My new favourite magazine, “Sein”, has dedicated its latest issue (No. 185, Jan 2011) to cooperation, or, “The Evolution of Unity”. Some bullet-points from the magazine’s first article “Cooperation with Evolution” (as usual translated by me):
Biologists are discovering cooperation and symbiosis in bacteria, plants, trees, between animals of different species, among humans and in biological and social systems.
Core physics research recognizes that we can only correctly apprehend the structure of reality, if we include the environment of the observed phenomena in our research.
Game Theory is discovering that nature everywhere prefers cooperative solutions.
Modern research into living biological and social systems is discovering circular flows, interdependencies, feedback loops, self-organization, diversity, and adaptability as the ground rules of cooperation.
Educational science and research into creativity recognize the value of teamwork and cross-discipline cooperation.
The political sciences are dedicating themselves to possibilities of international cooperation. The social sciences increasingly assert that cooperation between human and nature, between social systems, between States, classes, social groups and individuals is a primary requisite for humanity’s survival.
And even the globalized economy has been experimenting for years with new combinations of cooperation and competition to cope with today’s challenges.
Of course I am not quoting ‘proofs’ here, yet I am confident that anyone checking up on the veracity of these assertions would not have to look far to find supporting evidence. Here’s an example of the kind of thing listed above which I found a while back: “The “selfish gene” concept as presented by reductionists of all stripes is arrant nonsense.” (Miranda Wrongs.) And I urge everyone to buy and read "The Spirit Level: why greater equality makes societies stronger" by Wilkinson and Pickett.
Back to the Sein article and the main point I’m making here, “It is being discovered everywhere that competition only makes sense, only exists, within the broader framework of cooperation. Cooperation is the higher order principle of life and evolution.” This is a dramatic statement, fully in opposition to the prevailing views readily found and promoted, relentlessly, gullibly, in the mainstream. Not that the idea is new, far from it. Peter Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid” was written over a hundred years ago, an erudite and expressive work laying out in considerable detail and with sound logic how fundamental to nature cooperation is. Buckminster Fuller (and many others) were pro cooperation and sharing over their entire working lives. I’m sure that no matter how far back we go, we’ll find great thinkers propounding the role of cooperation in nature. And at the mundane level, though we recognize the importance and value of striving to achieve, of competing with others to discover more of our own abilities, don’t we daily promote sharing and cooperation as virtues? Don’t we consider selfishness unworthy of praise? Don’t we chastise our young when they behave selfishly? Why do we behave in this way locally while culturally asserting that only competition and selfishness deliver the ‘efficiencies’ modern society needs?
In the anachronism we call economics competition is still widely perceived as the mode which delivers the best results. Communism is held up as the only possible alternative to aggressive competition; ‘look what happened to Russia/East Germany/Romania!’ Here’s an example from another German magazine, Focus (October 2010), in which Patrick Pelata boasts about Renault’s secret battery technology as a game winner in the race to mass-produce economically viable electric cars:
When VW stated that the technology would first be ready for the mass-market in 2030, they obviously had less information than we did.
So why not share the best technology known to man in the interests of environmental health and improving living standards everywhere? Open it up! End intellectual copyright law! Develop a different and more inclusive idea of what victory is. In what big-picture way is it good to ‘beat’ the competition if such holds back the cross-fertilization of ideas the whole human race now so desperately needs? When one facet of society ‘wins’ at the cost of the rest, how beneficial is this ‘victory’ even to the ‘winner?’ We could (because many can) culturally perceive the whole planet as the system that is affected by our efforts, instead of the Us against Them, competitive, fear- and scarcity-based stance we are currently imprisoned and suffocated by. We are all aware of how development in alternative fuel forms has been retarded for economic reasons.
To branch out into ecology, Paul Hawken, in “The Ecology of Commerce”, describes ecosystem breakdown on St. Matthew Island over a twenty year period during which imported reindeer had ‘the upper hand’ against the indigenous vegetation, and ‘won:’
A haunting case of such an overshoot took place St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea in 1944 when 29 reindeer were imported. Specialists had calculated that the island could support 13 to 18 reindeer per square mile, or a total population of between 1,600 and 2,300 animals. By 1957, the population was 1,350; but by 1963, with no natural controls or predators, the population had exploded to 6,000. The original calculations had been correct; this number vastly exceeded carrying capacity and was soon decimated by disease and starvation. [ ... ] By 1966 there were only 42 reindeer alive on St. Matthew Island.
Likewise, if the wolves of an ecosystem ‘won’ against the deer such that they ate the last of them, the wolves would die of starvation. Outright ‘victory’ can only be pyrrhic. Competition has to occur within the context of a dynamic and cooperative balance, otherwise the system tips into collapse, and recovery can be so slow as to be impossible from the point of view of the ‘victor.’
Of course there are nuances and complexities a small blog-post such as this one must leave to one side, for example the absence of competition from natural predators in the story quoted above, but the point relating to balance is valid generally.
To conclude I’d like to turn to Gregory Bateson’s criteria for viable and sustainable living: 1) Health, the ability to exist within the environment; 2) Competence, the ability to feed needs from the resources of the environment; and 3) Adaptability, the ability to change with the changes in the environment.
Change is the only constant. Jared Diamond lists inability to adapt to changing circumstances as one of the main causes of civilizational collapse. He claims that status quos typically find it impossible to change, a problem Bob Geldof termed “Institutionitis.” Our institutions grew up out of a belief in elitism, competition, scarcity, perpetual growth, greed, selfishness, and so on, beliefs which were ‘effective’ in a particular direction. They have driven us to a globalized, but deeply fractious society struggling to deal with the forces urging it on, failing to recognize the consequences of its successes, riven with corruption, and bleeding all manner of poisons into all manner of blood streams, physical and spiritual, this beautiful planet hosts.
If we care about our lives, if we care about how to carry on sustainably, we must be flexible and embrace the full gamut of connotations brought to our cultural attention by new research into the fascinating relationships between competition and cooperation. In my view capitalism itself has been exposed as 'out of date,' and profoundly so. Only post-scarcity or resource-based economics offer the breadth and depth of thinking required to define a new path forward to a new way of being. Only by being open in this area of our thinking can we be adaptive enough to survive.