Competition and Cooperation: Unnatural and/or coexisting?

Alfie Kohn in his book No Contest begins by defining structural competition otherwise called “mutually exclusive goal attainment” and indicating that it does not present an actual scarcity. The competition presents a subjective scarcity. One that is conjured out of thin air. There are different types of criteria within structural competition whereby my winning does not preclude your winning, and others where it does. The success and failure of two individuals is related inversely in competition. He defines cooperation with how success is determined by the coordination of efforts of various people. He posits that cooperation should not be confused with altruism but rather that via cooperation one helps themselves and is in fact very tactful. His central argument is that neither cooperation nor competition is natural. That in fact, we are socialized into them.

Kohn seeks to deny the infamous phrase of Herbert Spencer as being analogous to competition. “Survival of the fittest” is being able to adapt to one’s environment, surviving, and allowing for procreation and the promulgation of one’s genes. He cites eminent evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould as saying that there are many strategies that can ensure reproductive success: symbiosis or cooperation being two examples. This parallels well with Bateson’s argument that the very basis of life began with one cell being engulfed by another thus forming the nucleated cell. This process of Endosymbiosis was the basis for life. Thus, he agrees that competition isn’t part of our primordial state. This “struggle for existence” was interpreted by Darwin in a broad metaphorical way. He concedes that competition exists in tandem with cooperation and independent work but at different rates and cooperation is usually seen as a means to competition. Nonetheless, he argues that our cultures obsession with competition is neither natural nor biologically deterministic but rather a function of our socialization. The main myth he wants to dispel in the first two chapters is the claim that competition is integral to human nature. He rejects biological determinism, rightfully so, for its theoretical inadequacies and its social implications. He compares it with the theological predestination of times past. Thus, the biologically deterministic argument confers on its proponent’s psychological relief, displacement of responsibility, and legitimization of the existing social structures. He argues for competition as being wholly a function of socialization. I would push back against this and make a distinction between what is biologically determined and what is natural. Something being natural does not necessitate that it is purely at the whims of biologically determined dictates.  If we situate this within dual inheritance theory or gene-culture co-evolution, we can argue for its naturalness. The theory posits that genes and culture are two facets of the evolutionary process and that they work together like a feedback loop. Furthermore, cultural traits are selected for and evolve thus feeding back into the genetic component. To hold nature and nurture as strictly dichotomous is inaccurate and reductive. Thus, I take issue with him not demarcating the differences between the notion of biological determinism which implies inevitability and what is part of human nature or rather natural which involves cultural evolution. I enjoyed that @AkkaNyke gestured towards the idea that biological determinism or the implication of our genes doesn’t have to be pejorative or an excuse for evil behavior. Rather it can be the cause of many beautiful emotions and feelings within our human experience.

Kohn moves on to use developmental psychology to argue that because children can learn to cooperate then it must not be inherent. He cites experiments that show children through interventions can learn cooperation and that these skills are retained even after time has passed. He cites Jean Piaget’s, specifically the “operational stage” in his child development theory as being the period at roughly six or seven when children start making social comparisons and assess themselves in relation to this. Thereby, allowing for cooperation or competition. His point is that competition being a learned phenomenon does not by default implicate cooperation as inherent, but rather that no meaningful distinctions can be made prior to this stage because children in the pre-operational stage are typically egocentric. His argument relies heavily on Piaget’s stage theory which emphasizes discontinuous change as opposed to continuous developmental change. Furthermore, the data regarding the age parameters of his theory do not have a strong empirical basis. I don’t think his argument for cooperation being unnatural is persuasive enough.

Finally, the ethnographic data that he cites from Margaret Mead of extant hunter-gatherer societies does cohere strongly with the other reading for the week, the J.L. Molina article published in Anthropology today. The Molina article first highlights the basic mechanisms of the evolution of cooperation in the wider literature: which are kin selection functioning at the level of the gene, reciprocity which functions at the level of the individual, and the more controversial group-level explanations of large-scale cooperative behavior. The last mechanism considers intra and inter group relationships. Molina cites the psychologist Michael Tomasello who posits multi-level selection functioning simultaneously. There are two steps in this process. The first step can be understood as cooperation for the purposes of hunting greater game exemplified in a “stag hunt.” The next step was implementing these skills in larger and more sedentary lifestyles which required social norms and institutions. He posits that generalized reciprocity by having a good reputation would have been the key to the evolution of cooperation. Social anthropologists via their empirical research agree that cooperation and competition work in tandem. Molina looks at research from hunter-gatherer societies, tribal societies, and peasant communities. He manages to show that at each group level there are distinct ways that cooperation and competition work together. In the hunter-gather communities, like the Hadza of Tanzania or the Kung of the Kalahari Desert they engage in generalized reciprocity through gift exchange both at the intra and inter-group level. This mitigates against competition. At the tribal level, there is increasing hierarchy and 2 spheres of exchange. The prestige sphere and the subsistence sphere. The former involves ritual whose order has a cooperative effect. The latter refers to the regulation of inequality and competition. In the peasant community, there is an economy based on fairness and is based in “reproduction of the community and its members.” Again, cooperation and competition work in tandem. Rituals, cooperative institutions centered around a moral community, and things like patron-client relationships are all examples of this balance.

To conclude, Kohn asserts the unnaturalness of cooperation and competition and as concepts that we are socialized into. His arguments against biological determinism and what constitutes the natural are fuzzy along with his arguments from developmental psychology. The Molina article brings together in a more comprehensive and systematic way anthropological data that explicates how cooperation and conflict work in tandem. Societies typically have institutions or mechanisms for regulating them and ensuring equality.


  1. Hey! That was a clearly written, systematic, and well-articulated article. Good Job. For future responses I would say keep your audience and what they already know in mind. This could help in getting us to the juicy connections and arguments more quickly and save you some time summarizing.

    I liked hearing your pushback against Kohn’s argument for how competition is wholly a function of socialization. I have my reservations about this too. It’s dangerous to stray too far to one side of the nature vs. nurture debate (the very framing of the nature VERSUS nurture is very competitive-like and, like you said, reductive; This may be the result of an overly competitive tendency in the west which has found its way into our language).

    Every aspect of humans moves along the spectrum of nature and nurture in very complex ways, it is very hard to place attributes exactly anywhere. However, Kohn’s objective can be accomplished with even a slight shift from the 100% biologically determined standpoint. As long competition isn’t said to be inevitable, it seems to me like Kohn would be happy.

    You accomplished a nice rhetorical move by distinguishing between something that is biologically determined and something that is natural. Giving more nuance to the definition allowed you some wiggle room to make some claims. It gives some leeway to a lot of the people he criticized, because they may not be saying that we MUST be competitive, only that it is fairly natural that we tend to gravitate that way because of our genes in interaction with our environment/culture.

    The naturalness of something has nothing to do with its normative value. There are plenty of things that are natural and morally bad. This is the naturalistic fallacy (i.e. nature=good). So, I don’t know if you would agree with me here, but it seems like Kohn can be right about the negative effects of competition and that it isn’t inevitable, while others can hold that competition is not wholly a matter of socialization. Kohn just went a little overboard and strayed a bit too far to the nurture side of an explanation.


  2. Hey! Thanks for the feedback! I’m aware of the naturalistic fallacy and wasn’t necessarily claiming that because competition may/ can be considered natural as opposed to having to be biologically determined, which kohn doesn’t distinguish, that it is always good. I mainly take issue with Kohn not making a distinction as well as his either/or mentality of nature/nurture which is completely out of line with modern conceptualizations. Furthermore, I think he pushes too far with his social constructionist viewpoint, which I disagree with.


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