How Cultural Evolution Eases Growing Pains

Darwin deduced that organisms evolve over time. The same is true of your business. This change might feel strange at first – worrying, even. What if an evolutionary step in the wrong direction puts you on the path to extinction?  

Well, here’s some good news: We’re built to change and grow. In fact, it’s the secret of our success as a species.

People have been trying to apply Darwin’s theory to business since the time of Darwin. It’s never fitted very well – some fit businesses fail and other seemingly weak ones last far longer than anyone expected. But then his theory has never fitted too well with humans in general. We’re weak, slow, soft, squishy and vulnerable yet not only do we survive, we thrive.

Once we developed a suitable brain, our cultural evolution has contributed to our success more than our biological evolution. Human dominance is built on our ability to co-operate as large scale groups. We are able to do this to achieve tangible objectives, like hunting for food; but also for abstract concepts, such as a political ideal or the success of a company.

We’re not ants or bees – we can’t operate as a hive mind – but using small teams working as part of a larger group we can achieve incredible things. Wolves and monkeys can operate in groups but reach a limit where they lose co-ordination and the group size becomes unwieldy and unmanageable. The same would happen to us were it not for our aptitude for teamwork.

Apologies to all your hundreds of Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts, but we can only really hold together a bond with a maximum of 120 people at a time. We can only retain the relevant personal information to operate familiarly with this number. However, groups of this size can co-operate and work together as a block of around 600 to 1000. These larger groups can be co-ordinated together too, and so on. Even the basic social group of 120 is subdivided into groups of roughly 30 who form a closer team and then around 10 core relationships.

Darwin’s theory fits uneasily with humans because we are not as selfish as the majority of the animal kingdom. But, other theories have arisen which help to fill in the picture. Multi-level selection theory explains how we excel at small group co-operation and Gene-culture co-evolution how we bring these groups together to create larger societies (for an explanation of how these work, I highly recommend reading Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind).

All of this should be heartening for the business owner. A growing business, with a strong vision and mission can evolve and grow successfully. New people can join, new teams can take shape and the organisation can expand and still function efficiently because that’s what we’re culturally evolved to do – to work together.

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