Evolution is often understood as life-and-death competition between and among organisms where the “fittest” ones survive. That way of thinking rings true in a profound way, but it often creates a misunderstanding of how evolution actually works. We don’t survive and thrive as solitary individuals. We do so as members of groups. Groups that are evolutionarily successful develop into communities, helping to insure the well-being of their individual members.

For a group to become a community it must develop a high level of trust. This is challenging for any species, including our own. Risks must be taken for trust to develop because we don’t personally know everyone in our groups. Not everyone can easily be held accountable for their actions. That’s why we develop laws and rules to regulate human behavior within our societies.

But the most successful groups don’t live in police states or require constant monitoring. Trust is a much bigger concept than “law” or “rule” because it is central to our very survival. Consider the social life in a fishing and agricultural community along the southern coast of Oregon. The small town is Bandon, Oregon (pop. 3,046). The photos and commentaries that follow were created on a recent trip to Bandon.

A sense of community in places throughout the world is often created through allegiance to god and the nation-state, sometimes in combination. Religious and political systems provide the mythology, ideology, rules, and rituals that produce a sense of coherence and belonging. Bandon is no different.

Church, flag and scotch broom

But deeper levels of trust and community are enacted in the most basic routines of everyday life for everyone—religious and political affiliation notwithstanding. In Bandon, this takes place in the heart of the town—the fishing and crabbing pier. Take a walk with me to see what’s going on there.

James at the Bandon Pier

Here we meet Albert, a local crab fisherman. He explains how to measure a crab to determine if it’s big enough to keep and consume. The one in his bucket passed the test. Many others didn’t. While state authorities oversee fishing in Bandon, the fishermen take it upon themselves to throw back undersized catch. Trust.

To support individual fishermen and the local economy, the town government provides free facilities for cleaning fish and crabs that the users themselves help maintain. Trust.

Fish Cleaning station in Bandon

Protecting children is a primary community value. Local government and business in Bandon provide life jackets for kids while they use the pier and greater harbor area. No one monitors the life jacket kiosk. Trust.

We build communities by trusting individuals –many of whom we do not know personally– to do the right thing in the name of the group. Trust gives people a sense of safety and comfort. That psychological platform makes life enjoyable and enables people to focus proactively on realizing other aspects of their human potential. By more fully exercising our individual human potential we contribute something new and valuable to our communities. Such is the organic nature of complex cultural development—an essential product of human evolution.