In The Origin of Species, Darwin built his argument about natural selection in part from what people already knew full well about combatting the elements and competing with other people. Competition—political, economic, social, biological—has long been one of the prominent descriptors of life. We apply the concept easily and often to life’s many difficulties.
By comparison, references to the happier notions of cooperation and helping others seem sparse. People may use them to describe such special experiences as a team effort or the rebuilding of a community but not to depict the daily course of events. Most people would be unlikely to reply “cooperation” in answer to the question, “What word best describes the ordinary activities of your life?”
Cooperation deserves more credit than it gets. It merits equal weight (if not more) with competition in naming the most common dynamics among living things.
There are many reasons why cooperation doesn’t get that attention. One is that it is overshadowed by the related notion of “helping others.” Helping others, altruism, is a virtue enshrined in every religion and philosophy. Reaching out beyond our usual circle to those in need, with no expectation of obvious material reward, ranks at the height of human worthiness.
Mere “cooperation,” on the other hand, is often seen as “ordinary life.” It is certainly inseparable from the social lives of not only humans but many animals as well. Some female birds, for example, assist their sisters in caring for the sister’s brood. Ants, wild dogs, egrets, gibbons and others sometimes share their food with a group. Chimpanzees raise a clamor when a fruit tree is discovered in order to bring other chimps to the feast. Cooperation is basic.
One reason that it is basic is that it is more efficient than other social interactions in terms of cost and benefits for the participants. Competition, for example, leaves one party better off and the other worse off. Altruism is puzzling to scientists because the altruist appears to put himself at a disadvantage (he may donate money, for instance) while the recipient becomes better off than before. Cooperation, on the other hand, means that both parties clearly come out ahead. No one loses.
Cooperation is important, in other words, because it is more advantageous in the economy of social benefits than either altruism or competition.
There are complications and exceptions, of course. Just how beneficial cooperation turns out to actually be depends on who and what someone is cooperating with. Many people willingly cooperate with groups that cause harm and cooperation may be synonymous with the worst kind of obedience to an abusive authority figure.
Still, it is utterly ordinary, run-of-the-mill cooperation that provides much of the essential maintenance of life. For humans, sharing daily chores in the kitchen, coordinating plans at work, reaching agreements with anybody on anything, and giving assistance, advice, or encouragement to others—all form the bright fabric of each of our days. To say of cooperation that it is “just life” is to pay it the highest compliment.
As we seek to understand our values, many people think that science is an inappropriate area in which to search. Science is about facts and hypotheses, not about what is desirable and undesirable. That is oversimplified. Evolutionary biology and psychology, along with history, provide a map of the circumstances of living that have fostered life or degraded it. Cooperation occupies a huge portion of the beneficial region on this map, an area so large that it is easy to overlook.