Walking Up the Ramp

Life is a ramp. We—all things alive—are walking along ramps that slope upwards at various angles, angles that change during our lifetimes. The climb may be easy or arduous. The ramp begins at birth and ends at death.



The angle of the ramp depends on the difficulties we are faced with, both from our circumstances in life and our inner struggles. For humans, it is not an index of how unhappy we feel. Instead it represents the total of the obstacles, limitations, frustrations, stresses, discomforts, opposition, tedium, and loneliness that a person faces. It is a snapshot of the “uphill” nature of a person’s daily living.

My own ramp has sloped up only slightly most of my life. As a white, upper-middle class, male, educated American, I have not struggled very much, except at those times when, as for all of us, personal problems raise the ramp, often drastically, for a while. Otherwise, the long-term angle of the ramp rises progressively if one is female, poor, a persecuted minority, uneducated, chronically ill, imprisoned, a refugee, or a victim of violence. It generally rises less for those with resilient personalities and more for those with depression.

Animals and plants too are on ramps. Lack of food or water, disease, injury, tilt their ramps upward.

Can the ramp ever slope downward? Not in this metaphor. The ramp is always sloped up at least slightly because living is never completely free of limitations and difficulties of some kind. Darwin and the Buddha were right: life is struggle.

When our ramps tilt upward and the walk is tiring, we think about how to make our lives easier or better, and we may or may not actually take the steps to do so. If we do take them, we sometimes find that the steps were mistakes—bad decisions about jobs or relationships, for example—although they were the best we could do at the time, and that our ramp has not changed much or that we have inadvertently raised it. We may or may not try again.

We can easily, through meanness or indifference, raise the ramps of others, making their lives harder.

But we can lower the ramps of others too, always slightly, sometimes a great deal. And by some strange mechanism, lowering other ramps always lowers our own as well.

Cooperation and Competition

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?”


Social animals: an ant transports an aphid to the nest,

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.

bird sharing

A bird offers to share;

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.

red cross

and local Red Cross staff distribute food.

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.