One of the ongoing debates simmering in evolutionary biology lately is the competition versus cooperation argument. On one side, we have the more traditional Darwinian position that competition is the primary driver of adaptation, and hence survival of any given species.
But more recently, the idea is gaining traction that humans may have evolved most successfully not due to “survival of the fittest” but rather, “survival of the kindest,” quoting Dr. Dacher Keltner, Co-Director of the Greater Good Society at UC Berkeley.
Oh, dear God. Where do we get these people? It’s a classic rhetorical fallacy of False Dilemma. Either we are purely competitive psychopaths always ripping each other apart for the smallest advantage, or we’re wonderfully cooperative creatures who live in a fantasy world.
Horseshit. We are both. How we treat you is determined by what sort of group we feel you fall into. If you are of our tribe, great, we’ll help you out. That is assuming that you are following the tribal rules. If you aren’t of our tribe, we will compete with you unless helping you is to our advantage. It’s not that hard. Insiders get cooperation, outsiders get shot in the face.
This is one area where Western culture is clearly superior to most non-Western culture. We haven’t so much trancended tribalism as we have expanded the definition of it to include people who share our belief systems. Somalia is filled with people who owe their allegiance to their clan, where we’re filled with people who believe that if you act like an American, you’re as good as a brother. We’ve defined our tribe, American, to be anyone who accepts and espouses American ideals. That doesn’t mean we will universally like you, but you’ll be family. We’ll at least invite you to Thanksgiving dinner and talk bad about you rather than talk bad about you behind your back.
The real problem with this “Survival of the Kindest” malarkey is that it makes people think that competition and warfare are somehow set in opposition to cooperation. They aren’t. Competition is rarely one on one. Most competition is a team sport. All of warfare is a team sport. You cooperate with the people on your team and you compete with those who are not.
If you’ve got the time, pick up the Harry Turtledove “Worldwar” series. I am convinced that Turtledove doesn’t write to tell a story, he writes to answer a question. The question that this series answers is, “War, what is it good for?”
The series pits humans against an invading alien race who happen to show up in the middle of World War II. The aliens have been planning the invasion for hundreds of years, and are just certain that they are going to crush the pitiful humans. The problem is that due to constant warfare between competing groups of humans, we’re no longer riding horses clad in maille while trying to whack each other with swords. For the aliens, 500 years isn’t enough time to change anything, but for us we’ve gone from knights almost to atomic weapons.
Turtledove’s answer appears to be “the constant competition of war, coupled with the cooperation within the various warring groups, leads to intense technological advancement. Those groups that didn’t adapt and improve were swept away by those that did.”
I think he’s right.