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Working together is part of what makes us human

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Capitalism continually pits people against each other, but that isn’t how human beings evolved, writes John Parrington
Issue 2427
Competition, not cooperation, is the norm for chimps

Competition, not cooperation, is the norm for chimps

Does conflict or cooperation rule the world?

Writing in the Guardian newspaper last week, philosopher John Gray argued that “destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves”.

This kind of argument is often used against those who want a better world.

Certainly, the past few hundred years provide ample evidence that capitalism is a society prone to violence and destruction. 

But is this inherent to humankind?

Studies of human evolution point in a completely opposite direction. They indicate that cooperation, not conflict, is our defining feature as a species.

Cooperation has been built into our biology ever since humans began to use tools to transform the world. Importantly, this activity was from the start a shared one.

For evidence of this, just look into someone’s eyes. 

These are divided into a white sclera, a coloured iris, and a black pupil. This is in contrast to chimps, our closest animal relatives, which have a dark sclera. 

These features allow humans to follow another’s gaze while working together on a task. Indeed, studies of human infants have shown that they begin to follow closely the eye movements of others from an early age, unlike young chimps which show no such interest.

Studies of chimps in the wild have shown that food gathering and other tasks are very much solitary activities. 

For them competition, not cooperation, is the norm. 


Another unique human feature is language. This allows us to plan work together, communicate complex ideas about our thoughts and desires, but also resolve problems verbally.

Crucially, this means that unlike any other species, humans share self-conscious awareness. This shared human consciousness and an ability to come up with new ways to manipulate the natural world is the secret of our success as a species.  

Yet these abilities mean nothing without a capacity to use them cooperatively.

Evidence for this is the fact that for most of the time humans have existed on Earth, our society has been primarily characterised by cooperation, not competition.

Just how long such cooperative tendencies have existed is shown by fossil evidence. Fossils indicate that some 1.8 million years ago, our proto-human ancestors were already caring for long-term sick and disabled people. 

Of course it would be foolish to presume there was no conflict in these prehistoric societies, for instance when food was scarce.

But what is clear is that the real movement towards human conflict began with the rise of class society 8,000 years ago. 

The drive of different ruling classes to accumulate greater wealth leads to wars in which ordinary people become pawns.

Meanwhile rulers continually try to divide and rule. For example politicians today blame immigrants for low wages and lack of housing, even when all the evidence shows the problem is the crisis in capitalism. 

But although conflict is a central feature of class society, ordinary people are continually pulled in an opposite direction. 

This can range from helping a stranger in distress, or joining a trade union.

In so doing, we are only reclaiming a tendency to cooperate that is millions of years old. Given that capitalism now threatens to destroy civilisation through the catastrophe of global warming, this human tendency is needed more than ever.



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