The Inevitability of Cooperation
by Benjamin Studebaker
I’ve been thinking lately about why we cooperate with each other–why we form communities and states. The typical Hobbesian answer to this question is that we cooperate in order to protect ourselves from violence. There is truth in that answer, but security concerns, while a primary motivator for cooperation, are not the only motivator. This is important, because there are those who oppose cooperative institutions on the grounds that a world without cooperative institutions isn’t as dangerous as Hobbesians commonly believe, suggesting we should become total individualists (e.g. anarchists, transcendentalists, etc.).
While I agree with the Hobbesians that a world without cooperative institutions is one in which people’s lives are nasty, brutish, and short, I think it is quite possible to provide an explanation for coming into being of cooperative institutions even under the assumption that the Hobbesians are wrong. It is even possible to go further, to argue that even in a world in which life in the state of nature is not violent, the creation of states remains nonetheless inevitable and unavoidable.
To see how this is so, we can reason from the perspective of an individual living in nature with full knowledge that there are other individuals with whom he could cooperate. Here we grant individualists their core premise–our natural man does not have to fear violence from his fellow men. In this hypothetical scenario, all men are pacifists. We will also ignore the most primitive of cooperative institutions–the family–and assume that all sexual couplings are temporary and all children leave their mothers forever at 10, so as to minimize reproductive cooperation.
What is the goal of our natural man? Broadly speaking, he desires to be as happy as possible for as long as possible. He wants a long life, and he wants that life to be good. He wants his desires to be satisfied, he wants to experience pleasure and avoid pain, and so on.
What is the principal challenge to natural man’s goal? First and foremost his health–natural man has to gather and/or hunt his own food, consuming much of his time. He also lacks medical knowledge, vaccinations, the capacity to deal with various diseases and ailments. In other words, even if natural man’s life is not violent, it is still likely to be very short. The historical life expectancy of early man was sub-30, with those lucky enough to make it to 15 likely to live to around 50, so common was it for individuals to die as infants or small children. In addition, we know that man is a social creature, that without companionship, man’s mental condition suffers. The chronically socially isolated are often driven to madness. This gives our natural man three problems, none of which he can achieve on his own:
- The Hunter/Gatherer Problem–natural man has no time to pursue other interests or inclinations due to the constant need to pursue additional food.
- The Short Life Problem–natural man has no means of protecting himself from disease, and as he ages he will find it more difficult to acquire food. Even insofar as his life is good, it is good for too short a length of time.
- The Social Problem–natural man has an inherent will to companionship. He cannot be happy without friends and/or romantic companions.
It requires the lifespans of many people working together for human beings to discover vaccines, agriculture, antibiotics, and the various other solutions to problems 1 and 2. Problem 3 is especially critical, as it poses the most immediate direct threat to our natural man’s quality of life. Our natural man has a choice–he can chase deer, go mad, get tuberculosis, and die, or he can attempt to pursue some kind of cooperative social arrangement with the other people. The rational choice is clearly the latter; indeed it is almost unthinkable to imagine an individual choosing the former.
Cooperating unlocks four primary means by which natural man improves his life:
- Health–man is able to increase his lifespan, improve his diet, and satisfy his social urges.
- Knowledge–man is able to acquire understanding of the world around him, allowing him to further improve his health and to more efficiently pursue and achieve his desires.
- Division of Labor–man no longer has to be exclusively a food-gatherer. He can outsource food-gathering to others and instead explore other interests and desires (e.g. metalworking).
- Safety–we have excluded this from our discussion in order to draw attention to the importance of the other advantages.
This shows, at the very least, why rugged individualism is superseded by the village commune. But why do we scale up our villages? Why do we form larger cooperative groups that contain a great many of these smaller units?
The primary reason is that all of the advantages outlined above only get bigger with scale. The more workers we have, the more knowledge we can acquire, the more people non-food gathering people we can support, and so on. It is impossible to enjoy the full force of cooperative advantage at the village commune level. The same forces that make it reasonable to form a village commune make it reasonable to form larger collective entities.
At this point, we run up against a fascinating human problem, Dunbar’s number. There is a maximum number of people that human beings can properly get to know and identify personally with, and this number is not especially large. The usual estimate is 150. Beyond that point, human beings lack the mental capacity to process additional people. It is rather spectacular how lacking in empathy we are often disposed to be toward people we do not know personally. The internet is awash with dark humor, and I myself am a frequent imbiber.
Once we break Dunbar’s number, we’re no longer able to rely on personal relationships to form the basis for our cooperation. At that point, we need big, strong institutions to which we all feel connected, even if we don’t know one another personally–we need the state. The state not only provides a locus of identity, it assists us with the problem of communication. How do we coordinate our cooperative behavior to maximize everyone’s gains in a large-scale community? We need to agree on how to allocate resources, how to distribute jobs, and so on. Some individualists will point to the market system as the answer to these conundrums, but fundamentally, the market system is the product of the state system. Markets are created, sustained, and regulated by states. The state also has to provide citizens with the skills and background necessary to participate in markets effectively–it has to educate people, and it has to ensure that people get educated even when those people lack the resources to provide for that education themselves. It has to educate people even when it’s not profitable to do so. Citizens can’t rely on charities in no small part because of Dunbar’s number–their fellow citizens are biologically hard-wired to be personally indifferent to their suffering.
This is not to say that cooperation doesn’t carry with it costs–in any large society, some people are going to feel that they are at a relative disadvantage to many other people. Society carries with it inequalities, both genetic and sociological. Individuals also have to act in a sociable manner–they have to play nice with others. This restricts, to some degree, our liberties. But these inequalities and limits on behavior ultimately exist in order to allow us to do more, to be more, not less, free. If I am upset because I would like to spend my money on a car but instead have to pay it in taxes, I should realize that my tax money educates people so that in future, I might buy something cooler. The generation of people that created computers, the internet, and so on all benefited from a public commitment of resources to that purpose, a commitment that simply would not be matched under a system dependent on charity or profitability. It is because some people did not buy Cadillacs in the 50’s and 60’s and instead gave their money to the state that I am able to type these words on this computer right now. I have no doubt that most of these individuals would not have given up that money voluntarily in the absence of a state.
A fascinating read; I enjoyed it very much.
With regard to the hunter-gatherer problem, I think it’s a common misconception that, “natural man has no time to pursue other interests or inclinations due to the constant need to pursue additional food.” In fact, I’ve read that archaeologists and anthropologists have calculated that ancient man spent no more than 14 hours per week hunting/gathering food. Trapping, for example, is something that requires no time on the part of the natural man once the trap is set. In fact, the advent of agriculture caused man to spend MORE time on food. Think about all of the labor that goes into farming–planting, harvesting, preserving, feeding, protecting, and slaughtering livestock. All in all, science makes the case that this hypothetical man that you’ve postulated would have bountiful free time on his hands if he were a hunter-gatherer.
This directly ties into the short lifespan problem. Again, it’s a misconception to say that ancient or natural made had a significantly shorter lifespan. And, ironically, this is directly related to the whole hunter-gather business. Again, according to archaeologists, the diet of a hunter-gatherer was widely varied and much healthier compared to later man after the advent of agriculture. According to the experts, the development of agriculture led to a diet heavy in sugary starches, which wrecked havoc with man’s teeth (which is a big deal when there are no dentists and nobody knows what a toothbrush is), and led to a bunch of other health problems. Remember Otzi, the 5,000 year old ice man? He was about 45 years old when he died–MUCH older than scientists had expected–and the only reason he died was because someone shot him in the back with an arrow.
All of this to say that I do believe that cooperation begets faster advances in science and technology. And I do believe that cooperation satisfies a natural need for human beings to be social. Sure, it’s possible for someone to live their entire existence alone, but as you pointed out, they’d likely go mad or develop a host of other medical and psychological problems. However, I think a case can definitely be made that an adult man or woman can definitely live a long, (physically) healthy life with plenty of free time as a hunter-gatherer.
The primary difference between a hunter-gatherer society and an agricultural society is the concentration of the work. A farmer works longer hours, but for far fewer days, and it takes far fewer farmers to acquire the same amount of food. A medieval peasant put in only 150 days of work per year, and sustained a large population of non-farmers:
My life expectancy data is solid–ancient people could make it into their 50’s if they weren’t killed as children. While not as much shorter as some people believe, 50’s is very much not 70’s.
I suppose that the agricultural argument makes sense so far as an entire society goes. But isn’t the alternative to the cooperation argument a solitary existence? After all, one of the three tent pole arguments was that without cooperation, man would spend all of his time trying to procure food–which isn’t really true. Going off of the 14 hours a week estimation, that’s only 30 days per year spent searching for food, 1/5 the time a farmer would work (albeit to feed a greater amount of people). In other words, the concentration of labor argument would seem to only hold true if you’ve already accepted the cooperation hypothesis. My argument was that while there is definitely a case to be made for cooperation, saying that it liberated natural man from an existence where he is a slave to his stomach, constantly roaming the wild in search of food instead of thinking about science and technology, does not appear to be the case. It seems to me that recent archaeological evidence indicates that the way modern people view hunter-gathers is very inaccurate. It would also seem to indicate that agriculture was a double edged sword–it did allow for the creation of civilization as we know it, but it brought with it a whole host of health problems.
Hmm…if the data indicates that an individual human being can take care of his food needs for a year in 30 days of hunter-gathering, it begs the question of why we went to farming in the first place. It seems highly implausible that people would switch to a drastically less efficient, less healthy means of food collection. What do you suppose convinced human beings to switch from h-g to farming on this hypothesis?
That’s an excellent question. I suppose one reason could be food insecurity. Agriculture makes it a lot easier for people create a reserve or store in case of a natural disaster or a poor hunt. Such stores of food probably also allowed people to better survive harsh winters, when yields from hunting and gathering were probably lower than the more temperate seasons. I don’t really see any individual or group of individuals being able to hunt/gather enough food to mitigate those two circumstances consistently.
But ultimately, I don’t see h-g being able to produce anything beyond a subsistence-level amount of food. So if we accept that the cooperation hypothesis (which I do, I feel I should emphasize), wherein people organize in larger and larger societies for a variety of reasons, then it becomes apparent that h-g won’t really work. You can’t really expect a smaller group of people to h-g enough food to sustain a larger group, and it defeats the purpose of organizing to have everyone go out and h-g at the same time–then who’s doing the protecting and how would we socialize or collaborate? (I realize that although h-g takes less time than farming, it’s still an opportunity cost in terms of time, but now for ALL individuals instead of a few).
I’ll try to do a little more research on what archaeologists and anthropologists think about the subject and get back to you with my findings.
Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this today as well–my principal thoughts are on similar lines:
1. Famine Aversion
2. City-Building as Opposed to Migration
3. Division of Labor
These pressures could also be contributors to cooperation.
It’s important to emphasize that in terms of the history, the state of nature story in which men are isolated with no cooperation never really happened. Early human communities were at the very least familial, and typically tribal–the need for socializing made community unavoidable. From there I imagine that the above three led to farming and that the end to h-g and migration enabled human beings to get settled and start developing technologically.
That sounds like a logical progression to me. And I can also see those three pressures being completely reasonable. I’m sure there wasn’t one single factor that pushed us out of the nomadic h-g lifestyle and into a more sedentary agricultural one. I’ll be curious to see how research develops on the subject!
Definitely–thanks for encouraging me to think more about the anthropology.
Apparently the academic community is perplexed by this as well. Most research indicates that the introduction of agriculture created a lot of new problems for modern man: it introduced the idea of social stratification and inequality, permanent settlements created pollution and allowed for the increased prevalence of communicable disease, and resulted in generally poorer diets. Most scientists have a hard time reconciling why people would make the transition to agriculture.
As near as I can tell, there are several arguments about the transition. The first is that for the first part of human history, the climate did not really favor agriculture, therefore hunting and gathering was the only possible way to procure food until the climate shifted to a warmer, wetter one.
A second theory is that agriculture is the end result of a Darwinian evolutionary pathway. According to some researchers, agriculture represents a shift away from man seeing himself as just another animal, and that the development of our self-awareness led to the development of agriculture, which is just another tools exercised by man to adapt to his environment.
There’s also a lot of speculation about population pressure as we became more and more social throughout our evolution, but these models also have unsatisfactory components to them.
The bottom line is that mainstream scientists seem to agree that civilization would not be able to exist without agriculture, but that in order to reap the benefits of civilization we sacrificed aspects of out health and time. The disagreement is about what environmental pressures selected for this.
The security concern (which I deliberately avoided targeting in the post) may well have played into it–if you’re migratory, you’re constantly invading other tribal groups’ territory, and you don’t invest in defending any specific territory of your own. Whereas with agriculture, you can build cities with walls.