Friday, August 01, 2008

Group-level adaptations and circularity issues in change management

Why people sing "May the Circle be Unbroken"

“Science works best when it tests among well-framed hypotheses that make different predictions about measurable aspects of the world,” - 
D.S. Wilson (2002, pp. 44)

"Once the reasoning associated with scientific thought loses its status as the only adaptive way to think, other forms of thought associated with religion cease to be objects of scorn and incomprehension and can be studied as potential adaptations in their own right." - D.S. Wilson (2002, pp. 43)

Changing the implicitly held core beliefs of large organizations is difficult.  Change that affects core beliefs in an organization that commonly understood to guardian core societal values is daunting.  In the field of education, Tyack and Cuban (1995) have suggested that only reforms that are fundamentally important, societally supported and culturally long lasting actually affect teacher implementation.  Do religious tendencies inform some of the circularity issues that surround educational change?

Wilson(2002, pp. 45)  has summarized most of the evolutionary approaches to religion as follows:

1 . Religion as an adaption
1.1 Religion as group level adaptation
1.2 Religion as individual level adaptation
1.3 Religion as cultural parasite that often evolves at the expense of human individuals and group

2 Religion as nonadaptive
2.1 Religion as an adaptation to past environments, such as ancestral kin groups, that is maladaptive in modern environments, such as large groups of unrelated individuals
2.2 Religion as a byproduct (spandrel) of genetic or cultural evolution

I suspect a number of circularity issues associated with organizational change can be illuminated from these perspectives.  Viewing religion as a group level adaptation locates change issues in a place of dynamic tension.  Individual interests compete with group interests.  Evolved mechanisms that discouraging free loading and other self-interest strategems may inform why single-pronged, or even many multi-pronged, change approaches fail.  

Fundamental educational change normally requires the death of one generation and the regeneration of another.  The societail milieu in which the rising generation understands its world is different.  Core beliefs can be protected, while other beliefs can be reinterpreted or completely jettisoned (Tyak & Cuban, 1995).  In effect, the rising generation has a different implicit understanding of what behaviours are group-appropriate.

Now one can take the view that appropriate group behaviours are learned, but I would suspect this idea doesn't stand on its own. Rather, I suspect, tacit understandings combine to form implicit conceptions of moral imperatives.  In some cases moral imperative become embodied in an avatar like fashion (religion).  In other cases they remain fuzzy and unembodied.  I suspect thresholds for agent detection systems  (Atran, 2002), and other factors come into play here.

For organizations this means changes touching fundamental nerves may have to compete against deep evolutionary adaptations that prevent the average person from abusing group-level benefits.

Atran, S. (2002). In Gods we trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion. Oxford University Press: New York.

Tyak & Cuban (1995). Tinkering toward utopia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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