A growing number of activists and civil society spaces focus their attention on the idea that we humans have to get rid of our mechanistic worldview that sees us as separate from one another as well as separate from nature. These voices argue that modern scientific knowledge shows that this worldview is mistaken and that in reality life on Earth is a harmonic web and its foundational principle is interconnectedness, not separation. In his new book, the author Jeremy Lent argues that instead of using the metaphor of the selfish gene, we should talk about life as a harmonic dance: “Imagine if, instead of our socioeconomic system constructed on the presumption that ‘the economy of nature is competitive from beginning to end’, it was structured instead on the basis of symbiosis—an ecological civilization.”
Like many others, Lent focuses on the power of narrative. He believes that Dawkins’ metaphor of the selfish gene had an extraordinary destructive effect on our society by promoting the idea that humans are selfish. He thinks that by switching the narrative we have a chance to change the dominant worldview and ultimately reality.
But is the main problem we have really one of narrative and is the metaphor of the harmonic dance really so much more rooted in truth than the selfish gene?
Another new book, The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World, written by the British evolutionary biologist, Nichola Raihani, puts things into perspective.
In her book, Raihani shows that humans are the most cooperative species on Earth and that cooperation is an important principle for resolving conflicts at all levels of complex biological systems, including cells and organs. But she leaves no doubt that the drive to compete with others for mates, food and other resources is a general feature of most animal brains, and all of the great apes. And that we are no different.
Cooperation can resolve conflicts but can also create victims. Cancer cells cooperate very well between them, as does the Mafia or do corrupt elites. Raihani sees the distribution of power in human societies as a giant tug of war between the individual urge to dominate and the collective interests of everyone.
If we focus our energy on putting forward a new narrative that downplays our competitive side, we might lose sight of the fact that the heart of the problem is a game-theoretical problem, the social dilemma where individuals can benefit from free-riding on the investments of others, while still enjoying any benefits that collective action brings.
Over the course of the many thousands of years when our ancestors lived in small bands and tribes, they developed effective systems of cooperation. The problem we have today is that our life doesn’t resemble much that of our ancestors.
Raihani says: “To have a hope of tackling the global problems we face, we need to use our abilities to create effective institutions – rules, agreements and incentives – that favour cooperation and a long-term view over self-interest and short-termism.“