Magisterial New Study on Sociality and Evolution Points to a Link Between Cooperation and Survival

We often forget that one of the most well known exponents of classical anarchism, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, founded that intellectual discipline we now call “sociobiology.”

This fact is of significance for in his Mutual Aid Kropotkin, an anarchist-communist, sought to refute the prevailing social Darwinist views of his day, due to such luminaries as Galton, Spencer and so on. Similar views have enjoyed a revival, especially since the publication of The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

So influential has this revival been that the very concept “sociobiology” is singularly applied to these neo social Darwinian views, in total ignorance of the work of Kropotkin. Indeed, so extreme where these identifications in the 90’s and 00’s that they were made synonymous with science itself. However, the cooperative aspect to sociality and evolution is enjoying a comeback, at least within academic biology if not among popular representations.

The University of Cambridge reports on a most fascinating, and magisterial study, of evolution and society among mammals due to Tim Clutton-Brock.

It is well worth reflecting upon.

All animals live in a form of society, and the structures of these societies have been as important for the course of evolution as their physical environment because they steer the drive to reproduce, says Professor Tim Clutton-Brock, author of the first major synthesis of mammalian social behaviour.

While Darwin initially recognised the importance of social behaviour in his 1871 masterpiece The Descent of Man, biologists focused on anatomy rather than behaviour for many decades. In his new book Mammal Societies Clutton-Brock argues that the “true century of Darwin was delayed for nearly 100 years” as a consequence

How is that social structures influence evolution?

This shifted how scientists viewed wild animals: as individuals with personality traits that hold positions – some fluid, some stable – in often complex hierarchies. These societies influence who gets to breed, who gets to survive, and consequently how animals evolve.

“Darwin’s message was that selection works through differences in breeding success between individuals, not between species or populations, and the success of individuals is determined by their position in the societies they live in,” says Clutton-Brock, one of the world’s leading behavioural ecologists from Cambridge’s Zoology Department

There are important observations made here about humans;

The final chapters focus on human social progress, from our hominin ancestors’ journey through the polygynous breeding societies still seen in the great apes, to the unique cooperation with strangers and kin alike that defines us as a species.

If you want to put human society and evolution in perspective, says Clutton-Brock, it is the other mammals which provide it, and generalisations drawn from across mammalian social behaviour feed into our understanding of humanity

Notice the emphasis upon cooperation. This is important for the synopsis of Clutton-Brock’s work ends rather ominously;

The book closes with a warning to our species: that controlling population growth and preventing environmental destruction requires cooperation on a global scale – a feat no animal has managed. “This would be a novel development in mammals, and it remains to be seen whether humans are able to meet this challenge”

We could add here also the matter of nuclear weapons and warfare, which also mandates cooperation on a global scale. Can we develop a global social order founded upon a cooperative basis?

What is interesting here is that, plainly, reason informs us of the challenge but cannot tell us, at least not yet or with the urgency required, whether humans are a species capable of rising to this challenge. The work of Clutton-Brock necessarily focuses on social behaviour, given the focus of mammals, rather than social cognition.

Humans are a creative species capable of transforming social relations unlike any other, but that capability is not infinite; the possible range of human societies has its scope and limits just as with any other aspect of cognition. Reason can provide an outline of what features such a society would have, but it cannot tell us whether it fits within the range of possible human societies.

No amount of social ethology can give us an answer to that question.

Does our innate, biologically derived, sociality enable us to form a global cooperative society that reason tells us we must, and which reason is even able to outline? This I like to call Russell’s problem in honour of Bertrand Russell who pondered questions similar to this.

The answer to this question is in the doing; that is, as activists we are empirically groping toward an answer to this question. Those struggling to create a better world are conducting a type of epistemology through praxis or experiment.

If we adhere to some social Darwinian outlook and structure our actions and inactions with reference to such notions, then the prospects for humanity are grim indeed.

I should say that even the challenge is largely hidden from reason; there exists a good body information that informs us of the challenges we face but society at large is prevented from coming to know of the challenges, their underlying causes within the social categories of hierarchy and competition, and of the possible solutions.

There lies a silver lining.