Whenever a natural disaster hits, like last week’s Hurricane Sandy, reporters love to find heart-warming stories of people helping strangers to balance out the heartbreak of loss. The reporters always speak as if this is an unusual form of human behavior brought out by special circumstances; the unspoken assumption is that ordinary human behavior is completely selfish.
For centuries now Western societies have believed that humans were basically evil: first the Christian dogma of original sin held sway, and for the last few hundred years philosophers and biologists have argued that the natural order, humans included, is all selfish competition: Nature is “red in tooth and claw” (from an Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem).
This gloomy appraisal of nature is now being upended by scientists across a number of specialties. Biologists are discovering that cooperation and symbiotic relationships are common features of the natural order (watch an interview I did with a biologist discovering a symbiotic relationship between spiders and carnivorous pitcher plants).
E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, presents the idea that the reason humans have become the dominant animal on the planet is because we learned to cooperate.
Dr. Wilson is a specialist in ants, and he argues that the creatures who have learned to form cooperative societies are the masters of their ecological niche: “The twenty thousand known species of eusocial insects, mostly ants, bees, wasps, and termites, account for only 2 percent of the approximately one million known species of insects. Yet this tiny minority of species dominate the rest of the insects in their numbers, their weight, and their impact on the environment. As humans are to vertebrate animals, the eusocial insects are to the far vaster world of invertebrate animals. Among creatures larger than microorganisms and roundworms, eusocial insects are the little things that run the terrestrial world.”
At some point in the evolution of human beings, after we split off from chimpanzees, hominids started cooperating, as I wrote in an earlier post. Unlike ants, humans are not genetically identical within a colony. This means we have two opposing tendencies in our nature: selfish competition to ensure our genes survive combined with altruistic cooperation to ensure our group survives. The tension between these two tendencies creates what we call “human nature.” Dr. Wilson writes, “Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and better angels of our nature.” But this conflict is what has made us so successful in our evolution.
Dr. Wilson cites research by Michael Tomasello (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology) that points out “that the primary difference between human cognition and that of other animal species, including our closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees, is the ability to collaborate for the purpose of achieving shared goals and intentions. The human specialty is intentionality, fashioned from an extremely large working memory.” We not only express our own intentions, we can read other’s intentions relatively easily. “From infancy we are predisposed to read the intention of others, and quick to cooperate if there is even a trace of shared interest. In one revealing experiment, children were shown how to open the door to a container. When adults tried to open the door but pretended not to know how, the children stopped what they were doing and crossed the room to help. Chimpanzees put in the same circumstance, but far less advanced in cooperative awareness, made no such effort.”
Dr. Tomasello concludes in this essay on his book Why We Cooperate, “It seems that Rousseau, not Hobbes, was right in the first place: humans are born helpful, or at least they become so very early in development before much active socialization and teaching has taken place.”
American culture is built on the idea of the self-sufficient individual—the pioneer family making it on their own, the cowboy riding the range alone. What would our culture look like if we celebrated our cooperative nature as much as our competitive nature? I found an essay online that spoke very well to this idea:
We don't talk about a desire to do a thing well for its own sake. We don't talk about the incentives of achievement. For example, would a manufacturer work to make a better product if there were public awards for such craftsmanship? Would there be an incentive if the competition were non-destructive. . . if the goal were to make the best and be recognized rather than to make the better and kill the competitor's business? We don't talk about how well the public can be served by unified objectives, where all work toward a common goal and divide labor in a sane manner. Within companies, teams are brought together with planning to get to a single goal, and this works very well. Why can't this happen between businesses? It worked well for the Apollo project.
Humans learned to overcome the deeply embedded instinct of selfishness over a hundred thousand years ago. I think we are up to the challenge of changing our culture today.