Post No.: 0528
Working together is the normal primate behaviour that many people take for granted – this includes how quickly people will naturally jump to help even a stranger if they look like they need it. Communities that socially cooperate are happier, more productive, healthier and more peaceful.
Together, people can do things that they individually cannot – the whole becomes greater than the mere sum of its parts hence cooperation offers a clear advantage, not just collectively but for each individual involved. No village, town or city can be built by just one person alone. Competition is appropriate in some contexts but cooperation generates the largest efficiencies and gains to the benefit of all. There are the economies of scale, scope and density. Some interactions within the community may generate short-term personal costs for some individuals some of the time but cooperation overall creates greater and longer-term gains for the whole group on aggregate. Human social norms are about group cooperation and about the greater good in the bigger community picture. Even in competitions, such as in sport or business – teams that cooperate the best succeed the most.
Machiavellian-types (those who are cunning and scheming in a self-serving way), in the long run, are more stressed, ostracised, isolated, less happy and don’t gain power. This is because they need to constantly watch their own backs in case it gets stabbed by someone they’ve previously shafted! Unless someone literally possesses superpowers that others don’t, they cannot become powerful on their own. Power comes from working together, and anyone who’s fighting an injustice knows that. Therefore cooperation grants both happiness and power.
Children generally have more fun with cooperative than competitive games. Children tend to be quite selfish until about 5 years old, but they then learn to empathise and compromise as their brains develop and as they experience exclusion for being self-centred and not very good team players. The pain of exclusion activates the same regions of the brain as physical pain.
Life in wild nature may seem very cruel at times, but humans are an animal that evolved to care to understand and differentiate between what’s cruel and what’s not for a reason. It’d therefore be naïve to generalise that all animals have the same survival strategies or that all strategies are equal, or to think that since that’s what (sometimes) happens in wild nature (with other animals), humans ought to be and do the same too. (Or if people wish to appeal to wild nature then perhaps they shouldn’t use computers, cars or other artificial technologies either(!) There’s also something called civilisational progress.)
Well very often when you see an animal in the wild suffer or struggle, you realise they would’ve fared better if only their species socially cooperated. For instance, ‘birdcatcher trees’ can overwhelm certain birds by covering their bodies and wings with too many sticky seeds to the point they cannot fly and so they die – but if only other birds of the same species helped each other to pick these excess seeds off each other then they’d all be fine. (We might argue that it benefits the tree, but the seeds would be dispersed further away if only the birds could fly away with just a few seeds stuck on them!)
Besides, humans are a social species, and social animals, which include other primates, evolved to care for each other, and are primed for empathy and for strong attachment relationships from early in life. Lots of animals in nature are solitary animals that live independent lives (e.g. bears, flies) but Homo sapiens aren’t one of them. Humans are social and dependent animals – if not on other people or pets then on inanimate objects like modern technology. Many will agree that voice assistants and robots are inferior substitutes for company but they can be better than nothing. The technology will improve but there’s still a long way to go until most people will prefer a robot dog over a real dog – woof woof!
Homo sapiens are also a migratory and intermingling kind of species rather than a ‘them and us separately’ kind of species. Evidence shows that Homo sapiens even exchanged genes and cultural knowledge with Neanderthals and Denisovans. Every human ancestor came from Africa, and humans have and will mix and breed with other humans wherever they go or settle – as a result, humans are relatively less genetically diverse than any other primate. So every person shares so many similarities with each other, and the differences between each other are quite minor really.
Coming together, amalgamating and exchanging is a very human trait that makes it difficult or arbitrary to parcel people into discrete categories. Many will nonetheless still try, usually based on skin-deep traits rather than deeper differences (even though e.g. someone with more ‘African DNA’ can appear paler than someone with more ‘European DNA’). But there’s no scientific basis for ‘race’ because a genetic marker for it doesn’t exist. We can only say what genes are more prevalent in what regions of the world for a given snapshot in time (starting from when such global genetic testing began) – yet just because you may find out that you’re genetically related to a large number of people who currently live somewhere today, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re genetically from that place (e.g. you might find that you’re genetically similar to the inhabitants of Egypt today but it’s far trickier to say that you’re similar to the ancient Egyptians, because people migrate).
You’ll have inherited, on average, ~1.5% of genes as direct-line copies from one of your great-great-great-great-grandparents, and that’s only going back maybe 120-180 years in your ancestry when humans have been around for many thousands of years so far. And because this ~1.5% is the probability rather than a certainty, you in fact may not have inherited any DNA from some of your far ancestors at all! This is because the recombination process during meiosis (the production of gametes) exchanges entire sections of DNA, and the pieces of DNA you inherit are random. So how do you trace your ancestry with this missing information? These ancient people still matter to you because if a single link in the chain were broken in your lineage – you’d not be personally alive today.
What science can and does tell us is that – from a biological standpoint – humans are 99.9% the same! So everyone is all essentially one. And as a social species too, humans didn’t evolve for pure self-interests or individualism – well, serving one’s own individual self-interests was and is overall best achieved by understanding that people need each other to survive, breed and rear offspring, and by understanding the benefits of teamwork and peaceful coexistence. This may have been far more obvious in the harsher survival conditions of the past compared to in today’s modern world for most people today, but it still very much applies in today’s modern world of interconnected economies, complex healthcare systems, security, rising population densities and greater technologies/weapons that may threaten everyone’s lives if people don’t mutually get along.
During most of human history, humans lived in small, stable bands or tribes of hunter-gathers where cooperation was undoubtedly imperative. Survival was harsh and anyone who thought that they could survive alone would’ve highly likely perished. Using game theory language, everyone knew each other’s identity, there were opportunities to play repeated games against each other hence cheaters could be easily punished, all players developed reputations within their group, and so these groups were incentivised to be highly egalitarian. Cooperation is also advantageous for large groups too.
However, the preference to cooperate with one’s homogenous and conforming ingroup can mean suspicion and violence is directed towards any outgroups (just like fervently supporting one’s own sports team and fellow supporters can mean fervently despising every other team and their supporters in that sport – especially one’s main local rivals, hence some often fierce derbies).
So ingroup norms may facilitate bonding within ingroups but can create hostility between outgroups. This can be counteracted via more positive and friendly exposures and experiences with different and diverse people and teams, and priming people to think of others as individuals rather than de-individualising and stereotyping them as ‘foreigners’. We can thus achieve the advantages of group cooperation without having unfair reflexive views on ‘outsiders’.
There’s logically far more good in the world than bad, otherwise civilised order wouldn’t be attainable – it may only seem the opposite at times because negative events are far more salient and newsworthy. (A good deed needs to be exceptional before it’s deemed worth reporting e.g. a person giving a gift to another person is almost never reported but a person stealing something from another person is frequently reported.) The destruction caused by one person can overshadow the cooperation of thousands of people, but the ratio of good to bad people or acts is still perhaps thousands to one. Only a relatively few people around the world act wilfully with evil, but they can cause a destructive outcome that affects many. Only a relatively few people act truly heroically (by literally sacrificing their lives for others) too, but they can inspire so many to be good, kind and cooperative.
Some people over-blow the bad side of humanity because they over-generalise what they see in the news to what humans are generally like and so feel doubtful of humanity. Some may have personally experienced a particularly traumatic moment or two involving other people. Some may as a result ‘defensively’ treat people as if everyone’s untrustworthy, immoral, greedy, selfish or to be feared; but they will then get treated reciprocally, thus leading them to think they were right about their doubt in humanity all along – unaware that it’s precisely because of their own suspicions and antisocial behaviours towards others that caused new individuals to treat them antisocially in the first place. One or two people who treat you badly can make you feel like there’s no humanity anymore, or ‘all men are pigs’ or ‘all women are fickle’, but this over-generalisation is inaccurate – you’ve hardly met everybody in the world.
We should therefore treat every new person we meet as innocent unless they’re proven guilty – just like how we’d hope every stranger will treat us when they first meet us. A few rare groups across the world wish to deliberately incite fear, but I’d say that most fear that’s felt is due to one’s own biases rather than due to other people or groups actually doing anything to us (e.g. fears about those new foreign-looking people who’ve just moved into the neighbourhood).
So feeling unjustified fear is often the problem in society. It’s like harmless spiders that probably do more good than harm for humans by deterring or consuming insects that are more harmful to humans. A harmless spider cannot even hurt you but is in fact aware that you can do more real harm to it than it could ever do to you. Despite a spider minding its own business and behaving innocently, your fear may lead to your aggression (to want to kill it) even when it hasn’t threatened you at all and never will (or never could). You cannot say that it was inciting any fear i.e. it didn’t run up to you intentionally – they run away if you try to approach one. It would’ve just been your unjustified fear. It’s just an over-generalised stereotype of spiders. But just because some spiders are dangerous to humans, the vast majority aren’t. This behaviour is somewhat parallel to the prejudice, fear and aggression some people feel towards individuals who are associated with members of ‘outside’ groups, of whom the vast majority are good.
Woof. Peace and cooperation hence comes from being wise and brave – it comes from knowing when a fear is unjustifiable and from having the courage to be generous to every new person you meet as a first move.