Are humans capable of cooperating in a generous system, a system that thrives on interdependence and abundance? Last week, this topic came to mind as I was catching up with a colleague whose work involves facilitating many networks and teams. When I asked my friend how she was doing, Kayla replied, “I am living in a half-changed world.” I was struck by the phrase; it sounded like an apt description for my world too. She explained that much of her work was with people who trusted and cooperated with each other to achieve a higher purpose. And she was surprised by the tensions that arose when she shifted to more hierarchical systems. The top-down control and direction were at odds with the generous self-organization she had been facilitating in networks. Kayla’s observation parallels examples of generosity and evolution in natural systems.

Nature and generous networks

In nature, systems are classified into three types of ecologies. A system starts out as a Type I ecology that supports short-lived plants. It is not very diverse and takes all its resources from the soil. Its purpose is to amend the soil so that more varied plant life can be supported in the future. As nature evolves, it creates space for more diverse, longer-lasting plant life, and Type II ecologies form. These plants, shrubs and trees start investing in their own root structure. They store nutrients they get from the soil into bulbs, root systems and tubers. Perennials in our gardens are an example of Type II ecologies. They still take more resources from the soil than they contribute. But as an ecology increases in diversity, it begins to operate differently. Some plants will begin growing within these ecologies for the purpose of leaving key nutrients for the next stage of growth.

As these increasingly diverse Type II ecologies exist, they start forming a platform for the emergence of a Type III ecology. Nature is known for evolving into Type III ecologies, which are recognized as generous systems. They are so diverse that the whole system increases in specialization, complexity and interdependence. One result of this interdependence is the development of reciprocal relationships between plants and species. The species and plant life exchange nutrients they need with each other. This creates a culture of generosity and abundance. As nature moves toward an ecology that rewards cooperation and banks on diversity, it becomes more resilient as well.

Can humans evolve toward a generous system?

The silo framework that exists from specific plants providing for themselves to the generous action of a more advanced system is an enlightening example of evolution in nature. And it brings us back to the opening question – do humans have this capacity to evolve toward a generous system? Since we are a part of nature – not apart from nature – and nature is designed to evolve, human beings are capable of this evolution, too! With this mindset, we can perceive ourselves and the dynamics in our world differently. We can view self-interest as a phase in our ongoing evolution instead of a static state and a hardwired way of being.

My friend Kayla is living in two worlds – both a Type II and III ecology at the same time. She is experiencing networks that are predisposed to cooperate, trust, perform and be interdependent. These groups are behaving from a generous system framework. Other organizations are still struggling to move beyond command and control. Those of us who have the privilege to work in both worlds see the differences and the tensions between these frameworks. This unique vantage point also reveals the beneficial system we may be evolving toward, despite the narratives that exist in our political or news media reports.