I wrote this piece nearly 30 years ago and delivered it as a secular address in King’s College Chapel. I unearthed it and brought it up to date because the issues are as relevant today as they were then.
I am disturbed by the way we have created a social environment in which so much emphasis is laid on competition – on forging ahead while trampling on others. The ideal of social cooperation has come to be treated as high-sounding flabbiness, while individual selfishness is regarded as the natural and sole basis for a realistic approach to life. The image of the struggle for existence lies at the back of it, seriously distorting the view we have of ourselves and wrecking mutual trust.
The fashionable philosophy of individualism draws its respectability in part from an appeal to biology and specifically to the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection. Now, Darwin’s theory remains the most powerful explanation for the way that each plant and animal evolved so that it is exquisitely adapted to its environment. The theory works just as well for behaviour as it does for anatomy. Individual animals differ in the way they behave. Those that behave in a manner that is better suited to the conditions in which they live are more likely to survive. Finally, if their descendants resemble them in terms of behaviour, then in the course of evolution, the better adapted forms of behaviour will replace those that are not so effective in keeping the individual alive.
It is the Darwinian concept of differential survival that has been picked up and used so insistently in political rhetoric. Biology is thought to be all about competition – and that supposedly means constant struggle. This emphasis has had an insidious effect on the public mind and has encouraged the belief in individual selfishness and in confrontation. Competition is now widely seen as the mainspring of human activity, at least in Western countries. Excellence in the universities and in the arts is thought to be driven by the same ruthless process that supposedly works so well on the sportsfield or the market place, and they all have a lot in common with what supposedly happens in the jungle. The image of selfish genes, competing with each other in the course of evolution has fused imperceptibly with the notion of selfish individuals competing with each other in the course of their life-times. Individuals only thrive by winning. The argument has become so much a part of conventional belief that it is hard at first to see what is wrong with it.
To put it bluntly, thought has been led seriously astray by the rhetoric. Beginning where the argument starts in biology, genes do not operate in a vacuum. The survival of each gene obviously depends on the characteristics of the whole gene “team” that makes up the total genetic complement of an individual. A similar point can be made above the level of the individual when symbiosis occurs between different species.
Take, for instance, lichens which are found from the Arctic to the tropics – and on virtually every surface from rocks and old roofs to tree trunks. They look like single organisms. However, they represent the fusing of algae and fungi working together in symbiotic partnership. The partners depend utterly on each other and the characteristics of the whole entity provide the adaptations to the environment.
Similarly, cooperation among social animals belies the myth of constant struggle. Many birds and mammals huddle to conserve warmth or reduce the surface exposed to biting insects. Males in a pride of lions help each other to defend the females from other males. Mutual assistance is frequently offered in hunting; for instance, cooperating members of a wolf pack will often split into those that drive the deer and those that lie in ambush. Each wolf gets more to eat as a result. In highly complex animals aid may be reciprocated on a subsequent occasion. So, if one male baboon helps another to fend off competition for a female today, the favour will be returned at a later date. What is obvious about such cases is that each of the participating individuals benefits by working together with the others. Moreover, some things can be done by a group that cannot be done by the individual. It takes two to put up a tent.
The joint action of cooperating individuals can also be a well-adapted character in its own right. The pattern generated by cooperative behaviour could distinguish one social group from another and could make the difference between group survival and communal death. Clearly, a cheat could sometimes obtain the benefits of the others’ cooperation without joining in itself. However, such actions would not be retained if individuals were unable to survive outside their own social group and the groups containing cheats were less likely to survive than those without. This logic does have some bearing on the way we think about ourselves.
At the turn of the 20th century an exiled Russian aristocrat and anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, wrote a classic book called Mutual Aid. He complained that, in the widespread acceptance of Darwin’s ideas, heavy emphasis had been laid on the cleansing role of social conflict and far too little attention given to the remarkable examples of cooperation. Even now, biological knowledge of symbiosis, reciprocity and mutualism has not yet percolated extensively into public discussions of human social behaviour.
As things stand, the appeal to biology is not to the coherent body of scientific thought that does exist but to a confused myth. It is a travesty of Darwinism to suggest that all that matters in social life is conflict. One individual may be more likely to survive because it is better suited to making its way about its environment and not because it is fiercer than others. Individuals may survive better when they join forces with others. By their joint actions they can frequently do things that one individual cannot do. Consequently, those that team up are more likely to survive than those that do not. Above all, social cohesion may become a critical condition for the survival of the society.
A straightforward message is, then, that each of us may live happier and, in the main, more successful lives, if we treat our fellow human beings as individuals with whom we can readily work. This is a rational rather than a moral argument. It should appeal to all those pragmatists who want to look after themselves. Cooperation is good business practice. However, another matter impinges on rampant individualism, which cannot be treated in a way that so readily generates agreement.
On many occasions, the interests of the individual will not be best served by cooperating with others. A trawler captain may be able to look after his own interests most satisfactorily if he unscrupulously goes to sea with a fine-meshed net and catches fish of all sizes. He makes a massive killing (in both senses), and having helped to ruin the future of fisheries, he quickly sells his trawler and invests the money. Assuming that he can get away with it, why should he be stopped? His actions are likely to ruin a lot of other people who may not be willing or able to change their way of life. They may prefer to remain in their fishing communities surrounded by their family and friends. Indeed, their social lives would almost certainly fragment if their industry collapsed.
Issues such as these surround us. They touch on virtually every area of government. My retired trawler captain, a symbol for our age, is a cheat because he has benefited from the implicit trust of a community and then destroyed it. It can be argued that a concern about the adverse effects of one’s actions on others is simply a moral obligation. However, mutual trust and respect work because they maintain social cohesion. A society that fails to look after its parts is ultimately doomed.
The danger of representing all human social relationships in terms of competition is that the expectation is self-fulfilling. Trust, that is a necessary condition for willing cooperation, is poisoned. Without trust, how do you get people to perform the concerted activities that are required in a modern industrialised state? You can, indeed, buy them; you may be able to manipulate them in subtle ways or, failing everything else, you can coerce them. But in the end not much is left of fellow feeling between you and your work force. Within a democratic state, a crude competition model of social behaviour destroys the basis by which people work together with pleasure and confidence.
I want to end by considering a deeply disturbing matter which also raises the issue of trust. It is often argued that states can only achieve stability through strength. This has been the justification for the enormous quantity of human and material resources poured into armaments. The conventional view is that, irrespective of its costs, the policy has worked. Peace in Europe has been maintained since 1945 by the existence of nuclear weapons. The presumed causal link is, however, based on a mere association of events. I might as well argue that the absence of snow in summer is due to the cuckoos. The prolonged period of European peace could have been due to something other than nuclear weapons, such as the unprecedented prosperity. But supposing the conventional view is correct, can the policy of nuclear deterrence continue to work forever? The non-use of the hair-trigger on the appalling machine we have built depends on human rationality, a lot of good luck and nothing else.
Reason evaporates all too readily in the face of indignation. Angry or frightened people do not make appropriate calculations about the costs of their actions. I am not, of course, suggesting that human beings are never deterred from aggressive acts by the thought that they might get hurt. However, I do suggest that there is a good deal more to human behaviour than rational calculations about likely benefits and costs. In special circumstances rulers and governed alike are liable to do very silly things. That is a frightening thought, given the colossal arsenals possessed by nation states and the implausibility of the fantasy that somehow scientific research will produce a perfect defence.
In as much as the human readiness to fight was adapted in the past to meeting particular challenges from other human beings, the long-term benefits of behaving in this way must have outweighed the costs. The worry is that the unconscious response to provocation is built upon an estimation of costs that is totally out of line in present circumstances. Whatever the biological and historical processes that favoured war-like behaviour in humans may have been, they could not anticipate the power that has now come into our hands. Those processes operated in conditions that no longer exist. Furthermore, we are not necessarily aware of the ways in which our own behaviour is influenced by past events. That is why people are perfectly capable of doing things that make no sense whatsoever in a nuclear age. As Einstein said: “The power set free from the atom has changed everything, except our ways of thinking.” Can anything be done about it? I want to suggest that the answer lies once again in the nature of trust.
Humans have a well-known capacity to regard a feared stranger as inhuman and therefore as a suitable object for slaughter. The other side of such fierceness is human readiness to cooperate in remarkable ways – particularly with those we know well. The irony is that our willingness to risk our own lives in destroying our enemies is part of our extraordinary ability to work for (and, indeed, die for) those whom we regard as our own. We should do well to look carefully at the conditions in which this sense of allegiance is formed and the circumstances in which the cooperation collapses.
The balance between competition and cooperation clearly alters according to circumstances. But, we are capable of creating those circumstances. The belief that nobody is to be trusted has an alarmingly self-confirming character to it. The conditions for working together rapidly spiral out of reach. If competition is seen as being the only mode of human existence, we have created the conditions in which that becomes true. The process can be reversed if we work actively against a style of thought that places all the emphasis on confrontation. If we don’t, the building up of enormous arsenals of weapons, will lead inexorably to the use of those arms in some moment of blind irrationality. We must, therefore, clarify our thought about where the real dangers lie.
The differences between opposed states and belief systems are trivial relative to the tyranny of hunger and disease that afflicts the majority of the people on the planet. Yet there is a finite chance that in our single-minded obsession with ideological and religious differences we shall turn the world into a dark, cold and uninhabited place. Controlling the likely sources of conflict will involve an extraordinary degree of mutual understanding. However, it seems clear that the necessary cooperation will never be achieved if the present climate of mistrust persists. The conclusion seems to me inescapable. If we wish to survive, we shall have to accept that those we treat as enemies are fellow humans who depend as much on us as we do on them.
A centre of thought such as our own University can play its part in curing the lunatic preoccupation with single causes of trouble and single goals for achievement. Scholarship itself is ultimately a cooperative venture and is crucially dependent on trust. We should proclaim that fact. The involvement with others occurs in every aspect of our lives. We should denounce the view that this is merely a constraint on individual ambition. Cooperation should be seen for what it is, an essential and pleasurable part of being human.