I believe one of the great philosophical shifts of the 21st century will be an eroding of competition and a new understanding of cooperation.
As we’re all taught in school, life itself evolved in a process of competition. Evolution, we’re told, advances through the “survival of the fittest”. That’s an easily twisted idea. The phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ didn’t appear in the first editions of The Origin of Species, and when Darwin did use it he was referring to adaptation. ‘Fitness’ here means ‘the best fit’, not the ‘fittest’ in terms of strength or physical prowess.
The first understanding of the word, ‘best fit’, describes a process of species adapting into ecological niches. The second (mis)understanding, ‘fitness’, suggests that evolution moves forward by stronger species over-powering weaker ones and rising to dominance. That idea pre-dates Darwinism, and is a common theme among writers of the time, including Tennyson’s famous ‘nature red in tooth and claw’, Malthus’s arguments on population, or the Swiss botanist De Candolle who believed that all nature was at war with itself.
These were all ideas that Darwin drew from and improved upon to develop his theory of natural selection. However, the earlier and more primitive idea of the survival of the strongest endures. It’s a lot more convenient, and it is now deeply embedded in our psyche. If life advances through conflict, then conflict is in our nature. Competition is the way of the world, and therefore it cannot be wrong.
We have built our world on this principle. Our economic system is built around the idea of free market competition and the survival of the strongest. Countries compete and politicians obsess over their standing in global rankings. Schools compete in national league tables, consumerism encourages us to buy our way to superiority over our peers.
It’s no coincidence that the scientific and social theories of competition emerged at the same time as capitalism was spreading around the world. It gave capitalism a fully formed, coherent and self-reinforcing ethic. The willful misreading of ‘survival of the fittest’ gives an intellectual legitimacy to selfishness, the abuse of power, and the neglect of the poor. Sometimes this has been incredibly shameless, such as Malthus opposing the poor laws, the British government refusing to send food aid to Ireland during the potato famine, or the eugenics movement. The Nazis took Social Darwinism to its logical conclusion.
Since the Nazis, overt Social Darwinism has been unacceptable, but the competition principle prevails. It’s there in the opposition to universal healthcare in the US, or the resurgence of interest in Ayn Rand. It lurks behind the abysmal failure of the international community to stop climate change, regulate the arms trade, or end perverse subsidies. You can see it in the financial crisis, where disciplining the banks was seen as ‘uncompetitive’, and the banks themselves answer to no higher authority than their own bottom line.
The idea of competition has been a convenient one. It has allowed us to embrace the worst in ourselves without shame, but I believe its days are numbered. There has always been another way. Yes, life can move forward through competition, but it doesn’t have to. It can also move forward through cooperation. There is ‘power over’ and ‘power with’, and as sentient beings we have a choice between those two. The fields of religion and philosophy have always told us that the latter option is the better one, that love is better than hate, that true life is found in service to others and not in ourselves alone.
We’ve always known that, and if you look in the right places there is plenty of evidence that the competition ethic is being challenged, often unknowingly. The internet has broken up whole new ways to cooperate, from open source software to peer to peer lending or Creative Commons music and images. There is a whole movement of ‘collaborative consumption’ (more on that soon). We take them for granted and they don’t necessarily work as well as they should, but global organisations such as the UN or the World Bank were unthinkable 100 years ago. Britain and France have been enemies for centuries, but now share military assets. Over a billion people are part of a cooperative, and cooperative employ more people than corporations. There has been a revival in commons thinking, and a recognition that there are things that need to be held as a ‘global commons’, such as the atmosphere or the human genome. Start thinking about it, and you’ll start to see it everywhere.
Science now recognises that altruism can be a force in evolution, though there is still plenty of arguing about exactly how. It’s work we should embrace, because we a lot of catching up to do. Competition needs to be put in its place, and as we come to understand cooperation better, we may come to reconsider a lot of other things too, from economics to politics to history.
Peter Kropotkin certainly thought so. He is credited with first exploring the idea of cooperation in evolution, in his 1902 book Mutual Aid. He doesn’t dismiss competition, but argues that there is a evolutionary role for cooperation too, and there is therefore nothing inevitable about endless competition. We are liberty to choose the latter, and we will find that it is often a better way. History has been largely written through the lens of competition and power struggle rather than power sharing, but there are examples of cooperation all through the human story. “It is evident that no review of evolution can be complete,” he wrote, “unless these two dominant currents are analyzed.”
I agree, and I think there is a re-balancing underway that may turn out to be one of the biggest philosophical shifts of our age – not the replacement of competition with cooperation, but a recognition that both work and that only the latter can solve the big problems of the 21st century.