystems are composed of a myriad of species, all of them subject to natural selection on a species level and some also on a group level, while there is virtually no selection on the level of the ecosystem*. Still most ecosystems “function” quite well, even if the notion of ecological “balance” is somewhat overplayed in the popular view (Simberloff 2014).  They don’t work well because there is a central planner or designer of the ecosystems but because there are “checks and balances” at play. One species can’t grow their numbers too high as they will run out of feed, suffocate from their own waste or be eaten by predators or pathogens, often a combination of them. It is probably best to look at ecosystems as a platform for cooperation or symbiosis, but with individual species still being opportunistic, and humans very much so. As humans have been too successful, we need to rely on culture to keep us within limits or continue unfettered until we crash.

Towards a land ethics

In relation to the rest of the living we need to develop the land ethics (Leopold 1949) and let go of a hyper-anthropocentric perspective. Perhaps all this needs to be incorporated in a bigger belief system where some (rivers, mountains) are sacred and not allowed to be desecrated and some behaviors are taboo (e.g. war, nuclear arms, cloning of people, killing a protected species). It seems that many indigenous cultures have had such a culture (even if we should be wary of generalizing or idealizing). A more modern(ist) way of regulating this is by legislation; environmental protection laws, rights of nature etc. Laws work reasonably well to counteract what really should be forbidden, but not really well for creating good behavior. Many of the questions at hand about how humans use the rest of nature are also not simple black-and-white questions which means that mediation and political processes to resolve conflicts is mostly superior to a legal framework. Mike Bell (2003) calls for Earth Jurisprudence rather than a human legal system applied on nature. Having said that, there is obviously a need for environmental regulations and nature protection here and now.

We can’t design the perfect society and even if it were perfect at one point in time, it will sooner or later fail. The true property of a good society is not that it is perfect but that it can evolve, adapt and self-organize. Overall it is essential to preserve or develop diversity which will allow continued evolution. As Donella Meadows (1999) says:

“Insistence on a single culture shuts down learning. Cuts back resilience. Any system, biological, economic, or social, that gets so encrusted that it cannot self-evolve, a system that systematically scorns experimentation and wipes out the raw material of innovation, is doomed over the long term on this highly variable planet.”

When designing strategies for change, it is important to work with methods and means that in themselves embed the ends and goals (Gorz 1968). This means that the strategies and the goals merge. If you believe, like I do, that capitalism as a system is harmful, that food and agriculture should be commons and that humanity should leave more space to other species while at the same time be a responsible keystone species, then the actions and political demands should contribute to the reality you desire. It is more realistic to assume that capitalism will erode and other systems will evolve rather than that capitalism will be overturned by either revolution or democratic decisions. Ted Trainer (2024) express this well in his recent essay A (Friendly) Critique of the Degrowth Movement.

‘Do not fight to eliminate capitalism.’ … The historically unique situation we are now in presents us with the need for a non-confrontational strategy, one that involves turning away and ‘ignoring capitalism to death’.

Since “the economy” has been a major driver for societal transformation, I still believe we need to assign special attention to it even if we can’t “eliminate” capitalism. We need to reform or abolish institutions and practices that reward greed, wealth accumulation and risk taking. That includes limited companies, whereby profit is privatized and loss is socialized; rent of various sorts; and competition (Rundgren 2013). Progressive taxes and limits/taxes on inheritance should counteract wealth accumulation.

We must resist ongoing attempts to submit even bigger chunks of life on the planet to the logic of capitalism camouflaged as protection of the environment or nature-based solutions, such as trade in carbon sequestration, habitat banking or marketization of water**. Instead, we should actively move things and activities (products and services in economyspeak) out of “the economy” to the private, civil or public (my preference here is to bring as much as possible to local governments rather than national, state or federal governments) spheres, in particular those aspects of human life that have the most interpersonal values (education, care, culture) or are about our relationship to the rest of the living. Political demands that make downsizing and market decoupling easier fit into such a strategy. Food production and consumption should rather be in the commons and the resources needed, land, seeds, water, bio-diversity, should also be part of the commons (Vivero-Pol et al 2018, Rundgren 2016). Self- provisioning by communities will change the culture and mindset of people as well as inspire to new forms of self-management and democracy. And it can be done here and now. By changing the reality on the ground, institutions and superstructures as well as cultures, we can create positive self-reinforcing feedback loops for change. Ignoring capitalism to death.

* In some sense ecosystems can also “compete” with other ecosystems, e.g. the rainforest can switch to savanna, the savanna to forest etc. I am not sure that the application of natural selection as the driver of this makes sense.

** There can still be merits of using public funds to pay farmers, forest owners etc for environmental stewardship as a reformist way of to make things better here and now. But it should not extend into commodification of nature.


Bell, M 2003, Thomas Berry and an earth jurisprudence: An exploratory essay. The Trumpeter vol 19, nr 1 (2003)

Gorz, André, Reform and revolution 1968.

Leopold, A,  A Sand County Almanac 1949

Meadows, D. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System 1999.

Ostrom E. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action New York: Cambridge University Press; 1990. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511807763

Peterie, M., & Neil, D. (2020). Xenophobia towards asylum seekers: A survey of social theories. Journal of Sociology56(1), 23-35.

Rundgren, Gunnar, Why competition is unsustainable, Garden Earth 2013,

Rundgren, Gunna, Food: From Commodity to Commons. J Agric Environ Ethics 29, 103–121 (2016).

Simberloff, Daniel 2014, The ”balance of nature”: evolution of a panchreston, PLoS Biol 12(10): e1001963.

Trainer, Ted, A (Friendly) Critique of the Degrowth Movement, Medium 21 March 2024,

Vivero-Pol et al 2018, Routledge Handbook of Food as a Commons

Wilson, D. S., Madhavan, G., Gelfand, M. J., Hayes, S. C., Atkins, P. W. B., & Colwell, R. R. (2023). Multilevel cultural evolution: From new theory to practical applications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 120(16),

Teaser image credit: Sheep grazing on Castlemorton Common by Philip Halling, CC BY-SA 2.0,