Competition and Cooperation Through the Lens of Anthropology

Though both Bateson and J.L Molina approached the concept of competition through the lens of anthropology, their message to the audience are very different, and to an extend, contradictory to each other.

In “The Myths of Independence and Competition”, Bateson argues that in every stage of our life cycle, we are dependent of each other, independence is an illusion. Humans will only survive by thinking systemically, not as competitive organisms but as parts of interdependent systems. Throughout her speech, she uses persuasive strategies and rhetorical devices to support her argument as forms of evidence and validity[1]. Logos: logical argument, which relates to one of the 3 dimensions of communication —- Attention. Bateson attempts to persuade the audience by making a claim (that interdependence is the key, thus prefer cooperation over competition) and offers proof (examples from different disciplines she used) in support of that claim. Examples include independence training since early childhood, the Tower of the Babel, Endosymbiosis, and Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest. Pathos: appealing to the audience’s self-interest and emotions, which relates to another one of the 3 dimensions of communication — Relevance. Towards the end of her speech, she engages the audience’s emotion to bring out the feeling of hope and a sense of unity, for example: “If we are to survive, we are going to survive by thinking systemically”, “We need to practice…rejoicing in our need for each other”, “ If we can do that with our human neighbors”. With this, Bateson calls for action, asking her audience to learn to cooperate at higher levels of society, and to recognize and practice interdependence in our daily lives.

While Bateson regards cooperation as the answer to unregulated competition, J.L Molina on the other hand, argues that competition and cooperation should not be modelled as opposites, but rather, the two seemingly separate dimensions coexist in a close and complex manner in every known society.

There are 3 parts to the academic journal “Cooperation and Competition in social anthropology”. Firstly, (1) J.L Molina started by introducing three mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation: kin selection, reciprocity, group selection. I especially find the “grandmother hypothesis”[2] fascinating. Most female animals, including primates like gorilla and chimpanzee, die while still in their reproductive phase. The extended post-reproductive lifespan for human females can be explained by their ability to provide supplemental parental care to offspring’s children. We all can relate to the theory of direct reciprocity. Most of the time we do not cooperate merely because of our innate altruism, we do so because it’s in our self-interest — we expect others to reciprocate. Secondly, (2) J.L Molina went over the two steps in the evolution of human cooperation. Finally, (3) He highlights social anthropological theories that touch upon the themes of cooperation and competition in three different types of society: hunter-gatherer, tribal, and peasant communities.

While I appreciate Bateson’s effort in calling for more cooperation, the idea of competition seems to be grossly oversimplified. As shown by Werron in his research article “Why do we believe in competition”, there is indeed a long history behind the evolution of competition — how competition went from being a political economic promise in the mid 18th century, to an institutional imaginary in the since the mid 20th century. For Bateson to totally discredit the idea of competition, which has played an important role in our personal lives and our society as a whole, without actually giving us audience concrete examples of exactly how we can achieve that level of cooperation[3], is totally uncalled for.

Competition is not without value, as long as it is regulated through different institutions[4].







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