Glass Half Full: Cooperative Competition = Competitive Cooperation

The central aspect of Molina et al’s article derives from the unique approach that social anthropology brings to our understanding of how human being – and more importantly human collectives – engage in relationships of cooperation and competition. In this sense, the three graded metrics which he applies at the beginning of article, namely kin selection, reciprocity, and group selection structure the rest of her argument. Nevertheless, even as she uses these three as separate categories to analyze how cooperation and competition operate within human interactions, she also sets them into dialogue with one another. So that the notion of reciprocity becomes vital to understanding those relationships within all three categories.

It helps us to better understand the main thrust of Molina et al’s argument if we begin from his stated contention that social anthropology views cooperation as a constitutive element in the formation of human communities as opposed to a reactive element. In other words, from her perspective the Darwinian notions of natural selection and survival of the fittest – notions which ultimately privilege competition as the main element component in the evolution of human culture – end up becoming “oversimplifications of human evolution”. Molina et al also tosses neoclassical economic theories into this basket of oversimplifications, a fact that reveals an orientation towards favoring more cooperative models both of human evolution and human behaviour in defining the culture of our species in the past and going forward. Indeed, Molina et al makes a compelling argument for such models by interrogative three kinds of collective groups (hunter-gatherers, tribal societies and peasants) and rereading our species’ development through a strictly social anthropological lens.

While Molina et al’s discussion of the significance of such phenomena as gift-giving and ritual in the context of such an approach are compelling, one wonders whether they are not too monolithic in painting an overly cooperative picture of the evolution of human societies. And though she does mention competition in the same breath as cooperation throughout the article, one can’t help but see in this dichotomy a kind of harmonized dichotomy, so that in her scheme both cooperation and competition risk becoming neutered and overly facile in accounting for the complexity and messines of human evolution.

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