Over the holidays I managed to catch up on a stack of pleasure reading that had suffered from the pressing demands of the International Year of Co-operatives. One of the most fascinating was a recent book by Edward Wilson, entitled ‘The Social Conquest of Earth’. Wilson is a biologist and one of the world’s foremost authorities on ants, of all things. In fact, his book ‘The Ants’ won a Pulitzer Prize.
Wilson draws on his understanding of the insect world to set forth his theory of human evolution, the key to which was what he calls group selection or eusociality, the ability to develop ‘true social condition’. It allowed man to develop the same dominance in the vertebrate world that ants assert in the insect world. Wilson sees group selection as the driving force of where we have been and where we are going. It is the process responsible for advanced social behaviour.
Wilson’s theory is the latest progression in the acceptance among social biologists that humans made their greatest strides when they moved beyond selfish competition to co-operation. His theory is encouraging because it challenges the traditional ‘selfish gene’ approach, that individuals co-operated with one another because they were related, and so even when an individual sacrifice was needed, it advanced the individual’s gene pool.
The group selection theory notes that ‘group-level traits, including cooperativeness … have been found to be heritable in humans.’ Further, ‘cooperation and unity manifestly affect the survival of groups that are competing.’
Wilson acknowledges that we live individually in conflict between selfish competition and social co-operation, and he sees this as genetically based. Similarly, we see elements of competition in the co-operative business model. Any bank that has gone up against a credit union knows how competitive they can be. And we see shades of co-operation within competitive capitalist businesses. The precisely defined co-operative business model should not be conflated with the concept of co-operation.
Nonetheless, it’s comforting to think of co-operation as an improvement upon competition, especially when so many voices have seen competition as next to godliness in child development and human achievement. One can be forgiven for feeling a bit smug when reading of the scientific basis for lifting up co-operation as core to allowing man to make ‘the giant leap.’
Happy New Year!