Chapter 6

“Beyond the Survival of the Fittest: why Cooperation, Not Competition, is the Key of Life” (Nowak and HIghfield 2012b).

"Acts of kindness occur when people (and other animals) see themselves as being part of a greater entity. It is that reality that the advocates of individualism cannot accept" (Davis 2009).

Contents: Competition - Cooperation - The Darwinian World View - Is Science Value-Free and Objective? - Selective Attention - The Danger of Competition - Aggressive Capitalist Science – A Joke - The Feminine Face of Science - Sociobiology - Alternative Evolutionary Theories - Stress - Relaxation and Meditation – Summary - References - Quotes


We grow up in a highly competitive society. Thus, from early on in life,
we learn to compete in many ways: in school, work, sports, games, science, technology, business, politics, and even in the arts. Scientific theories and paradigms, philosophies and ideologies often compete with each other, and even in religions there may be competition, especially in the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and this may have political consequences as we can see it in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

In school and university we learn that competition occurs everywhere: between genes, between cells, between organisms, between and within species, in human society, and between nations.
We hear and read that competition is a law of nature, or, if not a law, at least widespread. If this is so, then it seems just natural that we compete. And some would go further and argue that therefore some of the extreme consequences of competition such as violence and war are also natural. But if competition is natural, what about cooperation?


If cooperation is at all recognized in science, it is much less emphasized than competition. For example, if you check the index of a biology textbook for cooperation and competition, you may find many entries to competition and very few or none to cooperation. If you check the biological literature, you come to the same conclusion: competition is thought to play a much more important role in nature than cooperation. However, some authors such as Nowak (2006, 2012a,b,c) have come to the opposite conclusion: “Cooperation, Not Competition, is the Key of Life” (Nowak 2012b). According to Nowak, evolution is constructive due to cooperation, and therefore he suggested adding “natural cooperation” as a third fundamental principle of evolution besides mutation and natural selection (Nowak 2006). Augros and Stanciu (1987: 129) wrote, “Nature is an alliance founded on cooperation” And therefore “Nature is not at war, one organism with another” (ibid.). Other authors recognize a balance between cooperation and competition. However, mainstream science still places much more emphasis on competition over cooperation.

Cooperation in Canada geese

In mainstream society we also find a strong emphasis on competition at the expense of cooperation. However, in the alternative culture (represented by the inner circle in the mandala of this book), cooperation tends to be more valued. Why is there such a de-emphasis of cooperation in mainstream society and science? To answer this question, we have to look at the historical roots of our thinking on competition, especially the role of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution.

The Darwinian Worldview

According to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, life is a struggle. In this struggle only those best adapted to the environment survive. Herbert Spencer called them the fittest; they are selected; the less fit die out. Thus, the process of natural selection, which leads to the survival of the fittest, propels evolution. This view, however, seems rather limited and one-sided. "Natural selection can preserve innovations, but it cannot create them" (Wagner 2015: 5).

In his
Origin of species by means of natural selection or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life (1859), Darwin wrote: “All organic beings are exposed to severe competition”. Therefore, although Darwin did not completely ignore cooperation, his emphasis was very much on competition. This emphasis is still widely accepted in modern mainstream biology and capitalist society. John D. Rockefeller wrote,“the growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest…It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God” (quoted by Silvertown 1984: 185).

As a consequence of competition, Darwin concluded “all nature is at war, one organism with another, or with external nature” (quoted by Augros and Stanciu 1987: 89). Social Darwinists such as Herbert Spencer and capitalists applied this view to human nature and society. However, they were not the first to hold such views. Some philosophers had entertained such ideas long before Darwin and the social Darwinists. For example, Hobbes (born April 5,1588) maintained that there is “war of everyone against everyone”. And then, in the name of science or natural history, Darwin elaborated a theory of evolution based on competition and struggle. And this theory, in the form of Neo-Darwinism, is still very much alive today in mainstream biology and society. And for many scientists, philosophers and laypersons this theory is an objective truth. But is it?

Is Science Value-Free and Objective?

Darwin grew up in Victorian England during the industrial revolution. In this society life was indeed a struggle, especially for the workers who suffered in the coal mines and elsewhere. It seems that Darwin projected this struggle into nature. And then, once nature was seen as full of struggle and competition, it was understandable that human society should also be like that since humankind is part of nature.Thus, Darwin’s theory provided a justification for competition in human society (see, for example, Sattler 1986: 202-203). This justification was especially strong since it was elevated to an objective truth in the name of science. But can science provide objective truth? I pointed out already in Chapter 5 that truth is unattainable in science because science is open-ended. What may appear to be true today may be contradicted by future observations and experiments. Hence, science cannot give us definitive answers (see also Science: its Power and Limitations).

Furthermore, we have to keep in mind that scientists are members of a society in which certain values are often taken for granted. Scientific theorizing may be influenced by these values (see, for example, Lewontin 1991). It has been pointed out that for this reason it seems unlikely that the Darwinian theory of evolution would have been conceived in French society. In fact, it remained unpopular in France for a long time.

Saying that scientific theories, including the Darwinian theory of evolution, are not objective truth does not mean that they are fictitious. They are based on observed phenomena and facts that reflect reality to some extent (Sattler 1986, Chapter 3). But the
phenomena and facts are selected from the whole of reality according to our conscious or, more often, subconscious preferences, biases, and a variety of social factors including values. Let me illustrate the selection with regard to competition and cooperation.

Selective Attention

In nature and society we find both competition and cooperation. However, instead of selecting examples of cooperation or both cooperation and competition, mainstream scientists select mainly examples of competition and then conclude that competition is all-important. This means that these scientists pay selective attention to competition. Why? Keddy (1989: 160-165) gave five reasons:
Culture, that is, our socio-economic environment reinforces thinking in terms of competition, which makes us select competitive phenomena.
2. The search for a certain type of excitement may render competitive phenomena more attractive, especially to people already conditioned by a competitive worldview.
3. Since biology has been male-dominated and since men tend to be more aggressive than women, more attention has been paid to competition.
If women had dominated biology, nurturing cooperative phenomena would have received more attention (Sheperd 1993).
4. A bias towards more competitive types of organisms exaggerated the general importance of competition.
Competition within the scientific community, which is strong, is projected into nature.

It has also been pointed out that many claims of competition in nature are questionable or ill founded. Hence, competition theory and the competitive worldview are not only based on biased selection of phenomena, but also on doubtful phenomena. Thus,
both selective attention to competition and distortion are at the roots of the competitive worldview and the Darwinian theory of evolution.

It seems obvious that
selective attention and distortion are not restricted to biology. We can find it almost anywhere. For example, in the media: in newspapers and the news we find so much selective attention on conflict, violence, war, accidents, catastrophes, and other negative events. We hear relatively little about harmony, love, reconciliation, deep insights of sages, and other positive events. It is difficult to tell how much distortion is involved. Negative events do occur, but positive events do also occur. The media could be much more balanced and such balance could transform society.

Cooperation between different species

The Danger of Competition

Although the importance of competition seems vastly exaggerated through selective attention and distortion, let it be clear that there are also factors in nature and society that increase competition. Two important factors in this regard are over-population and shortage of resources. Unfortunately, the human species suffers increasingly from over-population. We are, however, capable of reducing our explosive population growth. If we do not act quickly, competition, violence and war may increase to unprecedented extremes. This will not only entail immense human suffering but also harm to our planet.

Competition, then, is a potentially destructive force that should not be underestimated, especially in human society and the human species, which according to Capra and Luisi (2014: 247) “is the most belligerent and cruel of all species”. Besides a reduction in population growth, de-emphasis of the competitive mind-set and its associated behaviour as well as a greater emphasis of cooperation would be a safeguard against catastrophic dimensions of war and violence. It seems of utmost importance that politicians become more cooperative.

It does not seem easy to further cooperation among selfish people. However, game-theorists and sociobiologists have documented that even selfish individuals can cooperate when it benefits them. Although this selfish cooperation can reduce conflict, violence and war, it cannot lead to profound insight, harmony and happiness. The selfish altruist must be constantly on guard against his opponents who he presumes will attack him when it is to their advantage. Thus, the selfish altruist lives in fear in an alienated world. This world, like clockwork, is perceived as fragmented into entities or components that potentially may compete or cooperate (see also Davis (2009) on Altruism: Its Origin, Its Evolution, Its Discontents).

In contrast to this disenchanted mechanistic worldview, the organicist holistic worldview recognizes wholeness and oneness: entities do not exist in an ultimate sense, but are at least to some extent the result of abstraction and discursive thought that breaks up the whole into more or less artificial parts. “Basically, everything is one” (Barbara McClintock, quoted by Keller 1983: 204). Recognition of this oneness leads to a reenchantment of science (Griffin 1988) and the world (Berman 1988).

Since the scientific approach uses language (including mathematics), science cannot reach absolute oneness as it is experienced in mystical union with the universe. It cannot reach the centre of the mandala of this book, which is also beyond both competition and cooperation. However, holistic science may recover at least some aspects of relative wholeness. Thus, according to the individualistic species concept, members of any one species such as the human species are seen as parts of one individual (see, for example, Sattler 1986: 88-89). And according to Gaia theory and other holistic views of the earth or biosphere, all organisms and the so-called abiotic (non-living) environment are parts of one integrated living system (see, for example, Sahtouris 1969, Harman and Sahtouris 1998). Such views make it clear that when we hurt or destroy others or the environment, we also hurt ourselves just as a cancerous tumor that destroys its living environment eventually destroys itself.

To conclude: human society in many parts of the world suffers from an overemphasis of competition and insufficient cooperation. This imbalance is reinforced by Darwinian biology and capitalism that exaggerate competition in nature and human society and thus obstruct to a great extent the expression of our potential for cooperation. Recognition of the evidence of much cooperation in nature will lead to a more balanced view. Education that brings out positive interactions instead of suppressing them in the name of Darwinian science will contribute to the evolution of a society of more cooperation and non-violence. However, Darwinism still seems all-pervasive, at least in mainstream biology and it supports capitalism whose obsession with growth represents "the ideology of the cancer cell" (Mintzberg 2015). With regard to excessive competition the economist Henry Mintzberg called for a radical rebalancing and renewal of society beyond left, right, and centre.

A Joke

Osho (1999, p. 98) told the following joke:

Bernie has been out of town and is surprised when he gets back to find his wife, Stella, in bed with a strange man. The stranger, naked and obviously well satisfied, is sprawled on the bed.
“Why you son-of-a-bitch! Bernie explodes.
“Wait, darling,” cries Stella. “You know that fur coat I got last winter? This man gave it to me. Remember the diamond necklace you like so much? This man gave it to me. And remember when you could not afford a second car and I got a Toyota? This man gave it to me.”
“For God’s sake,” shouts Bernie, “it’s drafty in here! Cover him so he doesn’t catch cold!”

Aggressive Capitalist Science

One reason why Darwinian biology is still so influential is because capitalism and Darwinian biology reinforce each other: they share basic values such as competition and an aggressive stance. These and other values have shaped modern science to a great extent so that many aspects of mainstream science may be characterized as aggressive capitalist science. Think, for example, of domineering companies involved in research on genetic engineering and marketing of their products. They are interested in maximizing their profit in an aggressive way, although they claim that they want to serve the world. The same applies to large segments of the pharmaceutical industry. Laboratory animals are cruelly used and misused for research that bolsters their profits, although they claim that this research serves the betterment of human health (but see Chapter 5). Even pure research that does not seem to be motivated by profit often subjects animals to containment and painful experiments. But why should animals have to suffer?

The Feminine Face of Science

The feminine face of science” is the subtitle of a book by Shepherd (1993) that unfortunately did not become a bestseller in our society in which capitalist aggressive science still prevails. In this book Shepherd shows that we can also have a science that is based on values such as cooperation, nurturing, love, and a feeling of relatedness. If we try to understand our environment and ourselves in these terms, then we don’t have to torture animals in order to gain knowledge.

It seems significant that Shepherd writes about the feminine
face of science. Recognizing the feminine face does not rule out the masculine face. We need a balance of the feminine and masculine faces of science. How does this work in practice? A good example is Jane Goodall’s (2000) research the life of chimpanzees.

Jane Goodall watching chimpanzees
Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees

Sometimes capitalist aggressive science is equated with male science. I consider this incorrect. I see it as pathology of male science in which penetrating analysis becomes aggressive and violent. If the rational and conceptual analysis of male science is combined with the nurturing and loving approach of feminine science, then we obtain a more healthy science. In our society such a healthy science has not yet become the rule because the alliance of capitalism and Darwinian thinking works against it. Thus, for example, it seems relatively rare that scientists study social behaviour as Jane Goodall (2000) did. She respected and loved the chimpanzees she studied, and she cooperated with them. In this way she gained insight into their life and behaviour. In contrast, the majority of scientists who engage in such investigations work within the Darwinian worldview as the next section illustrates.


Sociobiology, “the new synthesis”, as articulated by Wilson (1975) and his followers explains animal and human social behaviour in terms of Darwinian evolutionary theory. This means that
those types of behaviour are selected that increase the individual’s chances of reproducing, that is, passing on his or her genes. The individual who leaves the greatest number of offspring, thus being considered the fittest, has a competitive advantage over rivals that reproduce less or not at all and therefore cannot transmit their genes (I would be a total failure according to this view because I don’t have biological children).

Some of the crude consequences of this competitive view for human social behaviour have been captured in a humorous and depressing way in “The Gospel according to Sociobiology” (Boucher 1981). Here are a few extracts (the full text was reproduced by Sattler 1986: 203-205):
“I am the Lord, thy Gene…Thou shalt have no other Gods before me…For I…am a jealous god, visiting the maladaptiveness…of those that do not look out for their Fitness…Thou shalt commit adultery whenever possible, that thine Offspring be multiplied, but the cost of Parental Care be born by others…Likewise shalt thou bear false witness, and Cheat, and fail to reciprocate Altruism, but with a guise of Sincerity, that others might not know thy Cheating”.

Alternative Evolutionary Theories

Although not well known, there ar alternatives to Darwinian evolutionary theory. These alternatives, all of which acknowledge that evolution occurred, deemphasize more or less the importance of competition and show that evolution can be explained in a more harmonious way. As I mentioned already, Nowak (2006, 2012a,b,c) suggested that in addition to natural selection that emphasizes competition we should also recognize “natural cooperation.” Other authors have emphasized that selection pressure that may lead to competition may be reduced or absent in certain situations. Van Steenis (1981) proposed the concept of “patio ludens,” which refers to an evolutionary playground that is not dominated by competition. In this playground major novelties may appear due to self-organization (the spontaneous emergence of novelty), a concept much emphasized by authors such as Goodwin (2001) and Kauffman (1993). Even Lamarckian evolution can no longer be completely excluded (see, for example, Koonin and Wolf 2009). Acknowledging all of these and other facets of the process of evolution will lead to a more balanced view than the Darwinian view that overemphasizes competition at the expense of cooperation.

As I pointed out in the
Introduction, according to traditional Chinese medicine, health is understood as balance. Thus, to be healthy we need balance, which includes a balance between competition and cooperation. If, in our society, we would have no competition at all, it would become stagnant, too Yin. If, on the other hand, we have too much competition, as it is the case, then it becomes too Yang, that is, too aggressive, violent, and a breeding ground for conflict and war. Too much competition also creates too much stress, a well-known symptom in our society.


I do not have to belabour how widespread stress and over-stress are. Most of us suffer from it to various degrees and in various forms: physical, emotional and mental stress. Since body, mind and soul are not separate entities, but different aspects of the same person, physical stress may lead to emotional and mental stress, and mental or emotional stress may have negative physical consequences. If stress is not relieved, sooner or later it may lead to disease. We know that many diseases are more or less stress related. For this reason, relaxation is of utmost importance for a healthy life.

Relaxation and Meditation

Relaxation and meditation are beyond both competition and cooperation. They lead to the empty centre of the mandala of this book, the unnamable. There are many ways to relax and many useful tapes and CDs are available. The following is just one method:
Lie down on a comfortable support either in a quiet room or in Nature. If necessary, place a cushion under your knees. Close your eyes. Take several deep breaths and let go of all the physical, emotional and mental tension while breathing out. Then tense one part of your body, let’s say your feet, hold the tension for a few seconds and then let go completely while breathing out. Repeat this a few times and then do the same for all your other body parts: legs, buttocks, belly, chest, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, face. Finally, tense your whole body and let go while breathing out. Repeat this several times. If you don’t have enough time or energy, you may only do this whole body tension and relaxation.

If you still feel any tension at this point, breathe into it, and as you breathe out, let the tension melt away. As you continue breathing, dissolve into the breathing. Be the breathing. If thoughts arise, watch them in a detached way and gently return to the breathing. Surrender to what is. Be it.

Relaxation can be or lead into meditation. However, it can also lead into sleep, which is not mediation, but nonetheless divine.

As an alternative to the above method, you can also relax in a meditative way in other positions at any place in the following way (Osho 1992: 78):
Exhale deeply and with the air throw out all the tension. Don’t inhale immediately, but pull in the belly for a few seconds. Then allow the body to inhale as deeply as you can. Again stop for a few seconds. Then again exhale deeply throwing out all tensions with the air. Continue breathing this way: out, holding, in, holding, out, etc. This will relax you, and change your mood. If you go totally into it, it can become a meditation. You can practice this while waiting for a bus or the traffic light to turn green, or in many other situations during the day.


Although we have the potential to compete and cooperate, in our society competition often appears to dominate: in school, work, sports, games, science, technology, business, politics, and even in the arts. We find competition between scientific theories and paradigms, between philosophies, ideologies and to some extent even between religions. Two factors that mutually reinforce each other foster this excessive competition to a great extent: capitalism and Darwinian evolutionary theory in its modern neo-Darwinian forms. By fostering excessive competition they obstruct to a great extent the expression of our potential for cooperation that can lead to a more harmonious and peaceful life and society.

Darwinism has been invoked to justify capitalism. Thus, “the growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest…It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God” (John D. Rockefeller). The problem is that Darwinism and science in general are not value-free. Darwinism originated in Victorian England during the industrial revolution. In that society life was indeed a struggle, especially for the workers who suffered in the coal mines and elsewhere. It seems that Darwin projected this struggle into nature. And then, once nature was seen as full of struggle and competition, it was understandable that human society should also be like that since humankind is part of nature. In this way Darwin’s theory provided a justification for competition in human society. It supported capitalism and continues supporting it up to the present time. Some forms of altruism such as reciprocal altruism are recognized in Neo-Darwinism and Sociobiology (that is based on Neo-Darwinism), but they serve to outcompete others and appear selfish. It seems like selfishness in an altruistic disguise.

Alternative evolutionary theories that complement or extend the Darwinian view facilitate the detection of cooperation in nature. For example, Nowak found that in addition to natural selection we should recognize natural cooperation. Self-organization does not require competition. A more feminine way of doing science, which can be practiced by both men and women, can also open our eyes to perceive cooperation in nature. Neo-Darwinians tend to pay selective attention to competition and then present a distorted picture of nature that exaggerates the importance of competition and undervalues cooperation. As this distortion is projected into human society it may have grave consequences: it may undermine a more harmonious coexistence and maybe even threaten our survival. At least it creates more stress that undermines our health. As an antidote to this widespread malaise, the importance of relaxation and meditation is becoming increasingly recognized.


Augros, R. and G. Stanciu. 1987.
The New Biology. Boston & London: The new Science Library, Shambhala.

Berman, M. 1984.
The Reenchantment of the World. Toronto/New York: Bantam Books.

Boucher, D.H. 1981. The gospel according to sociobiology.
Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 25: 63-65.

Davis, S. 2009. Altruism: its origin, its evolution, its discontent.

Goodall, J. 2000. 40 Years at Gombe. New York: Stewart, Tabori, and Chang.

Goodwin, B. C. 2001.
How the Leopard Changed its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Griffin, D. R. (editor) 1988.
The Reenchantment of Science. Postmodern Proposals. Albany, NY: The State University of New York Press.

Harman, W. W. and E. Sahtouris. 1998.
Biology Revisioned. Berkeley, CA: North
Atlantic Books.

Kauffman, S. A. 1993.
The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. Oxford/New York: University of Oxford Press.

Keddy, P.A. 1989.
Competition. London/NewYork: Chapman & Hall.

Keller, E. F. 1983.
A Feeling for the Organism: the Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. San Francisco: Freeman.

Koonin, E. V. and Y. I. Wolf. 2009. Is evolution Darwinian or/and Lamarckian?
Biology Direct 4: 42

Lewontin, R.C. 1991.
Biology as Ideology. The Doctrine of DNA. Concord, Ontario: Anansi Press.

Mintzberg, H. 2015.
Rebalancing Society: Radical Renewal beyond Left, Right, and Centre. Berrett-Koehler.

Nowak, M. A. 2006. Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation. Science 314 (5805): 1560–1563.

Nowak, M. A. and R. HIghfield. 2012a.
SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. New York: Free Press.

Nowak, M. A. and R. HIghfield. 2012b
. Super Cooperators: Beyond the Survival of the Fittest: why Cooperation, Not Competition, is the Key to Life. Reprint by Canongate.

Nowak, M.A. 2012c. Why we help.
Scientific American 307 (1): 34-39.

Osho. 1999.
Take It Really Seriously. A Revolutionary Insight into Jokes. London: Grace Publishing.

Sahtouris, E. 1989.
Gaia. The Human Journey from Chaos to Cosmos. New York: Pocket Books.

Sattler, R. 1986.
Biophilosophy. Analytic and Holistic Perspectives. New York: Springer.

Shepherd, L. J. 1993.
Lifting the Veil. The Feminine Face of Science. Boston: Shambhala.

Silvertown, J. 1984. Ecology, interspecific competition and the struggle for existence. In: Birke, L. and J. Silvertown (eds)
More than the Parts. Biology and Politics. London: Pluto, pp. 177-195.

Van Steenis, C. G. G. J. 1981.
Rheophytes of the World. Alphen aan den Rijn: Sijthoff and Noordhoff.

Wagner, A. 2915.
Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution's Greatest Puzzle. New York: Current (first published in 2014 by Penguin Random House).

Wilson, E. O. 1975. Sociobiology: the New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


"The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation" (Bertrand Russell).

"The keystone of successful business is cooperation. Friction retards progress" (James Cash Penney).

“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

“We all do better when we work together. Our differences do matter, but our common humanity matters more” (Bill Clinton).

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner" (Nelson Mandela).

“To stop war, teach peace, love, cooperation, and most of all—forgiveness” (Debasish Mridha).

“Our future lies not in competition, but in responsible, interdependent cooperation” (Joseph Rain).

Preface (including the Table of Contents) and Introduction of this book.

Next Chapter:
Chapter 7: Dynamics and Statics/Dynamics

Preceding Chapter:
Chapter 5: Organic and Mechanical (Organicism and Mechanism)