Thursday, July 4, 2024

Social beings (2024)

Book Review from the July 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Selfish Genes to Social Beings. A Cooperative History of Life. By Jonathan Silvertown. Oxford University Press, 2024, 236pp.

This is a remarkable book. It attempts to cover in a couple of hundred pages the whole 4 billion year history of life on earth – so obviously not just human life. Its author, a specialist in evolutionary ecology, does his best while not shirking necessary biological technicalities, to make it comprehensible to the everyday reader, to the non-specialist. Molecules, bacteria, cells, fungi and genes and their place in and contributions to the development and ongoing-ness of life are all investigated and explained both in their simplicity and their complexity. And it wears its expert knowledge lightly, interspersing it with jokes and other flashes of humour, largely via analogies from everyday human behaviour (eg, ‘insects are airliners for microbes, which travel in the gut, and just like an airliner, parts of the vessel are more hospitable to passengers than others’, or ‘Darwin forbid that I should suggest that nature is a con artist, but who can deny that she has a wicked sense of humour?’).

The book’s main point, the conclusion drawn from its painstaking and expert scientific analysis, is expressed in its sub-title (‘A Cooperative History of Life’) ie, the idea that life, all life, is and has only ever been possible through cooperation and teamwork between its various elements, and this also applies to human society and development. The author lays in its grave, if it was not there already, ‘the stereotype of nature red in tooth and claw’. In other words, he shows incontrovertibly that evolution is explained not by competition but by cooperation which, observed and analysed here, is ubiquitous in nature, not just in microbes and plants and animals but in humans too.

So, while largely about pre-human and non-human life, this study has important things to say about human life. It illustrates how central a role cooperation plays – and has always played – in human interaction and how this applies even in the most dire and challenging circumstances, for example wars and disasters. Underlying this is the fact that, most of the time, cooperation rather than selfishness or competition confers mutual benefit. Not of course that human beings are not capable of selfishness, going it alone or ruthless competition, and indeed it is that kind of behaviour – violence, brutality and the like – that tends to make the news. But the point made here is that cooperative behaviour is far more fundamental and deeply woven into our lives – and into all life – no matter how circumstances and the socio-economic system may militate against it. As the author puts it, ‘cooperation survives in spite of conflict’.

He is not of course alone in making arguments of this kind and is quick to acknowledge the slew of thinkers and writers who, over the last 20-30 years, have contributed to laying to rest the widely held secular version of original sin, ie, the notion of human beings as essentially wicked and Machiavellian and needing to be kept in check by a higher authority. As he puts it, ‘writers on this subject outbid each other in trying to describe just how cooperative we are, and there is little doubt that superlatives are justified’. Among the ’superlatives’ he quotes are ‘super-co-operators’ and ‘ultra-social species’, providing references to the works in which these appear in his notes and list of ‘further reading’. To emphasise this, he makes the point that ‘we are daily considerate towards people whom we have never seen before and may never see again’ and, if we are particularly annoyed when someone is inconsiderate, that is because ‘a norm has been broken’; thus ‘anti-social behaviour provides the exception that proves the existence of a pro-social rule.’ The other element he points to in typical human interaction is ‘having a good reputation’, seen as ‘important to attracting co-operators and acquiring the benefits, which is why we are so intensely interested in what others think of us’.

Despite his intense focus on cooperation and the natural human tendency to what he calls ‘community of interest’, the author is careful not to take up any explicit political position. It is, however, difficult not to sense that, if it were put to him, he would look favourably upon the idea of a system of voluntary cooperation in production and distribution and a wageless, moneyless society organised on the basis of from each according to ability to each according to need. After all, he does (somewhat improbably in the context) devote a short chapter of this book (‘A river of glowing light’) to the Russian anarchist and naturalist Peter Kropotkin and to his view that ‘justice for the masses could only come by abolishing the state altogether and replacing it by spontaneously organised cooperation’.
Howard Moss

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