Human evolution and the rise of corporate super-organisms.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, in the language of biology living organisms are not as much geared towards competition as they are towards preservation. Our society rarely thinks of corporations as living organisms, but this might be starting to change as we enter a new era of human evolution altogether.

When everything is connected to everything else, for better or for worse, everything matters.” Bruce Mau, Canadian designer

The expression “survival of the fittest” is often attributed to naturalist Charles Darwin and, although it appears in the fifth edition of his book On the Origin of Species (1869), it was in fact coined by his contemporary Herbert Spencer, a polymath who became one of the most influential philosophers in Europe during the late 19th century. Unsuspecting of the long-term distortions that it would bring upon his own work, Darwin adopted Spencer’s phrase several years after initially publishing his evolutionary theory, as he considered it a “more accurate” way to capture the idea that species adapt and change by natural selection with the best suited mutations becoming dominant.

“Survival of the fittest” has been widely used in popular culture as a catchphrase for any topic related or analogous to evolution. We often hear that everyone looking out for their own interests at the expense of others is the law of the jungle, and this presumed truth has been applied to principles of unmitigated competition.

But evolution cannot be fully appreciated when observed through a strictly linear and hierarchical process, as if the sole purpose of any living being were to rise to the top of the food chain, and then call it a day.

By ‘fittest’, Darwin was referring to those who are the most suited — or best fitted — for the environment in which they live. He didn’t have in mind the commonly used meaning of the word now, that is, the biggest, strongest, fastest, smartest and richest.

Our prehuman ancestors, like today’s great apes, were able to solve problems by thinking. But they were almost entirely competitive, aiming only at their individual goals. As changes in their ecosystem forced them to put their heads together and pursue shared goals, early humans developed the ability to cohere, coordinate their actions, transcend self-interest and outcompete other groups.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has called this ability the hive switch, observing that we may very well resemble chimpanzees in the way we are shaped by individual competition, but at the same time we are like bees in the way we can “lose ourselves in something larger than ourselves”. In one of his books, he goes on to suggest that “we are 90% chimp and 10% bee”. Whether the 10% is accurate or optimistic is certainly up for debate, but more importantly, it is an invitation for all of us to reflect on our own context and behavior, and Haidt’s analogy is perfect for what I attempt to explore in this article.

If we are to understand the full picture of our own survival, we must explore the inherent balance between individual subsistence and the cohesion of the group as a greater unity that encompasses the individual.
Multilevel Selection Theory

In 1998 David Sloan Wilson and Elliott Sober proposed a framework called multilevel selection theory. The theory asserts that, while there’s no question that individual organisms with favorable traits are more likely to pass along their genes to the next generation, similar processes could operate at other levels of the biological spectrum, thus perpetuating traits that are favorable not only to a gene, cell or individual, but to a social unit such as a flock or a colony, or to an entire species, or even to an ecosystem made up of many species.

“We now live in groups of groups of groups”, Wilson points out.

Given the pervasive misconceptions explained earlier around Darwin’s evolutionary theory, one might easily interpret multilevel selection through the lens of the classic big-fish-eats-small-fish proverb.

While this may still be part of the human (and corporate) experience today, there is a broader idea unfolding around us, and that is the phenomenon of super-organisms.

A super-organism is a group of individual organisms working as one large self-regulating system. Critical mass is only one aspect of what defines a super-organism. Another, and arguably more significant, is that it holds itself together organically and naturally by invested relationships, without the need for an artificial shell to force organization and cooperation.

Can businesses evolve beyond their primal competitive instinct and embrace group cohesion as their core modus operandi?

The majority of corporations, regardless of how big they are, would probably collapse if you removed traditional hierarchies, bureaucratic structures, as well as carrot-and-stick mechanisms. Why? Because these elements maintain an artificial model that vastly ignores intrinsic human motivations — including our social instinct — that power behavior. Paul Herr, author of Primal Management, sums it up this way:

“We don’t think of ourselves as tribal people because we abandoned that lifestyle long ago, yet it still affects every aspect of our minds, emotions, personalities, and organizations. The motivational mechanism is a distinctively tribal apparatus that often malfunctions within the context of modern complex societies. Hierarchically organized corporations are not united or tribal and do not take full advantage of nature’s motivational mechanism. Rather, they starve the social appetites and end up with motivationally malnourished employees.”

On the other hand, corporate super-organisms are able to function without relying on all the extrinsic elements because its members are self-motivated, self-directed and self-organized. They are constantly learning how to strike a healthy balance between individualism and collectivism.

Semco S.A. is a large and diversified company headquartered in Brazil that manufactures more than 2,000 products including high volume industrial dishwashers, rocket-fuel-propellant mixers and cooling units for air conditioners. Ricardo Semler, President & CEO, is known around the world for championing the concept of employee empowered leadership. Shortly after taking over the small family engineering firm in the mid-80’s, he dismantled managerial structure to eliminate “corporate oppression” and encourage core business values of employee participation, profit sharing and free flow of information. Named as a “Global Leader of Tomorrow” by the World Economic Forum, and twice as Brazil’s “Business Leader of the Year”, Semler has worked hard to get out of the way.

At Semco, teams set their own production quotas, decide among themselves the best time to come to work, and design their own work environments. Each division in the company is allowed to set its own salary structure. Job candidates have to interview with dozens of potential direct reports before being offered a position. All financial information is discussed openly and freely. There are no secretaries or personal assistants, no executive dining rooms and no personalized parking spaces. There are now six co-CEOs who rotate every six months, allowing Semler to function at the highest levels of leadership and not make decisions. Instead, he is free to ask questions, cast vision, and work with others to build the future of the company. The result has been a resounding success over the past three decades, with a 25% annual growth rate and an employee turnover of just 1%.

Although Semco has remained relatively low-profile, and in a league of its own for quite some time, it is being joined by the likes of Alphabet (Google), Alibaba, Facebook, Apple and Netflix, among others. All of these companies continue to expand into new domains, focus on purpose and foster a sustainable culture.

The ultimate goal of corporate super-organisms isn’t to build volume, but rather to create value.

They will strive to be more than the sum of their parts. They will have low tolerance for members that don’t contribute to the whole, regardless of rank. They will evaluate team effectiveness rather than individual performance. And they will reward a very different set of virtues than the ones currently being taught in most business schools, and worshiped across C-suites.

Companies operating as super-organisms are still unusual, but historical and contemporary evidence suggests that the discipline of organizational development is headed that way. A notable example of this is the movement called B Corps, which has certified over 1,700 for-profit companies in 50 countries for meeting rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Among other requirements, members must sign a Declaration of Interdependence, through which they pledge to provide society with “a more shared and durable prosperity”.

How about human civilization as a whole … Would it be possible to start thinking about our global society as a super-organism?

As suggested throughout this article, “survival of the fittest” is mostly about preservation (survival) of the system, whether it is a single cell or an entire species. One of the key principles of evolution is that increasing levels of complexity require increasingly complex interactions, which are designed to sustain the entire system.

Consider planet Earth itself, which has evolved over billions of years to contain a large variety of self-regulating and interdependent systems — such as atmosphere composition, ocean salinity and surface temperature — acting in unison, constantly seeking a physical and chemical environment that is optimal for life.

The corporate super-organism cannot survive without the broader economic environment of which it is a part, and vice-versa. Interestingly enough, the financial machinery that has governed our way of life for the past couple of centuries — a super-organism in its own right — is on the verge of a historic shake-up. So the question we face is: how can we create a more sustainable system?

Notwithstanding the looming crisis of capitalism, there is reason to be intrigued and excited about the future.

We are at a stage in which the world has reached critical mass. Population growth exploded in the past century and is poised to surpass 9 billion people by 2050. However, the rate of growth is slowing down, and we are starting to witness a global focus on developing connectivity and collaboration. This phenomenon is akin to the development of the human brain as we come of age; once it reaches its full size, it continues to develop by increasing the linkage and connectivity of billions of nerve cells. Today, less than half of the world’s population is connected to the internet, but a few well-funded initiatives are under way to enable the rest of the globe to gain access over the next few years.

The much anticipated linkage of 9 billion minds (7 billion in the short-term) represents not only a technological milestone but a transcendental leap for our civilization, as it will launch human evolution into a new era — one that may not bring as many changes in our bodies but certainly in our perception, our attitudes, our consciousness, and our work.

Prominent thinkers have referred to this new outlook of the world as networked intelligence, which is characterized by a massive shift away from centralized top-down hierarchies and towards decentralized interdependent networks.

Because corporate super-organisms tend to be more efficient in comparison to silo organizational structures (for perspective, Apple generates $233 billion in annual revenue with 115,000 employees, while GM produces $152 billion and employs 216,000 people), a growing portion of the workforce is expected to reside within a mega-scale internet-enabled open marketplace.

In this new context, talent flows more freely — a phenomenon which Daniel Pink has referred to as a “porous border” between free agents and corporations. Several established gig-economy matchmakers, such as Uber and TaskRabbit, as well as crowdsourcing platforms, such as Arcbazar and Innocentive, are already keeping many free agents busy.

While nobody really knows the full repercussions of this new model down the road, it’s probably fair to say that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg so far. As the constellation of interdependent networks continues to evolve, people may start taking full advantage of it by developing a great variety of skills and experiences that can be assembled and reassembled creatively — “much as kids play with Legos”, says Pink.

This transition will by no means be smooth, especially because it involves surrendering control and getting used to more dynamic, fluid and impermanent structures than the ones we have been prepared for in the past. It will put our sense of community to the test and invite us to cultivate our people skills as much as our technical skills. At the same time, it opens the door for everyone to develop their creative capacity and discover new possibilities.

Wherever you find yourself across this vast and complex community, you may discover a little wisdom in Darwin’s words: “selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected”.

Market dynamics are ceasing to revolve around the zero-sum game of winning and losing. In many ways, we are in the early stages of understanding the world as a multi-layered web of life, as opposed to the limiting predator-versus-prey framework.

Surely, as everything else in evolution, changes don’t happen overnight. But in this new ecosystem that’s being created, the best fitted organism, whether an individual or group, is the one that becomes a beacon for ideas, connecting itself to the web of life, as an active agent for innovation and growth.

Our networked intelligence carries great promise of elevating the potential of humanity, and advancing the notion that we are one planet with one common destiny.

A single living organism.