Cooperation and Human Nature

The New York Times published an article on childhood behavioral studies, among related research, that reveals a more positive and nuanced view of our biological heritage than the Social Darwinist promoted. However the article leaves a lot to be desired in terms of the social significance of these studies. I have tried to expand on what I think are major implications of this research.

Cooperation and Human Nature

Here are two excerpts from a recent news feature.

“I cannot direct anybody to do anything that they do not want to do. All decision-making is by consensus.”

All around . . . groups organized themselves in democratic cooperatives, arranged in an anti-hierarchy. All deliberations are open — and exhaustive. Everyone gets their say no matter how long it takes. “It is bottom-up and not top-down.”

Members of cooperatives will recognize these comments. In fact they are so commonplace as to be burdened with a ton of baggage. For some a smile will approach the lips in appreciation of the value of these statements. Others might feel their teeth clenching in anticipation of the seemingly endless meetings that they associate with deliberations over meaningless details.

The quotes however do not emanate from a co-op board meeting. They are attributed, in a Wall Street Journal blog, to the scientists working on “the largest machine in the world.”1

That happens to be the Large Hadron Collider — a $6 billion particle accelerator near Geneva, with thousands scientists involved in its operation.

This wasn’t the only science collaboration mentioned in the article. Also highlighted was OpenWetWare, a wiki established in 2005 by two MIT students “to promote the sharing of information, know-how, and wisdom among researchers and groups who are working in biology & biological engineering.” It now has 7,000 users.

In a similar vein, paleontologists launched the Open Dinosaur Project “to involve scientists and the public alike in developing a comprehensive database of dinosaur limb bone measurements, to investigate questions of dinosaur function and evolution.” They further state as their goals: “1) do good science; 2) do this science in the most open way possible; and 3) allow anyone who is interested to participate.”

To be absolutely clear about their last point, they stress that they “do not care about your education, geographic location, age, or previous background with paleontology. The only requirement for joining us is that you share the goals of our project and are willing to help out in the efforts.”

The Internet, originally devised decades ago by researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where the Collider is based, amplifies worldwide the historic collegiality cultivated by scientists.  Given the obvious success of scientific endeavors, one wonders why these cooperative practices haven’t migrated to other areas. In some limited ways they have been adopted by the arts, and to a lesser extent, education. But in the realm of business, collaboration occurs only under strict guidelines, if at all.

We don’t need to idolize the community of scientists. There are researchers who eagerly enlist in schemes to privatize science – to value the marketplace over the disinterested desire to further research for the public benefit. Nevertheless, the model of collaboration many scientists seek, in which peers define projects and seeking solutions, remains foreign to the world of business.

Capitalist collaboration on the level of mutual advantage, of course, as in price-fixing, certainly happens more frequently than its criminalization. And there is the transparently manipulative practice of  “team work” in many corporations, which I only mention to quickly dismiss. 2

Cooperatively working together embodies a reciprocity of dignity that finds no place in the corporate world we know today, where individual advancement rules.

As commodification intensifies, enveloping all aspects of life, the ethic that must sustain community diminishes. We diminish too. It comes as no surprise that kids enter middle school as full-fledged consumers. What should shock is that they have internalized their commodification. Buying into the notion of society as an arena for a never-ending quest for ego fulfillment leads directly to life viewed as a battle of egos. This socialization of our children, as essentially a fight over scarcity on an individual and social level, is a consequence of the popular perception of our “human nature.” We have here the reactionary, individualistic thinking that drives capitalism – the survival of the fittest: social Darwinism.

The rise of Darwinism (a toxic blend of Darwin with Malthus) served the 19th century capitalists well. “Captains of the economy” claimed as their right to rule a pseudo-science founded on a specious law of biology.

Capitalist “science” didn’t persuade the partisans of the newly organizing industrial workers. The masters of the workers, as the workers themselves experienced, were not to be held hostage to the  reason of science, when the science of power – ultimately clubs and bullets – was far more effective. The clarity of the left to recognize the abuse of science, as a servant of power, didn’t prevent them wholeheartedly endorsing Darwin as a liberator. For the left, Darwin forever consigned the Christian origins of humankind to myth.

Friedrich Engels eulogized Marx as the discoverer of the law of human development, comparing him to Darwin the founder of  “the law of development of organic nature.”3 Engels here was following Marx who viewed Darwin’s scientific contribution as pertaining only to human anatomy and physiology. Centuries before the birth of Marx, “enlightened” thinking held that human development was determined by environmental factors. Moreover Hegel, Marx’s mentor, envisioned society “evolving” to greater heights.

The only exception to the general celebration of Darwinist biological determinism came from Peter Kropotkin. His fieldwork across an impressive range of animal and human societies made him recognize and appreciate the role of cooperation in human endeavors.  Kropotkin’s anarchist criticism of Darwinism as new theology in defense of the status quo, of course, relegated him to obscurity outside scientific circles.

Amongst social scientists the nuanced interpretation of evolution presented by Kropotkin, and others, lately has led researchers to devise experiments that show “that both 25-month olds and school-age children in a very similar paradigm select the equitable option more often than the selfish option.”4

There are studies that show that very young children, working in teams develop trust by negotiating perceived selfishness. Other studies show that a shared project with a joint goal creates interdependence, mutually recognized – a “we” amongst the children. And even babies, unable to use language, show helpfulness in carefully structured experiments by pointing or by their eye movements. Language itself may have developed within the context of collaborative activities where achieving a common goal depends upon the coordination of individual roles.

This research has significant implications for a politics beyond ethical aspirations to one grounded in a view of human nature with an innate need for camaraderie. Those who seek a more just society need not counter a spurious conception of human nature as “red in tooth and claw” with the equally false proposition that the human condition is infinitely malleable. A belief which leads to dystopian dead-ends and which still informs, in a less maniacal way, political liberalism and its love for social engineering.  The perfectibility of humankind is not the issue.

The issue is encouraging collaborative activities beyond the intimate dealings of a small group – outside what Michael Tomasello calls the protected environment:

When we are engaged in a mutually beneficial collaborative activity, when I help you play your role either through physical help or by informing you of something useful, I am helping myself, as your success in your role is critical to our overall success. Mutualistic activities thus provide a protected environment for the initial steps in the evolution of altruistic motives.5

Over ten years ago, before most of this research was conducted, Peter Singer wrote an intriguing little book: A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation. In it he critiques social Darwinism and the left’s fear of engaging in the controversy over human nature. He takes his stand for a left that abandons the paradigm of human progress based on fine-tuning social conditions.

Singer calls for a broader interpretation of self-interest that current findings of child behavior validate.  He also promotes the idea that the left needs to encourage cooperative behavior and to channel competition into socially desirable ends, which corresponds to the notion of extending the protected environment mentioned above.

As a philosopher, not a scientist, and writing about research which at the time was tentative, Singer however falls back on the same ground as the traditional left that he critiques. He relies on the role of reason, to balance or offset nature. He approvingly quotes Richard Dawkins who grants that though we are built like gene machines, “we have the power to turn against our creators”6

No one wants to argue against the role of reason in the pursuit of knowledge. However the latest behavioral discoveries lead to a firmer footing in science than thought possible a few years ago. From these studies of children implications can be drawn that improve our understanding of the building blocks of social norms, that is mutually expected standards of behavior. Human beings are biologically adapted to grow and develop to maturity within a cultural context, through collaborative efforts.

This research informs an optimistic view of the human condition. It seriously undermines the perspective that Herbert Marcuse postulated in One-Dimensional Man, where he questioned the liberation of humankind given the universal internalization of domination through socialization. And it supports Rebecca Solnit’s view in A Paradise Built in Hell that catastrophes can disperse the weight of commodified behavior to free deeper, life-affirming motivations.

In Tomasello’s conclusions one aspect relates to the larger issues of scientific collaboration noted at the beginning of this essay. He writes:

Children are motivated to engage in these kinds of collaborative activities for their own sake, not just for their contribution to individual goals.7

What are we to make of this comment? Certainly it relates to those experiences we have as adults when we find ourselves, either by plan or circumstance, engaged in an activity with great social significance. The activity may be physically grueling, we may even be in the company of strangers and the goal may not be of our devising, but when that goal is attained, or even when to the best of our collective abilities it is lost, during and afterwards we feel elation and a heightened sense of awareness.

For most people these experiences of collective pursuit occur sparingly and with modest intensity under circumstances that are not wholly spontaneous, as when regulated by church or civic activities. Or they are confined to those parts of our lives that are lived haphazardly as leisure pursuits. Even in scientific communities the pressures of professional performance inhibit the fullest realization of collaboration as a collective intellectual adventure. This reality may account for the eager participation among scientists when simple wiki-style collaborations do appear.

The innate pursuit of collaboration that Tomasello records challenges Singer’s wholesale dismissal of utopianism. The simple association of utopianism with the view that humans are malleable creatures, a view that Singer attributes to the traditional left, is flawed.  Firstly, it ignores the sense of hope explicit with visionary strivings.  Secondly, Singer’s views are wide of the mark in light of these new behavioral studies. How else can we think of expanding the space for collaborative experiences if we are not open to the allures of utopianism? What in fact are the ultimate collaborative experiences if not those associated with play in its many forms as games, festivals and more? Nowhere else in our societies does the exuberance of human fulfillment readily appear. And, to venture a utopian question, why is it absent in those parts of our lives where we spend so much time seeking our survival?

Bernard Marszalek

December 2, 2009

1 More Scientists Treat Experiments as a Team Sport Robert Lee Hotz, November 20, 2009, Wall Street Journal

2 I should mention that an indirect subversion of the usual hierarchical business methods may result from the growing influence of “social entrepreneurship” but only if those who are intrigued with this approach to solving social ills recognize the systemic exploitation that created them in the first place.

3 Engels quoted in Peter Singer. 1999 A Darwinian Left (21)

4 Michael Tomasello. 2009 Why We Cooperate (23)

5 Tomasello (85)

6 Richard Dawkins 1976 The Selfish Gene (63)

7 Tomasello (105)

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