Cooperation isn’t everything; it’s the only thing

Molina et al argue that cooperation exists in non-oppositional tandem with competition, using previous social anthropological work on hunter-gatherer, tribal, and peasant societies as evidence. Indeed, Molina and colleagues tellingly begin this article by describing the multi-disciplinary theorizing on the emergence of cooperation, between “biology, economics, archaelogy and evolutionary and social anthropology,” as “each one [contributing] different pieces to the puzzle.” From the first paragraph of this article, Molina is forwarding their “puzzle piece” not only in content, but in form as well. This article can be conceptualized as a mode of cooperation both between Molina and his colleagues, as a communal writing project, and between the authors and their wider, interdisciplinary audiences. This article is not without its competitive moments—as a published academic piece, it certainly has participated in some kind of competition for the inherent prestige in publishing and the opportunity to forward one’s own argument over another’s—but this similarly reflects Molina et al’s argument, which is that competition and cooperation co-exist. I believe Bateson was noted in class for similarly reflecting her argument in content and form.

As well, Bateson and Molina et al both invoke Darwinism and the figure of the gene or cell in their arguments, though to different effects. Bateson uses the example of the mutually beneficial evolution of nuclei in cells—endosymbiosis—to argue that “ [t]here is no such thing as independence in biology” (677). This fits into Bateson’s larger argument by troubling competition and “survival of the fittest” ideologies as not finding their origins in the natural realms. Molina et al, in contradistinction, figure the gene as that which “acts selfishly in its attempt to survive,” and the individual as that which acts cooperatively (11). If Bateson had utilized this perspective, it might have hurt her overall argument, which aims to denaturalized competition, but it fits correctly with Molina et al’s, which is the concurrence of competition with cooperation.

Bateson’s article, as the transcript of a keynote speech, varies widely from Molina et al’s in formal structure. Maggie, in their post, notes many of these differences, including their use of personal or impartial language, the different motivations they have, and the interdisciplinary versus strictly historical and anthropological evidence they utilize. In regards to this last point, Maggie makes the interesting point that while Bateson uses a wide array of evidence in order to reach a larger audience, to those of us not fluent in social anthropology, her speech may feel “off.” It is ironic that Molina et al’s article, though using language and concepts that those outside of social anthropology might not understand, feels more comprehensible, if only because it more easily fits inside a generalized academic format.

Kohn, in his opening two chapters, casts doubt on competition as a natural characteristic of humanity, and leans towards socialization as an explanation for its proliferation. Kohn makes the distinction between acting competitively, cooperatively, and independently—in opposition with some of our earlier readings, Kohn says that competition is not necessarily individualistic, and that cooperation is not necessarily altruistic. In this schema, however, Kohn sees competition as an “inherently undesirable arrangement” (9). I think Kohn’s chapters interface with Molina et al’s argument explicitly in the section wherein Kohn outlines how people have refuted the naturalization of competition, specifically, in the idea that cooperation is just as if not more prevalent than competition. In our wider class discussion(s) of competition, I think some of the new definitions Kohn utilizes, such as the difference between “structural competition and intentional competition,” will be useful (3).


  1. I like how you connected this article with Bateson’s, as I think there are some important comparisons that must be drawn. I agree with what you said about Molina’s argument reflecting what they are saying about the coexistence of competition and cooperation, and how this differs from the somewhat hypocritical argument that Bateson makes. I’m not sure I agree with your and Maggie’s point about Bateson’s speech being “off” because of her use of sociology terms as I found it pretty readable for the most part, but I definitely see where you are coming from. With all of this being said, would you say that Bateson’s or Molina’s argument is more compelling?


  2. I like how you highlighted Kohn’s piece, where it is stated that competition is not necessarily individualistic and that cooperation isn’t necessarily altruistic either. This is an interesting thought and I wonder what it would like if it were further expanded. More specifically, how does this relate to Molina et al.’s convictions that cooperation and competition can mutually coexist? I see how cooperation can be a mechanism used to meet individualistic needs, rather than originating from purely altruistic notions. But on the other hand, what does competition look like if it isn’t self-serving? If the end-goal of competition isn’t to reach and fulfill individualistic goals, I wonder what other role and purpose competition can have in society.


  3. Thanks for your reply and question! I agree, “off”-ness is a pretty subjective measurement—both a person’s personal taste and relative degree of familiarity with the topics these authors discuss will influence one’s perspective on this. Which paper is more compelling is a difficult question—I suppose my answer depends on how compelling is defined. Bateson’s article is more inspiring (meaning, it arrests my attention and makes me think “hey, maybe what she’s saying is important!”), while Molina et al’s article isn’t particularly rousing. This is because Molina et al’s main object is to inform in an impartial academic manner, whereas Bateson wants to entertain an academic crowd. Yet, if I were to go out and write a research paper on competition, I would probably reach for Molina et al’s paper first. In that way, I have also been compelled by this paper. So, I guess my answer is that I find Bateson’s more emotionally evocative, but Molina et al’s more attractive from an argumentative perspective.

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  4. Hi dankim17! I find your question about the possible altruistic potential of competition to be very interesting. I think imagining an altruistic competition is difficult if we are using Werron’s definition, which relies on the idea of scarcity and zero-sum games. Surely, if my winning makes someone else lose out on what we are competing for, then it can’t be compassionate. However, for one thing, Werron’s definition is not the only one out there, though it is useful as a way to narrow our focus. If we use a different definition of competition, then it is easier to imagine it in more holistic ways. I’m not sure if I have a complete answer for your question, but I guess a part of this that seems key to me is “what happens when someone loses?” Perhaps for altruistic competition to occur on a societal scale, we would need to reconfigure what losing, itself, means—perhaps it could be used as a way to redetermine who among us needs more care and concern, so that they can be the winner next time.

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