Patrick Bateson
November 20, 2014

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.


All by
Patrick Bateson