Survival of the Kindest

Seed magazine has just posted my review of Frans de Waal's The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society. I wanted to use this opportunity to thank Nikki, Evan, Bora and everyone else that helped in developing this piece. For posts on related topics please see Misunderstanding Dawkins, The Sacrifice of Admetus, Bonobos "Red in Tooth and Claw", The Evolution of Morality and Laboratory Evidence for the Breakdown of the Selfish Gene.

In a fitting metaphor, the most recent experiment with social darwinism resulted in mass extinction. Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling claimed he was inspired by Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene when he implemented a system known as "rank and yank" that sought to apply nature's lessons to the energy industry. Skilling had all employees in the company ranked every six months. Then he offered lavish bonuses to the top 5 percent while the bottom 15 percent were relocated or fired.

This system of ruthless competition advanced just the type of personalities that one would expect: crazy people. As one Enron employee put it, "If I'm going to my boss's office to talk about compensation, and if I step on some guy's throat and that doubles it, then I'll stomp on that guy's throat."

However, what was perhaps most disturbing is that according to Time magazine, 20 percent of US companies were following the same business model at the time of Enron's collapse. Enron's self-destruction was only the first in a nationwide trend. But what, if anything, does this say about nature?


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Nothing new there. One of Canada's richest persons is billionaire Jimmy Pattison. He got his start selling GM cars in Vancouver and went from there. In his car lots he had a flat rule the salesman with the least sales each month was fired. He started that back in the 60's and it's still his policy in a number of his companies.