Why do humans cooperate?

As noted in an our first post, the discovery of evolutionary theory put a rift in what was otherwise a seamless fabric of religious and scientific truth — i.e., many people felt forced to choose one or the other.  This rift remains despite the fact that an important outstanding puzzle raised by evolutionary theory may be satisfactorily resolved only by resort to God.  On this believer’s view, evolutionary theory is simply one more signal of God’s omnipresence and omnipotence among the many to be found in the study of nature.

In short, the puzzle arises because human beings are social animals — i.e., humans will cooperate with each other to accomplish goals necessary to their survival.  At first, one might think that this characteristic of humans is not unique among the animal kingdom.  In fact, ants, bees, termites, and naked mole rats also display social behavior.  On closer inspection, however, human social behavior is unique because humans, unlike social animals, will cooperate with non-family members.  It turns out that other examples of cooperation in the animal kingdom are characterized by idiosyncratic reproductive patterns that result in all animals within a community being related (e.g., all bees in the same hive or all ants in the same hill are born from the same queen).  Why do humans cooperate this way?

One answer is that humans are merely executing a program that is encoded in their genes.  This answer demonstrates how the question of why humans cooperate is linked to another open question in evolutionary biology — namely, of what unit is fundamental to the process of natural selection. This is an important discussion because the scale of the unit deemed fundamental to evolutionary processes is understood (albeit dimly) to have some relationship to a scale of an organism’s complexity — i.e., the number, size, and characteristics of the building blocks are going to place constraints on the observed complexity of structures built from the building blocks.

Darwin didn’t know about genes, or certainly about DNA and RNA, &c. So when these were discovered, there was an immediate rush to the conclusion that genes are the fundamental unit for processes of natural selection. Thus, one group believe that genes are the fundamental unit. Richard Dawkins is perhaps the most famous for this view, which was espoused in his book The Selfish Gene, for example. This is a rather Platonic view of nature.

The Platonic view, in its most reductionist form makes it difficult to explain some behavioral phenomena (such as altruism) as the manifestation of selfish genes. In fact, it gets so difficult that one begins to suspect that the explanation is too reductionist. Thus, another group, which included Stephen Jay Gould, believes that genes are only part of a hierarchy of building blocks, with competitions underway simultaneously at each level within the hierarchy. This is a more Aristotelian view of nature.

The theory of G.D. Snooks, see discussion in comments here, appears to stake out some sort of middle ground between the Platonic reductionism of Dawkins and the Aristotelian chaos of Gould. Snooks proposed an alternative theory that identifies individual human actors as the fundamental unit for natural selection processes.

What interests me about this is that, in a sense, the same debate is now playing out within the domain of political economy. We have Platonic reductionists, represented by anarcho-capitalists and Marxists, who believe that only individuals or groups, respectively, can be the source of growth within an economy. Then we have the Aristotelian chaos theorists, represented by Hayek, Schumpeter, and their followers, who understand that neither individuals nor groups are “fundamental” because competitions are taking place simultaneously at both scales.

On my view, the Aristotelians have the upper hand in these arguments. Consider that even Dawkins was forced to admit that “God’s utility function” was maximized by competition among the selfish genes. If order can emerge from chaos (and isn’t this what Dawkins is forced to admit?), then how can we rule out the possibility that “God’s utility function” is really God’s utility function? Similarly, individuals cannot live outside society for long, but neither can a society of unhappy or unhealthy individuals. Where is the end to this hierarchy of needs?

The answer for this believer is found in the New Testament, in Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus through his demonstration of love through personal sacrifice forms a model for human cooperation.  On my view, as we ascend through the hierarchy of competition from genes to individuals to groups and beyond, eventually we reach a scale so large that only God is great enough to encompass it all, and yet still have the ability to interact at every level within the hierarchy.

Although you can disagree with any particular conjecture I’ve made in this post, I hope everybody who takes the time to think this through will appreciate how a deeper understanding of nature often leads us back to God.

Update: Here is a link to an article co-authored by E. O. Wilson summarizing the revival of group selection theory in biology.

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2 Comments on “Why do humans cooperate?”


  1. […] though, since this topic came up in Michael’s earlier post, I thought I’d write a little about it. First, as I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t […]


  2. […] social behavior.  In part, this is because it most emphatically does. In particular, as noted in an earlier post, the theory that natural selection at the level of groups can promote cooperation within groups […]


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