From Geek Chic to Cool Co-operators

The literacy and numeracy levels of the UK’s young adults (or rather, the lack of them) has hit the headlines this month.

The literacy and numeracy levels of the UK’s young adults (or rather, the lack of them) has hit the headlines this month.

Among 24 OECD countries, 16-24 year olds from England ranked 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy. A quarter have the math skills of a ten year old. For once I find myself agreeing with the bombastic Confederation of British Industry — it is a national scandal that a third of people leave education without adequate maths and English.

Yet, paradoxically, popular interest in science is undergoing a renaissance. The UK’s elite have always punched well above their weight on scientific innovation: we are second when it comes to Nobel laureates and ahead of the United States on a per capita basis.

However, we are now not only regularly seeing science on prime-time TV, but science cafes springing up the length and breadth of the country. ‘Geek’ is now not only a badge of honour, it‘s an increasing source of evolutionary advantage (put simply, it helps you find your mate and pass on your genes to the next generation, if you are so disposed). A recent poll for the Times found that twice as many now thought ‘geeks’ were “cool and chic” as opposed to “boring and unattractive”.

The scientific method is even, finally, being applied to what have been the pseudo-sciences of economics and psychology (was the Emperor ever more naked than in these two so-called disciplines?!). Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow explains brilliantly how our minds are tripped up by error and prejudice (for example, you are more likely to believe this sentence because it is in bold type) and why the scientific method is so important. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have taken these ideas, developed Nudge Theory and demonstrated the necessity of double blind trails — which now have a foothold in Governments on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although all this great progress is somewhat hampered by the astounding fact that last year there was just one scientist among 650 MPs — no wonder we see so much nonsense on climate change denial, ludicrous badger culls and lethargy on the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides!

Co-operation has a lot to gain from looking anew at science. Take the work of David Sloan Wilson, which knocks on the head the idea that selfishness and selfishness alone is the major driving force in nature.

Multi level selection theory shows that throughout the entire history of life on earth it has been co-operation not selfishness that has proved to be the major driver of evolutionary change. This has profound implications for business conduct and public policy-making — and co-operators should be shouting this from the rooftops. Not only can good guys finish first (if they work together), but this is the natural way of things.

The person who gets their round of drinks in at the pub is not some disadvantaged freak of nature, they are someone who grasps at a fundamental level the function of giving and receiving, reciprocity and how this builds a strong and productive community.

It’s those who operate selfishly and in isolation that are more likely to end in evolutionary dead-ends — be they the tight-fisted round-shirker, or the employee who lies and deceives to get on. David’s Evolution Institute really is breaking some major new ground, and I hope to be doing much more with them in the future as a member of their Executive Advisory Board.

But this whole area is not completely new ground to co-operatives. Back in the late 90s, the Co-operative Bank was an incredible pioneer of ecological literacy. Its charismatic Managing Director, Terry Thomas, had seen how Scandinavian businesses were profiting from their environmental improvements and wanted to see the Bank do the same.

Each and every executive was ‘trained’ in the basics of science and the workings of nature (picture some of their faces as they relearned the first and second laws of thermodynamics in the Balloon Street boardroom). As were the staff in all business centres and other key functions.

This led to an unlocking of ideas and innovation which Terry (now Lord Thomas) says was a major contributor to what many look back on as the Bank’s best days. Terry was a marketer by training, but he understood that business is subservient to nature’s ability to generate resources and assimilate waste. An evidence-based, scientific approach if ever there was one.

• Read more on 'How to use the theory of human evolution … in business'

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