Camden Conference op-ed

Rethinking evolution, from competition to cooperation

By Fred Kirschenmann | Feb 13, 2014

By the time Darwin published "On the Origin of the Species" in 1859, the Western European and American mind had long been intellectually primed to interpret complexity by reducing perspective to the individual. Adam Smith’s publication of "The Wealth of Nations" 83 years earlier had set the tone of philosophical and scientific approaches to understanding complex systems. Fundamental to Smith’s philosophy … was the notion that large organizations like the economy were to be “comprehended in terms of self-interest or maximization of personal well-being.” Smith’s influence on Darwin was as strong as it was on the rest of the reading public. — Bradford Harris


In an article published in the online American Scientist (2013), Bradford Harris provided an intriguing interpretation of the theory of evolution. Originally titled “Evolution Reinterpreted: Survival of the Friendliest,” Harris’ article pointed out that Darwin’s original theory of evolution was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Adam Smith and that this version of evolution became extremely popular for two reasons: “It morally liberated people to be selfish, and it intellectually liberated them to interpret a range of complicated questions in terms of simpler individual parts.”

All of this, of course, created a culture of science that still largely determines how we view our world today. We tend to simplify complex systems by reducing them to individual parts that we can control, and ignore the dynamic interdependent relationships of complex systems which evolve in largely unpredictable ways. This philosophy also largely determines how we practice agriculture. In agriculture we tend to view nature as an uncooperative opponent to be dominated and subdued, we believe we must simplify problems so they are receptive to single-tactic solutions, and that farmers can be successful only if they adopt this “survival of the fittest” mentality.

Unfortunately, this prevailing cultural meme not only influences how modern agriculture operates but it also largely determines how we shape our society — and often not for the better. As Wilkinson and Pickett (both health care professionals) put it in their new book, "The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger:" “Instead of a better society, the only thing almost everyone strives for is to better their own position — as individuals — within the existing society.” They point out that this produces a society driven almost solely by individual self-interest and domination, rather than cooperation and harmony, creating a society that is increasingly dysfunctional.

This culture also leads us to regard nature as an enemy to be conquered, rather than a partner that can capable of contributing to our health and well-being.

Wilkinson and Pickett further argue that this cultural meme fosters the incredible inequality that plagues most of the world and now demonstrably contributes to civic unrest and the degradation of our quality of life. Such inequality also contributes to the loss of both our personal health, and the social and ecological health of our communities. Unfortunately, our awareness of this loss of health leads us to attempt to compensate for these losses by further increasing our consumption and exploitation, and pursuing unlimited economic growth, which mostly amplifies our unhappiness.

Wilkinson and Pickett argue that this cultural meme is the greatest challenge confronting us in the 21st century, and that we have now gotten “close to the end of what economic growth can do for us.” Concrete evidence lies in the fact that “Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich countries, largely finished its work. Not only have measures of well-being and happiness ceased to rise with economic growth but, as affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems.”

Further concrete evidence may be revealing itself in rather unusual spheres. An article recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (Crockford et al 2013) reveals some of the science explaining why some non-human animals, like chimpanzees, tend to establish cooperative, rather than competitive, relationships and how that serves their individual interests.

So we have now reached a point where the new theory of evolution — the “survival of the friendliest” instead of the “survival of the fittest” — and new social theories that set the path to health and quality of life based in cooperation and harmony instead of domination and conflict. All converge to lead us in a new direction with the potential to heal both our planet and ourselves.

Fred Kirschenmann is the keynote speaker for Camden Conference, set to take place from Feb. 21 to 23 addressing the topic "Global Politics of Food and Water."

References cited in this column:

Harris, Bradford, 2013. “Evolution’s Other Narrative: Why Science Would Benefit From a Symbiosis-driven History of Speciation.” American Scientist.

Wilkinson, Richard, and Kate Pickett, 2009. The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Crockford, C., R.M. Wittig, K. Langergraber, T.E. Ziegler, K. Zuberbuhler, and T. Deschner, 2013. “Urinary Oxytocin and Social Bonding in Related and Unrelated Wild Chimpanzees,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (January 23).

Comments (1)
Posted by: Donna Hurley | Feb 15, 2014 13:27

“survival of the friendliest”..Agree! & it's up to all of us to see that it can happen!

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