The Coexistence of Traits

It’s either competition, or cooperation; dominant beliefs about society tend to take and either/or approach when describing competition and cooperation within disciplines. Molina et. al, however argues that competition and cooperation coexist in all societies. In answering the question, “Why do people cooperate so extensively within societies?” She first presented the dominant evolutionary outlook: People cooperate because it aids their survival and evolutionary competitiveness. Genes that led to the survival of the gene, individual, or group, tended to persist overtime. Kin selection, reciprocity, and network reciprocity are explained from this standpoint. For example, altruism towards kin, even if it does not benefit the parent’s survivability, promotes the survival of the parent’s genes that are passed along by the kin. As a result, altruistic behavior towards kin becomes more prevalent in the gene pool. Reciprocity, on the other hand, creates a mutual relationship that can benefit both individual’s survivability. Ultimately, cooperation described from the evolutionary perspective is about competition. People cooperate because they are self-interested and act to benefit themselves, their genes’ abundance, and their own group; they act to enhance their own survivability.

I think the evolutionary perspective creates a faulty argument. Yes genes that help a species perpetuate are more likely to be passed along to the next generation, and genes that lead to cooperation–sensations of caring, mirror neurons, empathy, love, guilt, and etc–aided our species survivability. However, although these genes help us survive and humans desire to survive, that does not change that these attributes we have are pure.

No individual gene defines us by themselves, it is many genes that influence our behavior, beliefs, intentions, and actions. Yes, humans may have some inclinations towards greed, selfishness, and desire, because these things drive us towards action to get the things we need to survive. But we also have an inclination towards cooperation, love, and altruism. It is not that we act altruistic because we are self-interested. We act cooperative because these traits helped us survive and persisted in our beings. Even if these traits persisted because they aided our evolutionary competitiveness, that does not mean we act in this way with the intention of being evolutionary competitiveness.

Our genes cause us to feel good things and get good feelings from others, we are socialized in this way. It is part of our needs and wants. Mirror neurons cause us to care about others, to hurt when we see others in pain. We feel for others, and this is not about greed OR pure goodwill: Feeling for others can hurt us or make us feel good, it still RELATES TO US. We are bothered by something done to others because it is an unpleasant sensation TO us. We are happy for something good done for another because WE EXPERIENCE positive sensations through our mirror neurons, or because that person has done good things for us and we like them. Good will, altruism, regret towards not helping others, and positive intentions towards others are ultimately caused by the good or bad feelings we experience as a result. Yes, it relates to us.
However, this does not make us selfish. Survival of these cooperative genes led us to feel what we feel. It’s not our intention to be this way. Rather these positive sensations that we feel as a result of cooperating, moral action, etc. are a signal to us (caused by our genes) to reinforce our acting in that way. Evolutionary mechanisms created these signals. Without these signals, we would feel nothing. We would not feel empathy, positive regard, nor a sense of morality. There is no reason for people to feel those things if it doesn’t relate to survival (except anomalies.) But just because these feelings were created to promote survival does not mean this makes us selfish and self-interested. When we feel these feelings, they are pure. They are just stimuli. And we reach towards them because we reach towards good sensations and away from bad ones. These are meant to direct our action. Beyond these feelings and beyond other molds that shape us (socialization), why would we feel for or care about others… it doesn’t make sense to expect that because we would not have the stimuli nor receptors that make us feel caring or feeling.

Whereas, cooperation, if people are only competitive, should be about self-interest; Molina et. al. argues that people cooperate in ways that do not necessarily benefit themselves or their own genes. To back up her point, Molina brings up the social anthropological perspective on cooperation, describing cooperation as fundamental to every community. She describes the sharing within hunter-gatherer societies: It does not benefit those with more food to share, yet resources are split equally between everyone. She also describes the Potlatch, a ritual celebration in many tribes. Those who can give away the most resources, receive the most prestige and respect. As a result, they compete in regards to the amount of gifts they can give away to others. Although competition does exist, this practice regulates tribes and keeps resources more evenly distributed. Molina describes ritual ceremonies, prestige, and institutions as a way of suppressing competition and making sure people are more equal.

The existence of prestige for regulating inequality, however, can also exasperate competition in ways that undermine cooperation. For example, Hutcheon’s describes competition in the academic realm where students and scholars publicly attack other scholar’s work and take pride in their ability to do so. Rather than learning from each other’s work and finding ways to understand what is good about others work, academics often criticize others work and shame them. Hutcheon’s calls this process agonism, or ritual shaming. This is also a process of competition that causes the attacker to gain prestige, but it is not a process that inhibits rather than fosters cooperation.

Suchivrb mentioned that they did not think it was possible to get rid of competition completely. I agree. However, I think it is possible to reduce the negative aspects of competition drastically. I believe that we have both the tendency to cooperate and compete within us, but societal forces tend to emphasize one or the other and this drastically influences our proclivities; it is natural for people to be more competitive and less cooperative in a capitalistic system that emphasizes individuality, the market system, and survival of the fittest, it. After all, in this type of system, people are instilled with beliefs about competition. In contrast, Cuban society is shockingly cooperative, even in ways that put individuals at a disadvantage. People share food with neighbors and strangers even when they have very little food themselves. If a person is in trouble, everyone in sight would want to help. These differences are not a product of different genetic make-up, but rather, different culture and socialization.

Suchivrb’s article:

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