The group, not the individual, is the cornerstone of society

Experts are loath to treat humans as just another social animal but that’s what we are

The idea for my book came up during a bike-ride in 1997 round Ireland with my old friend John Gibson, a Canadian professor of salmon ecology and a fierce wildlife campaigner. We had rowed together in the senior eight at Trinity College Dublin in the 1950s. My career had been as financial controller in international corporations.

Every time we crossed one of Ireland’s mighty rivers John lamented that we businessmen were aggressive, self-seeking, ruthless and destructive; in a word, greedy. Big industry, he kept saying, such as agriculture and hydro-electricity had more or less wiped out the magnificent salmon that used to populate these waterways. So when I got back home I began researching the evolutionary origin of co-operation.

I merely wanted to defend myself against John’s relentless arguments, but the idea grew and grew until I realised that though I hadn’t been looking for it, I might have stumbled into something big like the entrance to an ancient Egyptian tomb.

It gradually became clear that philosophy and economics have between them conspired to explain society as a collection of self-seeking individuals. But in day-to-day reality society consists of independent co-operating groups; families, businesses, gangs, societies and so on. It’s these groups, not us as individuals, which get everything done; they produce all our food, our protection and our breeding needs. These groups fit together in a more or less harmonious rough and tumble out of which a hierarchy spontaneously emerges. And that’s what we call society.


It was news to me that ever since Isaac Newton, sociologists have been searching for a scientific explanation of how human society works. It slowly became clear that still today nobody really understands how society works. Henri Saint-Simon, active around 1800, had identified the possibility of a scientific explanation of society. His aim was to match the science in the discoveries Newton had made in the 1680s. After Saint-Simon, several scholars, particularly Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Talcott Parsons, had come close, but still today nobody can give a truly scientific explanation of how society ticks. It’s no wonder that in university circles sociology is still such an unsatisfactory and controversial field compared to physics, chemistry, mathematics and medicine.

Assembly and performance thinking starts by making a clear distinction between the way we selfish individuals are able to assemble into a co-operating group, and the systems by which these groups perform. It then focuses on this performance in all animal co-operation; good examples include honey bees and wolves. This performance conforms to a universal rule of three. Briefly; “plan it as a group, do it as a group, review it as a group, and repeat”. Performance carries out the purpose for which the group was assembled in the first place.

The next argument brings emotion into social theory. Though it is an undeniably powerful motivator, the irrationality of emotion makes it slippery and difficult for science to handle; so it is often overlooked. And finally, this way of thinking works for all social creatures, from ants to humans. It even applies to certain co-operating microbes. This universal application enhances its scientific credentials.

So there are four inter-connected proposals here: 1, separating assembly from performance; 2, using a universal rule of three to describe this performance; 3, the incorporation of emotion; and 4, their application to all co-operating animals.

This way of thinking may be new but actually it is quite simple. It is essentially an extension of Darwin’s natural selection. And like natural selection it cannot be proved by scientific experiment. That’s because neither concept can predict what’s going to happen. They can only explain what has happened, so they must both rely on proof by induction. Proof by deduction is denied to them.

The book has three parts:

Part 1 describes human society as experienced by six imaginary people: a child, a student, an apprentice, a mother, an employee, and a senior citizen. These are the daily realities against which social life is researched in Part two.

Part 2 explains Assembly and Performance thinking. These are subdivided into Assembly, Performance and Emotion.

Part 3 lists the many illuminations and solutions arising from this way of thinking; some are chillingly bleak, others are optimistic. Their common origin may add a ring of truth to the whole idea.

The claim here is that if a scientific explanation of society can be achieved by thinking in terms of group assembly, group performance and group emotion, then we might be better equipped to deal with the dangerous consequences of our corporate greed.

I wasn’t a scholar, I was a business executive. If I’d been a scholar I would never have stumbled upon these ideas. During my 23 years of research I repeatedly discovered that the various arguments I was making had already been established; some for centuries. It’s just that they have never been put together in this way. The question has to be, why not?

The answer seems to be hubris. Since well before Socrates and Buddha, people have been reluctant to treat humans as just one of the social animals; the syphonophores, ants, elephants, dolphins, and so on. The accepted thinking has always been that humans are in a superior category. In the Christian Bible, Genesis, chapter 1, day 7, God instructs mankind to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground”. This of course is pure hubris; a brain-fogging disease of the corporate mind.

Hubris was elegantly boosted by Plato, but it stretches way back into pre-history. Human self-importance has been built up into an ancient and colossal mound of fairy-stories and intellectual detritus. The argument here is that this deeply embedded hubris is what has prevented us from recognising the relatively simple mechanisms of all animal social behaviour, including our own; thoughtless, destructive and dangerous as it so often is.

The Wheels of Society: Its assembly, performance and emotion by A C B Wilson is published by Quartet Books