On Cooperation and Competition – 2

Frankly, I do not know if this is a lot of idle speculation or whether there is substance to the hypotheses about the socialization of cooperative and competitive behavior. Nevertheless, I am excited about the range of issues one can think of once the imagination is given free reign. It is an endeavor that holds the promise of interesting surprises.

A couple of questions on the last post suggest it might be useful to start further back in time. Readers have wondered how urbanization and education affect behavior. My response is that behavioral socialization is a very slow process and urbanization and education are relatively recent developments gaining pace only in the twentieth century. The behavioral socialization that was discussed in the last post (differences resulting from wheat and rice farming) is the result of 10,000 years of agricultural life.

On thinking some more, I was surprised to realize that our behavior might still carry the impacts of the hunting-gathering era that came before the agricultural age. People in that era were divided into small bands constantly in conflict with each other. This gave rise to two dominant behavioral traits that were essential for the survival of groups: altruism within groups and hostility between groups. The first gave solidarity to one’s own group by sacrificing individual interests to those of the group; the second provided the ability to avoid being taken by surprise.

Thousands of years after the end of the hunting-gathering era and this kind of constant warring between proximate bands, we are still conditioned to behave differently within and between groups. When Marx exhorted the workers of the world to unite, he discovered that vertical bonds of nationality remained much more powerful than horizontal ones of occupation and hostilities between the vertical groups could be excited very easily. The incredible rants on South Asian blogs make one wonder if we have ever evolved beyond the hunting-gathering age. There is hardly any discussion of oppression and injustice within groups but an unending flood of invective about what one group did to the other.

Altruism and hostility share similarities with cooperation and competition but the overlap is not perfect. The first pair is a set of traits that is a response conditioned by the need to survive in an environment of conflict; the second does not need to presuppose any conflict. Thus we can imagine a completely peaceful situation in which some other factor conditions social behavior to be either more or less cooperative. According to the hypothesis in the previous post, this conditioning is the outcome of labor needs during the age of agriculture. To repeat the conclusion, rice-based farming requires much cooperation in labor practices than wheat-based farming. Hence rice-based societies exhibit a more cooperative ethos that wheat-based ones.

Thus we have now identified four major behavioral attributes – altruism, hostility, cooperation, competition – that are the outcomes of our socialization during the hunting-gathering and agriculture ages. Our inheritance from the hunting-gathering period is common while that from the agricultural age varies depending on the nature of the primary crop that is grown and consumed.

In subsequent posts we will speculate on how societies have adapted these learnt behaviors to the much more recent developments characterized by industrialization, urbanization and education.

Continued: On Cooperation and Competition – 3


  • Vinod
    Posted at 01:45h, 12 June Reply

    To add to that complexity, altruism and hostility can hinge around multiple identities that encompass different sets of people and exclude a different set.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 01:51h, 12 June

      Vinod, You will need to elaborate on that so that we are sure we understand what you have in mind.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 09:15h, 12 June Reply

    Altruism and Hostility have a direction. They are directed towards a particular group. The constitution of the group depends on the identity one is moved by. There are many social paradigms where individuals easily have more than one identity and move between them seamlessly.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:19h, 12 June

      Vinod, Thanks. The meaning is now clear. As we had discussed in the Similar and Different series of posts, individuals can be characterized as bundles of attributes. Each attribute (religion, ethnicity, caste, sect, language, nationality, color, etc.) can correspond to different in and out groups. Sometimes the multiple identities can cause a lot of tension. For example, Japanese-Americans were interred by the US during the Second World War because the US government was not sure how Japanese-Americans defined the in and out groups in that particular context.

Post A Comment