THE BLOG

Did We Get Darwin All Wrong?

18/08/2013 21:43 BST | Updated 18/10/2013 10:12 BST

"Evolution does not favour selfish people" runs the headline that is showing up everywhere, as research just published in the highly respected 'Nature' journal challenges conventional interpretations of Darwin's survival of the fittest theory.

Why does this latest research matter?

What it reveals may help explain the mess we have got ourselves into and, moreover, show us a way out of it.

Selfish individuals eventually compete each other out of existence, the research concludes.

Using hundreds of thousands of evolutionary game simulations, the researchers have shown that cooperative populations are ultimately more successful than selfish ones. Benevolent and cooperative groups have a long-term advantage over self-seeking strategists.

It has been fashionable from the time of Darwin, indeed almost beyond question, to hold that evolution is based on survival of the fittest. But what this latest study demonstrates is that the fittest among us are likely to be those who are the most adaptable, considerate and cooperative.

"Selfishness isn't evolutionarily sustainable," says Professor Christoph Adami of Michigan State University who led the study.

Might Darwin agree?

"We see beautiful adaptation everywhere and in every part of the organic world," he wrote in The Origin of Species - referring to the perfect adaptation of organisms to their environment and to other species. It is these passages of his work about successful, collaborative adaptation that may now attract a lot more attention.

Yet, rather than adapting, we are depleting the very environment and species on which human life and biodiversity depend.

Moderate United Nations scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s we will need the equivalent of two earths to support us. Thus a chilling phrase has entered the world of scientific discourse: global ecological overshoot.

Is it possible to change course? The evolutionary game theory evidence that has just been published points to the hinge factor; it is all about attitude.

What made the difference between the evolutionary winners and losers in the study was their attitude towards each other. It also showed that we can choose our attitude. That's the good news. Changing attitudes is something human beings do remarkably well and, as social animals, something we do together.

"What has given us the upper hand in nature is our ability to organize and work together by observing, listening, compromising, caring and responding appropriately," writes Sakyong Mipham in his recent book The Shambhala Principle. "Our species' intelligence and flexibility have carried us this far in time. In this light, it is human nature to be in harmony with one another and the environment, and our survival depends on it."

He'll be in London next month for the Awake in the World festival with leaders in the fields of environmental protection, health care, politics and business to explore the options for attitudinal change with a diverse audience.

So will fellow Shambhala practitioner and TV doctor, Jonty Heaversedge, joint author of The Mindful Manifesto who too argues that a mindful society would be "one of collaboration, not competition."

I used to think that it didn't much matter what anyone thought about Darwin's writings of the 1800s. Then I saw a headline in an evening newspaper this past week, predicting that all of the world's elephants will be wiped out within 12 years. These magnificent beings are not dying from disease. They're being exterminated by another species who - whether it knows it or not - got Darwin all wrong.