Are we naturally cooperative?
by Ed Mayo
In an extract from The Character Inquiry, Ed Mayo argues that human character is naturally cooperative.
From our playground days onwards, we are taught that to empathise and cooperate with one another, and that these traits are key to the formation of character. Indeed, there is a case for saying that the ability to cooperate is the most basic and fundamental trait of character we have. Why? Because without it, our branch of the evolutionary tree would have been cut short long ago.
Think of being cooperative as being ready to scratch my back if I scratch yours. It is a good metaphor. For non-human primates, grooming is the number one social activity. One in every five minutes awake is spent scratching backs. For us, cooperation extends more widely through tools of language and social institutions of family and community, but at whatever level of sophistication, the capacity for cooperation is a key trait of evolutionary development.
Being cooperative, of course, doesn’t mean being a wuss. Our cooperation is typically contingent, as most of us stop collaborating if we are being taken for a ride. Punishing those who cheat us is typically helpful in sustaining patterns of cooperation as studies have shown.
Most often, we cooperate to get something done that we couldn’t do alone. If evolution and football have anything in common, it is that fitness counts and competition is played out between different models of cooperation.
If propensity to cooperate is successful in evolutionary terms and innate to human character, then perhaps it is reciprocity that underpins our moral codes. Hauser suggests that we are born with a capacity to understand the world through an ethical lens – what Adam Smith termed ‘sympathy’.
Michael Tomasello has put the concept of cooperation as an evolutionary imperative to the test with very young children, to see if it holds for our nature and not just our nurture. Drop something in front of a two-year-old, he finds, and she is likely to pick it up for you. This is not just learned behaviour, he argues. Young children are naturally cooperative.
The challenge for the modern age is that this is not quite how character has been understood in recent times. Getting on has meant getting ahead of those around you. We now live in what is euphemistically called a ‘winner takes all economy’ – in other words outright inequality justified as incentives for progress. The problems with this model have been all to clearly demonstrated in recent years, through the near-collapse of many of the world economy’s supporting pillars. As Lily Tomlin once said, ‘The trouble with the rate race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.’
If we return to our starting point in evolution, the idea that dogs just want to eat dogs is poor natural science in the first place. If anything dogs, in common with other social carnivores such as lions and wolves, and eusocial insects (bees, ants, termites), will cooperate with their own kind. In terms of character and in terms of culture, it is good to remember that the world around us is not, as default, dog eat dog. It is, instead, a dog helps dog world.