science social justice

Competition and cooperation – the great rebalancing

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.


  1. The idea that the living world is dominated – if not completely ruled – by competition always struck me as peculiar, since already the most simple everyday experience in functioning societies suggests something quite different. 7 weeks ago while vacationing in France I broke my right foot while playing football with my Belgian nephews. Today I had to go to the University clinic in Münster for another reason, and it struck me as amazing how helpful everyone was. I am a somewhat bulky, grumpy looking middle aged fellow, and normally I am not used to being the focus of too much consideration, but now – people helped me hanging my jacket, people offered me their chair in the waiting room, people carried my papers around, handed me my walking stick. Nice, I thought. Even my generally sober and somewhat grumpy German compatriots here tend to be helpful and considerate people. And it was like that everywhere – it even still is. Strangers are given food and shelter, people donate time and money for starving people on other continents, and when a child falls off a bridge, somewhere, you will very likely find a hearty man or woman jumping into the water to pull out that child of a stranger (in Europe at least with an abundance of swimmers). That is not a hero. That is simple human behavior. We do such things. And on another level – we ourselves, like all other complex multi-cellular organisms, ultimately are the result of cooperating organisms. Division of work, specialization, yes. Winner takes it all? No. That would, again, be the cancer metaphor. Or cancer, quite literally, when thinking of organisms.

    1. @Stefan – Surely, our instinct to help the weaker person seems to have fairly free flow when we are not at evident risk to ourselves, even the man attempting to save the drowning child has little time to weigh up the risk to himself, at least, he is optimistic.
      I do like the organism example of the cancer cells proliferating over the others as the ‘winner takes all’ scenario, yet, even when the multi-cellular organism that we are is co-operating, it is still only for that one individual and offspring. So, I hate to say it but, I’m not confident of your examples. Regards, K.

  2. I’m not sure if this article is saying competition is a bad thing, or not the only thing. Without competition there is little drive to improvement. If there is no competition then why make things hard for yourself by trying new ways of doing things? If there was no competition would a man have run 100 meters is less than 10 seconds? It is the desire to win, to be the best that drives many things and that makes no sense unless it is defined in competition to something.

    So I assume that this article seeks to lower competition from being a be all and bring cooperation along side it. In which case the attack on capitalism is misjudged. Capitalism is built on cooperation. One man or woman can not build a company. They have to cooperate with their customers, suppliers and employees. The invisible hand of the market through competition gives as Friedman says “the possibility of cooperation without coercion.” The idea that in capitalism competition is antithetical to cooperation is nonsense, in fact we need the state to prevent too much cooperation when companies form cartels.

    There will always be competition where ever there is a finite amount of something. People compete every day for social status, attractive partners or the good opinion of others.

  3. I’m glad to see this issue raised by you Jeremy. I think it is a, if not the, crucial question. Co-operating for our ‘group’ seems to me, to be just another form of competition. The test is surely upon us now we see that the earth’s bad health and consequent turmoil is becoming a threat to one and all alike. Can the ‘little guys’ manage to stop the ‘big boys’ from leading us like lemmings, because I have little confidence that they’ll stop themselves?

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  5. Sodden socialist cliches come pouring forth. Woeful understanding of competition and cooperation. Woeful understanding of Darwin and eugenics. No wonder you believe you are uniquely compassionate, if this is how degraded your understanding is. You illustrate perfectly a common socialist error. The belief that you are uniquely sensitive to the ills of the world and are therefore uniquely equipped to cure those ills. Socialists worship power, no matter how hard they lie. Everything is ultimately political, everything is to be determined by mob sanctioned violence, nothing private can exist without the socialist’s moral sanction. Everything is your business. Classic irony – the most outrageous property claims ever made in human history aka “make wealth history” disguised as the end of property claims and our social redemption. Putting competition “in its place” aka me and my friends will decide how you can behave with your own time, labour, resources. We decide what is worthwhile, what is profitable.

    One day you will see that market competition is the most sophisticated form of cooperation yet developed and the only known method for reducing the price of something.

    Make wealth history? Go tell that to people in Malawi, who are dying from an abundance of POVERTY, not wealth. They would love a prosperous market economy, the delusional capitalist pigs.

    1. That’s an unusual amount of hatred distilled into a single paragraph. I see the title of the blog got under your skin, but I suggest you read around the site a bit before you fire off your assumptions. For what it’s worth, I’m not a Socialist, not against competition in its right place, make no claims to unique insight or compassion, and am not remotely interested in attempting to control how you behave.

      I don’t suppose you’ll believe me, since the red mist has already descended. But that’s your problem, not mine.

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