This is a follow up to my blog entry from yesterday that quoted two sources talking about communities. If you haven't read it, do so now, otherwise what follows will make very little sense. ;)
Here's the "big reveal": those quotes were talking about studies of isolated human communities that have remained outside the influence of states and which exist (or existed at the time of study) somewhere between being hunter-gatherer societies and being integrated into a modern socio-political power.
The first quote (the one with bullet points) was from a presentation by Dr. Charles Efferson on research done in the New Guinea highlands in search of an answer to the question: how does cooperation evolve if it is seemingly at the expense of the individuals involved in cooperation and, when people don't, those who enforce consequences? Dr. Efferson is an evolutionary ecologist who studies "behavioral dynamics associated with the social transmission of information". In describing the behavior of tribe members of New Guinea, he could just as well have been describing many Free software projects.
The results presented in the talk were fascinating and, at least for me, a little counter-intuitive in places. It's hard to argue with hard science, though, and the numbers seem fairly clear: cooperation evolves through group-selected psychology, and it happens in the culture rather than the genome. For those interested, the slides to his presentation are here, but be warned that a lot of the content he presented is not on the slides themselves. The main experiment and its findings are well documented in the slides, however.
One really interesting aspect of the results is that the behavior of individuals was apparently driven by deep ancestral (evolutionary) psychology rather than the in-the-moment explanations and rationalizations provided by the participants. The state of the social evolution in these communities coupled with their histories caused the repeated (and repeatably testable) exhibition of behaviors in a scientifically controllable manner: and it consistently demonstrated strong in-group vs out-group bias. Ok, no big surprise there (the surprise is in the group selection bit), but to see it so starkly ... ...
The second quote in yesterday's blog entry was a series of highly abridged paragraphs from a book entitled "Rethinking social evolution: the perspective from middle-range societies" by Jérôme Rousseau published in 2006. In it he maps out the evolution of societies and the tension between self interest and cooperation, based largely on several decades of research involving "middle-range" societies spread across the globe from Canada's arctic regions to Lowland South America, from the highlands of New Guinea to those of Malaysia. There are no hard conclusions (in the scientific sense) in the book, but it attempts to provide a base for further research and examination. (Apparently, he's doing computer simulations based on his collections of real-world data.)
It wasn't the conclusions of the quote sources, interesting as they are, that caused me to write this blog entry, however. It was that the communities being described in both cases behaved analogously to many open source communities, and that those communities were in a fairly early state of social evolution. This probably shouldn't have been surprising: both are made up of people and at particular states of social evolution.
What does this mean for us working in the trenches of Free software, tending to and caring about our communities and those in them?
First, it seems to me that Mark Shuttleworth's observation of tribalism last year was more than a little "on the money" in a very literal sense. When we look at real world tribes, we can find analogs for the dynamics we see in Free sotware. It's an odd sensation to realize how our communities which are based largely on readily available computer-based "instant" global communication echo far more "traditional" contemporary cultures that many would identify as "primitive" technologically, socially, etc. But there it is .. we're all people. We can learn from this, from each other, from the people living in the highlands of New Guinea and our own culture's historical movements into more complex structures.
Second, we can probably measure with reasonable accuracy where on the social evolutionary continuum open source communities are, which seems to be: pretty far from the start but a long way off from being truly sophisticated.
Thirdly, we are dealing with patterns of behavior which we likely owe to our ancestors far in the past and which are, for at least certain kinds of interactions, highly resistant to rationalization.
Realizing where we are can be a great asset in trying to get somewhere we might identify as being "better". The perspective it can give us might allow us to choose our pathways with more insight and foresight. It also perhaps can grant us some new humility in terms of how far we've come together thus far. Finally, it may give us pause when we try and justify our reactions and positions with rationalizations, because that's all they might be: rationalizations but not reality. Instead of attempting justification (we're all clever and many are clever debaters), perhaps we can instead step back and ask the more pragmatic question of, "Is this ultimately leading to the results we want? If so, how do we make more that? If not, how do we change the pattern of behavior?"
I wonder if and how we (humans) can become more aware of the large scale social systems we are a part of, learn from the last few thousand years of experience that we're slowly piecing back together (thank you science, once again!) and in doing so improve both the path taken and the destination arrived at in our shared journey to large scale sustainable communities.
The more I learn, the more I understand how much there is left to learn, how much growth I personally have left to do, and how long the road we might share stretches out before us. The beacons of history and scientific endeavor string out beacons above us like stars marking directions to destinations that lie over horizons which we can not see beyond from our earthly positions. Raising our eyes to these signposts, we may navigate with greater purpose to ends which we can still but hope for.