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Individual vs. Group


Explanations > Evolution > Individual vs. Group

Evolution wins | The need for rules | So what?


We are all individuals and seek personal gain, yet evolution wants the species to survive. How do we handle these competing forces?

Evolution wins

Bull elks grow antlers up to four feet wide. This is not so much for defending themselves as for duelling with other bull elks in order to build their harem of females. In fact when they are being chased by wolves in woodland, the antlers are a positive hindrance. Antlers are good for survival of the species but bad for the survival of the individual bull elk. Evolution is like this. It does not care about the individual, only that the species thrives and prospers.

We are driven by similar forces. If taking a higher-risk job leads to more money so we can give our children a better upbringing, we take it. Individually we may feel socially better off for having that high-powered job, but the stress and risk may well lead to a shorter life. Like the elk, we are driven by natural forces that make us put our children's interests above our own.

Life is not fair. There are big winners and many losers. Elk who are good at fighting get many mates and spread their seed far. But this means many other males do not get mates. The idea of free markets and open competition is like this. Whilst there will be business losers and millionaires, the consumer benefits from lower prices and better products.

The need for rules

At the same time and in many matters, we are driven more by the short-term than the longer-term. This is why there are alcoholics, obese people and stressed workers.

If individually we take short-term risks, we still know that the longer-term is important. Another key reason for risk is competition. If I do not take risks to gain short-term benefit, others will, so we all end up taking risk yet still have a level playing-field.

Taking risks include deceit and trickery, where the chance of discovery is balanced against the benefits to gain. Yet when deceit becomes common, it introduces transaction cost, which again means we all now have to spend time checking up on one another.

And so we get together and have a sensible discussion that it is best for all that we agree a set of rules. We form governing bodies and governments, who we appoint by the fairest means we can. And these bodies formulate and oversee rules that we know we need but individually detest.

We also create 'unwritten rules' in the form of social values, morals and ethics and punish one another by castigating or ostracizing those who transgress.

So what?

When persuading individuals, show the benefits for them. When persuading groups, include both individual and group benefits. When you are competing, do not expect fair play unless rules are agreed (and policed).

See also

Groups, Identity


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