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The New Science of Cooperation: England’s Cooperative Empire
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David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

February 25, 2012

I just returned from a memorable visit to the UK at the invitation of The Co-operative Group, a giant organization of cooperative enterprises that is a part of everyday life over there but less well known on this side of the pond. It arose from humble beginnings in the city of Manchester, which remains the headquarters, but now the first store that opened in 1844 has been replaced by skyscrapers and a new ultra-green head office that looks a bit like Noah’s Ark.

I was invited by Paul Monaghan, head of the Social Goals department, to speak at a forum titled “The Co-operative Opportunity: How to Reboot a Sustainable Economy”, which was organized to commemorate the United Nation’s International Year of Co-Operatives. You didn’t know that this is the year? Neither did I. There would be an invited-only audience of 600, I would be one of five speakers, and we would each have ten minutes. Other than a short Q&A, the rest of the evening would be spent networking over fair trade drinks and canapés in a giant room at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre displaying the triumphs of the Co-operative Group’s empire.

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Along with Len Wardle, Chair of the Co-operative Group, the other speakers included Jonathan Porritt, founder and director of Forum for the Future, Barbara Stocking, Chief Executive at Oxfam, and Noreena Hertz, an economist from Cambridge University and well-known critic of what she calls “Gucci Capitalism”.

I was doubly nervous. In the first place, as someone who studies cooperation and applies it to the real world, I should have known more about the sprawling world of cooperatives than I did. In the second place, what could I tell this vast audience of experienced practitioners that might be new to them in only ten minutes?

Paul told me not to worry. I learned that he is a microbiologist by training who studied symbiotic associations of bacteria before switching to symbiotic associations of people. He was thoroughly familiar with the controversy over group selection, selfish genes, and all that, and wanted me to explain how group selection and co-operation are “very real evolutionary drivers”, as he put it on the program notes. He predicted that I would be swarmed by the press and even placed me last in the speaking order, as if I was supposed to hit some kind of home run.

I don’t know about a home run, but Paul was right about the press. During the next few days I was interviewed on BBC Today, BBC World Report, the Guardian, and numerous other outlets. Even more important, I had lengthy meetings to explore how the Evolution Institute can collaborate with the Co-Operative Group over the long term.

It’s easy to dismiss ten-minute speeches and the resulting press as so much froth on a mug of beer, but I have decided on the basis of my visit that three things qualify as genuinely new and therefore newsworthy.

The first is a matter of public discourse. There is a huge gap between disciplined thinking in fields such as evolution or economics and the way it ends up being discussed in the public sphere. For the general public, slogans such as “selfish gene”, “nature red in tooth and claw”, “dog eat dog”, “Social Darwinism”, “greed is good”, “the invisible hand”, and Margaret Thatcher’s infamous quip “There is no such thing as society” all combine to convey the idea that the unregulated pursuit of individual self-interest is either a law of nature, whether we like it or not, or actually good for society over the long term. Never mind that the connection between public discourse and disciplined thinking is loose, that the economic and evolutionary metaphors freely intermingle, and so on. It is at the level of public discourse that the perception of most people gets organized, elections are won, and laws are passed. The public narrative of unregulated self-interest is so dominant and oppressive that proponents of cooperation are made to appear like “freaks”, as Paul put it during one of our meetings, with the audience nodding in agreement. That’s also what Noreen meant with her phrase “Gucci Capitalism”, as opposed to more cooperative forms of capitalism. Against this background, providing an alternative narrative centered on cooperation and supported by the authority of science is BIG news.

The second is a matter of basic science. The cognoscenti know that selfish genes can result in cooperative individuals, that neoclassical economic theory is not as dumb as market fundamentalism, and so on, but foundational changes ARE taking place in both evolution and economics, which need to be communicated to the general public. The fact that we are an ultrasocial species, comparable to the eusocial insects and eukaryotic cells in our degree of cooperation, and that ultrasociality evolves by higher-level selection, is big news by anyone’s standard—even if you describe it in selfish gene jargon as group-level vehicles of selection. Even the highbrow version of the dominant economic paradigm massively fails the consilience test. It isn’t consistent with what we know about our species and the evolution of cooperation in all species. According to the most recent edition of the Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, “Laissez faire leads to the common good” is “The First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics”. It’s also naïve group selectionism in evolutionary terms. Something’s got to give and it won’t be evolution. Visit the ECONOMICS section of This View of Life to learn more about the foundational changes that are taking place in the field of economics to make it more consilient with evolution.

The third is a matter of applied science. Evolutionary science can provide a powerful toolkit for improving, not just understanding, the human condition. That is the mission of the Evolution Institute and we’ve been remarkably successful during the short five years of our existence. Is there anything that “the new science of cooperation” can contribute that hasn’t already been learned by the Co-operative Group during its 168-year existence? I look forward to finding out, as I explore the possibility of roll-up-your-sleeves projects with Paul and his cooperative empire.

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