When I sat down to write this post last Tuesday, I assumed that it would be the last installment in a three-part series on human evolution that was inspired by the work of David Sloan Wilson. My plan was to focus on what Stuart Kauffman and Steven Johnson’s idea of the adjacent possible adds to Wilson’s work, because I was surprised that he didn’t emphasize it.

I was well into writing it when my friend David Orr’s new book, Democracy in a Hotter Times appeared on my Kindle. I immediately started reading it because he was appearing at a launch event for Oberlin alumni that evening. The book and the talk sent me back to the drawing board because it allowed me to bring the first David’s often abstract ideas down to earth in ways that all of us—including those who aren’t named David—could put into practice.

Two Davids and Their Common Challenge

I will get to the adjacent possible.

But, first, the two Davids and a challenge that is implicit in their work.

I’ve never met David Sloan Wilson. However, as I pointed out in the posts on the noosphere and the commons, he is a global thought leader on anything having to do with evolution who now spends much of his time probing humanity’s unique ability to chart its own social evolution which is what initially drew me to his work. Wilson is best known for his focus on “big ideas” including in the video series I watched that inspired the first two posts in this series. However, in recent years, he has also explored the practical side of things, most notably in designing an alternative high school in Binghamton NY, where he has lived and taught for decades and in the ProSocial movement which he helped create.

I met David Orr shortly after he was hired by Oberlin College to head its award-winning environmental studies program. Since then, David has been a major player in global climate change politics which has arguably turned him into Oberlin’s most influential faculty member ever.

This David is a “big idea guy,” too, but that is not what he will be remembered for at least by the generations of Obies he has touched. For those of us who have had the privilege of working with him, the second David’s biggest impact lies in the changes he has wrought in his small college town and the larger Cleveland metropolitan area. Oberlin gave Orr opportunities to apply the same guidelines he had used in creating an intentional community in Arkansas during the 1980s that overlap all but completely with those that the first David stresses in applying Elinor Ostrom’s commons-based design principles.

Orr was the prime mover in convincing the College and local leaders to launch the Oberlin Project. Among other things, it built a sustainable hotel and conference center and created a “green arts district” that revitalized the aging downtown and did so in a way that revitalized local agriculture and created job opportunities for young people who would never have dreamed of attending Oberlin. Some of his former students have built careers replicating what they did with David throughout the Cleveland metropolitan area.

Both Davids are academic rock stars, but that’s not why I included them in this post. Think, instead, about the fact that they  have been able to get out of the “ivory tower” and—to paraphrase one of TED’s catch phrases—spread ideas worth spreading. Both understand that the practical work that allows people to see those ideas in action is even more important if we want to build the social base that can make radical social change happen. In short, both Davids have identified what my friends in the startup world called BHAGs or big, hairy, audacious goals. And unlike mosts of my academic colleagues, they have taken steps that make this goals seem less audacious—if not big or hairy.

But that’s all they’ve done. While it’s plenty good enough especially from scholar-activists like myself who are well into their seventies, we are going to have to do more to take their first steps farther.

Toward the Adjacent Possible

That is where the adjacent possible comes into play.

Visionaries like me (and, I suspect, the two Davids) dream of huge changes that we would love to see realized which, in my case, revolve around world peace. But they remain dreams in part because we can’t reach the goals that either David (or I) call for over night. There are, frankly, too many obstacles, too much we don’t know yet, and too many other things that get in the way of quick fixes for me to list here.

If Steven Johnson and Stuart Kauffman, who first coined the term adjacent possible, are right, evolution typically follows pathways that build on the present which get blended with (relatively) readily available options. Its two words tell it all. Evolution does not—and cannot—take place in a vacuum. Rather, evolutionary processes are a lot like the work of tinkerers who keep trying to make things out of material they already have (the possible) at hand until something works.  Biologically, genetic mutations rarely lead to immediate, wholesale changes like human developing a second pair of legs. Instead, evolution “favors” recombining ingredients that are near at hand (adjacent and possible) into something new. Thus, Johnson begins his chapter on the adjacent possible with the story of how a French poultry farmer adapted the incubation machines used with hens for human use.

As regular readers know, I’ve been obsessed with paradigm shifts since one of my professors introduced me to Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions when I was a sophomore at Oberlin many eons ago. What many of my fellow paradigm shift fanatics often miss is the fact that those kinds of radical shifts in the ways we think and act also proceed from moves toward the adjacent possible that cumulate and cumulate and cumulate and cumulate until they truly do alter our understanding of the way things work.  Typically, one change leads to another, for instance, as versions of the Oberlin project have been adapted for use in Cleveland and beyond. Each change is “adjacent” to current practices which makes it seem more “possible” to achieve. As Kuhn noted, it may not be clear that a paradigm shift has occurred until it is over and people begin looking back and realize just how much things have changed.

Just as importantly, paradigm shifts and major evolutionary transitions can only happen if something innovative takes place. In biological evolution, for example, a series of genetic mutations turn a reptile’s scales into a bird’s feather. In social evolution, people recombine things or ideas that are adjacent and possible into something new in a process that Johnson calls bricolage which is the French word for tinkering. Gutenberg and others found ways of turning machines that pressed grapes for the production of wine into a printing press. More recently, IDEO helps designers at Apple see how you can combine a digital camera with a mobile phone and more and up with the iPhone.

But whether game changing like the marriage of the telephone and computer or more prosaic such as the widespread adoption of Zoom during the COVID pandemic, those changes do not appear out of nowhere. Rather, as Stuart Kauffman put it in his TED talk earlier this year, “What is actual now defines what is possible next.”

The Davids’ work also reminds also reminds us that we can’t do the impossible. Steven Johnson, for example, explains why Ada Lovelace and other nineteenth century scientific innovators could not have invented a modern computer if they had decided to to do so.  They didn’t have access to everything from electricity to transistors to a telephone (Lovelace died in 1852, 24 years before Alexander Graham Bell was issued the first patent). Or, as he put it,

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, overing on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways the present can reinvent itself.

An Ironic Implication For My Own Work

I went to graduate school in 1969 with dreams of a nonviolent paradigm shift in my head. Despite having read Kuhn’s book a few times before I even got to Ann Arbor, I still assumed that we could get from “here to there” fairly quickly through some kind of revolutionary process. After all, Kuhn did call them scientific revolutions.

At the time, I had a deep aversion to settling for “mere” incremental reforms. I still do.

However, in part because I’ve gotten to know the work of the two Davids, I’ve come to grips with the irony that revolutionary change that lasts and gains widespread acceptance gets built gradually by moving from one adjacent possible to the next to the next to the next until our metaphoric scales get turned into wings or our inherited ability to learn new behaviors turns into genuine consciousness and self-awareness which allows us to chart our own future.

Or, as I put it in a comment to an Oberlin classmate who is trying to figure out how our 1960s activism is still reflected in what we do today, I’ve realized that we can build radical change from the “inside of the system” outward with one huge proviso.

It can only happen if we take advantage of what makes our evolution different from those of all those other species what lack consciousness. We can plan at least part of our social evolution. We don’t have to go willy nilly from one adjacent possible to the next in the way that biological evolutionary processes “select” traits that survive.

To use a term I used a few paragraphs ago in a very different way, we can take our efforts to scale. We can take what David Sloan Wilson did with high schools in Binghamton to other communities. The lessons learned in Oberlin and Cleveland can be adapted for use in Pittsburgh or even Binghamton. Or, what a group of senior Rotarians are doing to improve race relations in Portland OR can be adapted for use in Portland ME and the thousands of other communities in between.

And, as the Davids have learned, it’s fun work to do even when you are in your seventies.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.