If Not Greed, Then What? or: what Darwinism never taught you

People don't just see pretty things and enjoy them; they record them for posterity. And then they don't keep those images for themselves but share it with friends, family and strangers via networks like Flickr. Face it: people like to share

Of course, people will often tell you that selling people on environmental change by appealing to their values is romantic, i.e. unrealistic, i.e. sentimental and doomed to failure. That human beings are innately and inherently greedy, i.e. selfish, i.e. competitive, and that any proposal that does not rest itself solidly on the human incapacity to care about anything beyond the pleasures and possibilities of the self is a futile enterprise.

Let’s pretend momentarily that there isn’t a substantial body of environmental psychology establishing that appealing to values works, and appealing to selfishness and greed does not.

Let’s instead spend a mini-post digressing into evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology,* in which cooperation is much, much more important than competition. I know, it goes against everything you were taught about evolution. Darwin was a really smart guy, but he did get a few things wrong (for instance, his bizarre belief that only the male of the species evolved through sex selection, predicated on his Victorian social values). Greed and competition are real, but there is plenty of scientific evidence for a much more hopeful view of human nature.

Think for a moment about reading this blog post.

In order to be able to do this seemingly simple act, thousands of years ago, groups of human beings had to cooperatively agree to all treat black squiggles of ink on parchment identically. They agreed that those squiggles would make certain sounds that had certain meanings, and that those meanings had to be arranged and interpreted in a certain way.

They used this newly invented system of written language to agree on a number of other things: codes of conduct, the price of bread or flour, how to define the angles in an isosceles triangle, dialogue lines in a play, how to grow beets, etc. Most of the things so defined and codified were carried out in groups: temples, tribes, families, neighbourhoods, schools, professions, guilds, theatres, cities, nations, schools.

After the discovery of electricity, western societies embarked on a massive enterprise to wire up their countries with standardized wires and outlets. The invention of computers was followed closely by societal agreement on programming languages and rules. There is a lot of cooperative behaviour underlying my production and your consumption of these paragraphs.

The internet is nothing but one gigantic cooperative venture involving millions of people. Competition takes place on the internet but it wouldn’t be possible without vast underlying stores and structures of cooperation.

We don’t always use our cooperative natures for good. We don’t always use hammers or crayons or purses for good either. We’re not innately, entirely good. But we are innately, basically cooperative. Even the most competitive of our modern ventures depend on mass cooperation, without which the competitive venture would be impossible. How would football get played if we didn’t agree what the size of the field should be and where the marking should be painted, if we didn’t work together to build the stadiums, install the seats, sell the hotdogs and tickets, and jump up to yell like idiots when a certain kind of ball passes a certain spot on the field? Even war depends on cooperation, as without it no tyrant would be able to coordinate millions of people and socialize them in the slaughter of other groups of millions of people.

Cooperation is so basic to everything we do, everything we are, everything we think, that it is utterly invisible, and so we focus our attention on the troublesomely rare competition. Which wouldn’t garner so much attention if we weren’t a cooperative species–lions spare no grief for the elimination of a rival tribe, groundhogs do not ruminate on the consequences of their consumption, bonobos–a social and cooperative primate species if ever there was one–don’t torture themselves with guilt if their behaviours eliminate the habitat for another species. (It’s unlikely it ever would, but if it did, bonobos would not establish organizations and hold demonstrations to save another species. They probably wouldn’t even notice they were gone, unless it was a species they ate.)

For a much longer, more thorough and more scientific treatment on the basic cooperativeness of the human species, I recommend Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mothers and Others, in which she argues that the human ability to empathize and intuit the emotional and mental states of others drove our ability to hunt, build, educate, worship, move, and even fight in groups, and was essential to the evolution of the human species and society. Pick it up and read the first chapter, “Chimps on a Plane.” And see if that doesn’t permanently alter your view of human nature. 

When a wild animal adopts the young of another species, it makes headlines around the world. When a human adopts the young of another species, we charge them a fee and force them to get a license, it’s so common. When a wild animal feeds a member of another species, it inspires books and films. Whereas it’s so common for humans to feed wild animals that we need to erect signs in public places to discourage them from doing so. We put out birdfeeders, for gods’ sake. Can you see wolves putting out rabbitfeeders?

Yes, we cooperate because we expect to benefit from those efforts; but we also cooperate when we either won’t benefit at all or could even lose out. And we enjoy doing it–so much so that some people will argue that the only reason we extend ourselves and sacrifice to help others is because of that good feeling. Dear Readers, ants don’t feed aphids because of the good feelings that sharing gives them, and even our closest primate relatives lose Theory of Mind (the ability to intuit what someone else is feeling or thinking from their facial expressions and behaviour) after early childhood. We’re special. Get used to it.

So go ahead, advocate for human goodness. It’s just as much a part of our basic natures as selfishness, greed and competition–and evidence shows that it works. We don’t need to invent a human capacity for cooperation, we just need to dust it off and polish it up after a few centuries of being blitzkrieged by competitiveness and greed and channel it towards productive ends.


*I’d like to state in advance that I know that not everyone in those fields would agree with this statement.

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