TRUER WORDS: Evolution Is Blind But Fiercely Focused

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As I have written and blogged about many times, our Foundation was (and continues to be) greatly influenced by an article that appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). The article is entitled Leading Boldly: Foundations Can Move Past Traditional Approaches To Create Social Change Through Imaginative—And Even Controversial—Leadership. The article was written by Ronald A. Heifetz, John V. Kania, and Mark R. Kramer. The Leading Boldly article in essence compares and contrasts what the authors call technical philanthropy versus adaptive philanthropy. Using terms I learned from reading work by cognitive linguist George Lakoff (Whose Freedom? would be an example), technical philanthropy uses what Lakoff calls direct causation for both its worldview and its approach to intervention. In contrast, adaptive philanthropy uses what Lakoff calls systemic causation, again, for both its worldview and its approach to intervention.

The Leading Boldly article provides many examples of both technical and adaptive philanthropy. For instance, an immunization program would be an example of a technical approach to a social problem. As the Leading Boldly authors point out, technical problems tend to have the following characteristics:

  • problem is well defined
  • answer is known
  • solution can be imposed by a single organization
  • implementation is clear

In contrast, a program designed to reform public education would be an example of an adaptive approach to a social problem. Adaptive problems tend to have the following characteristics:

  • challenge is complex
  • answers are not known
  • implementation requires learning
  • no single entity has authority to impose solutions on the other stakeholders

As the Leading Boldly authors point out, many philanthropic groups stay away from adaptive problems and adaptive solutions because they are complex, trigger uncertainty, require learning, and require collaborative efforts. Simply, technical philanthropy tends to be easy and certain, and can be engaged in by a single entity; adaptive philanthropy tends to be difficult and uncertain, and can only be engaged in by multiple entities. Pulling from Lakoff’s work now, people and groups with a conservative worldview tend to gravitate toward technical solutions. In contrast, people and groups with a liberal worldview tend to gravitate toward adaptive solutions. This is why, in large part, liberals and conservatives battle so over a social problem like global warming. At its core, we are looking at a battle of worldviews, a battle over ideologies. For more on this theme, I’d recommend an article that also appeared in SSIR: Climate Science As Culture War by Andrew Hoffman (Fall 2012).

“So, where are today’s Truer Words?” you may be asking yourself. Well, I told you all of the above as a way of providing context for today’s Truer Words. Here they are:

[E]volution may be a blind process, but it follows a ruthless adaptive logic that makes organisms fit for their environments. It is today politically correct, for example, to deplore human proclivities for violence and aggression, and to denounce the bloodlust that in earlier periods led to conquest, dueling, and similar activities. But there are some good evolutionary reasons such propensities exist. Understanding the good and bad in human nature is far more complex than one would think, because they are so intertwined. In evolutionary history, human beings learned, in biologist Richard Alexander’s phrase, to cooperate in order to compete.

The above Truer Words come from Francis Fukuyama’s 2002 book entitled Our Posthuman Future—Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. I gravitated toward these Truer Words because I think they speak to the comparisons and contrasts between technical versus adaptive philanthropy. These Truer Words tend to point out that adaptive philanthropy is about assessing how the good and the bad coexist in a dynamic relationship that does, in fact, express a “ruthless adaptive logic that makes organisms fit for their environments” (quoting Fukuyama from above). It was John Bowlby who spent his life’s work trying to reveal to us how the innate biologically-mediated behavioral system centered on attachment or bonding relationships continues (evolutionarily speaking) to adapt us to and make us fit for life in complex social worlds. Fukuyama cautions us that if you mess with the systems dynamics expressed by “ruthless adaptive logic,” you risk entering the realm of Unintended Consequences. Sadly, technical solutions tend to too often enter the realm of Unintended Consequences by simply ignoring the possibility that Unintended Consequences exist. Here’s an example that Fukuyama discusses in his book.

I have blogged about this social problem extensively: we are feeding our kids potent behavioral drugs, like Ritalin and Adderall, to control unruly behavior and to make kids compliant. Technically speaking, this is a great solution: a kid acts out and, as a result, our society feeds him or her a behavioral drug designed to control behavior thus rendering the child “good” again. At the core of the technical worldview is the idea that good (however good is defined) should triumph over bad (again, however bad is defined). But here are the two Unintended Consequences that Fukuyama points to that have popped up as a result of technicians messing with the “ruthless adaptive logic” expressed by natural acting out behavior (which, as Bowlby pointed out, often expresses a natural desire for a safe and secure attachment relationship):

  1. Scientists have no idea at all what the longterm effects will be from the now widespread practice of feeding young kids potent behavioral drugs for most if not all of their lives. And these longterm effects may ultimately be passed on to future generations.
  2. Groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) are worried that cheap but effective technical solutions, like using behavioral drugs to control unruly children, will be unfairly applied to children of color and children living in poverty. And these adaptive fears are founded. Way back in December, 2011, I blogged about an article by Judith Warner that appeared in the online version of Time entitled Overmedicating Foster Kids: The Cost of Skimping on Care. Simply, kids in foster care and kids receiving Medicaid assistance are being “asked” to use technically quick and technically efficient solutions like using behavioral drugs to control unruly behavior and, as a result, make these kids compliant.

So, to sum up, what makes technical solutions (and, by extension, technical philanthropy) much easier than adaptive ones stems from the desire on the part of the technical worldview to underestimate (at best) or completely ignore (at worst) The Law of Unintended Consequences. Evolution may be blind but it is fiercely focused from an adaptive point of view. The desire to balance and harmonize systems that are often in conflict drives this focus. And if one chooses to mess with that focus, there very well may be Unintended Consequences. At the core of an adaptive worldview is the desire to look for, acknowledge, and accommodate (as best as possible) Unintended Consequences. As I have blogged about before, the architects of the atomic bomb truly believed that if a nuclear device were to be exploded above ground, the entire earth’s atmosphere would be set ablaze (snuffing out all but the most robustly adapted organisms). Aren’t we glad that those Unintended Consequences never came to be. But at least they were considered.

Here’s one final scary thought: we are feeding our kids a steady diet consisting of the Internet and social media. Scientists have no idea what the longterm consequences will be. Early investigations seem to suggest that this digital diet is messing with brain systems (i.e., decreased Executive Functioning) and social systems (i.e., social isolation and ineptitude) in negative ways. And who knows, maybe this digital diet will unfairly affect and marginalize certain groups. I guess only time (and future generations) will tell. For more on the former theme, see my blog posts on Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. (I’d be remiss if I did not mention that Mr. Carr spoke at our February, 2012, RYOL Lecture.) For more on the latter theme, grab a copy of Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together. As Fukuyama writes about the prospect of moving past morality informed by human behavior and innateness (which I have blogged about earlier), “[W]e need to accept the consequences of the abandonment of natural standards for right and wrong forthrightly and recognize … that this may lead us into territory that many of us don’t want to visit.”