Seeds of Cooperation
May-June 2005
Ever since Darwin, we can all agree that evolution of the species is founded on competition, or on survival of the fittest. The weakest links are eliminated while others prosper and reproduce, handing down desirable characteristics, which then become the evolutionary basis for the species. Supported by this scientific certainty, Darwin’s theory has now become the basis on which competition is being touted as a highly efficient system, thus highly enviable for our societies. But does humankind, sentient and thinking, really owe its impressive evolution to competitive behaviour? There are some scientific minds who think otherwise. Albert Jacquard, to quote but one of these scientists, states the following about humankind: “As soon as they cooperate and forge an alliance, as soon there is no competition between them, they can progress and arrive at greater performances.”

Competition? Cooperation? What is the most appropriate strategy for humankind? Now that’s a wide-ranging research subject, one that is of increasing interest to all kinds of specialists. I’ve recently become aware of a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Kurzban and Houser, researchers who recruited students and organized them into small groups for observation purposes, handed each student 50 pieces of silver. Then, the following instruction was given: keep all 50 pieces of silver or invest any amount into a common pot, where at the end of the experience, the amount invested would be doubled and distributed equally among all the members of the group. (Think about the choice you would’ve made…)

By observing the results, researchers were able to identify three distinct profiles of behaviour: cooperation, reciprocity and clandestine. The cooperation profile obviously represents those who instinctively decided to invest in the common pot. The reciprocity profile was ascribed to those who invested, but only after seeing those with the cooperation profile invest their own monies and only an amount comparable to the latter’s contributions. And finally, the clandestine profile corresponded to students who took advantage of the final distribution of benefits without investing anything of their own. The result: distribution between all three profiles remained basically the same for all established groups, which translated as an average of 17% in cooperation, 63% in reciprocity and 20% fell into the clandestine profile.

When interpreting results, researchers believe that those with the cooperation profile, although lesser in number, possess the most power among all the groups. They set the rate of involvement for the majority. In fact, researchers have said that “they sow the seeds of cooperation.” And thanks to their influence on the majority, they make cooperation a profitable endeavour for all, even if those who did not contribute also shared in the benefits. Kurzban states that similar studies conducted by other researchers have obtained similar results. He proposes that humankind adopted cooperation as an evolutionary trait and that cultures who did not know how to cooperate weren’t as efficient and became extinct. Interesting, don’t you think?

This brings us straight to the question of leadership. Obviously, and for the most part, people are not born with a pre-disposition to cooperate. Rather, it’s developed through consciousness, through education, etc. Then, we can measure the gains generated by the largest number of people converted to the idea. With this perspective in mind, cooperative education within the school system should no longer be left to each teacher’s discretion and according to his or her level of openness. Because it facilitates the expression of cooperative leaders within the classroom and it encourages their invaluable influence on their peers, cooperative education should be part of any good school curriculum. If school is to train our youth and make them better citizens, it would seem critical that we re-establish an adequate balance between the values of competition and cooperation as they are being taught. Although competition may stimulate initiative, creativity and the attainment of goals, only cooperation can take full advantage of collective knowledge, work synergy and the positive sentiments that, more than anything else, distinguish our humanity.

Colette Lebel, agr.
Director of Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Fax: (514) 858-2025


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