Patrick Bateson at Kings Review: “I wrote this piece nearly 30 years ago and delivered it as a secular address in King’s College Chapel.  I unearthed it and brought it up to date because the issues are as relevant today as they were then.

I am disturbed by the way we have created a social environment in which so much emphasis is laid on competition – on forging ahead while trampling on others. The ideal of social cooperation has come to be treated as high-sounding flabbiness, while individual selfishness is regarded as the natural and sole basis for a realistic approach to life. The image of the struggle for existence lies at the back of it, seriously distorting the view we have of ourselves and wrecking mutual trust.
The fashionable philosophy of individualism draws its respectability in part from an appeal to biology and specifically to the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection. Now, Darwin’s theory remains the most powerful explanation for the way that each plant and animal evolved so that it is exquisitely adapted to its environment. The theory works just as well for behaviour as it does for anatomy. Individual animals differ in the way they behave. Those that behave in a manner that is better suited to the conditions in which they live are more likely to survive. Finally, if their descendants resemble them in terms of behaviour, then in the course of evolution, the better adapted forms of behaviour will replace those that are not so effective in keeping the individual alive.
It is the Darwinian concept of differential survival that has been picked up and used so insistently in political rhetoric. Biology is thought to be all about competition – and that supposedly means constant struggle.  This emphasis has had an insidious effect on the public mind and has encouraged the belief in individual selfishness and in confrontation.  Competition is now widely seen as the mainspring of human activity, at least in Western countries. Excellence in the universities and in the arts is thought to be driven by the same ruthless process that supposedly works so well on the sportsfield or the market place, and they all have a lot in common with what supposedly happens in the jungle. The image of selfish genes, competing with each other in the course of evolution has fused imperceptibly with the notion of selfish individuals competing with each other in the course of their life-times. Individuals only thrive by winning. The argument has become so much a part of conventional belief that it is hard at first to see what is wrong with it.
To put it bluntly, thought has been led seriously astray by the rhetoric.  Beginning where the argument starts in biology, genes do not operate in a vacuum. The survival of each gene obviously depends on the characteristics of the whole gene “team” that makes up the total genetic complement of an individual. A similar point can be made above the level of the individual when symbiosis occurs between different species.
Take, for instance, lichens which are found from the Arctic to the tropics – and on virtually every surface from rocks and old roofs to tree trunks. They look like single organisms. However, they represent the fusing of algae and fungi working together in symbiotic partnership. The partners depend utterly on each other and the characteristics of the whole entity provide the adaptations to the environment.
Similarly, cooperation among social animals belies the myth of constant struggle. Many birds and mammals huddle to conserve warmth or reduce the surface exposed to biting insects. Males in a pride of lions help each other to defend the females from other males. Mutual assistance is frequently offered in hunting; for instance, cooperating members of a wolf pack will often split into those that drive the deer and those that lie in ambush. Each wolf gets more to eat as a result. In highly complex animals aid may be reciprocated on a subsequent occasion. So, if one male baboon helps another to fend off competition for a female today, the favour will be returned at a later date. What is obvious about such cases is that each of the participating individuals benefits by working together with the others. Moreover, some things can be done by a group that cannot be done by the individual. It takes two to put up a tent.
The joint action of cooperating individuals can also be a well-adapted character in its own right. The pattern generated by cooperative behaviour could distinguish one social group from another and could make the difference between group survival and communal death.  Clearly, a cheat could sometimes obtain the benefits of the others’ cooperation without joining in itself. However, such actions would not be retained if individuals were unable to survive outside their own social group and the groups containing cheats were less likely to survive than those without. This logic does have some bearing on the way we think about ourselves.
At the turn of the 20th century an exiled Russian aristocrat and anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, wrote a classic book called Mutual Aid. He complained that, in the widespread acceptance of Darwin’s ideas, heavy emphasis had been laid on the cleansing role of social conflict and far too little attention given to the remarkable examples of cooperation. Even now, biological knowledge of symbiosis, reciprocity and mutualism has not yet percolated extensively into public discussions of human social behaviour.
As things stand, the appeal to biology is not to the coherent body of scientific thought that does exist but to a confused myth. It is a travesty of Darwinism to suggest that all that matters in social life is conflict. One individual may be more likely to survive because it is better suited to making its way about its environment and not because it is fiercer than others. Individuals may survive better when they join forces with others.  By their joint actions they can frequently do things that one individual cannot do. Consequently, those that team up are more likely to survive than those that do not. Above all, social cohesion may become a critical condition for the survival of the society.
A straightforward message is, then, that each of us may live happier and, in the main, more successful lives, if we treat our fellow human beings as individuals with whom we can readily work. This is a rational rather than a moral argument. It should appeal to all those pragmatists who want to look after themselves.  Cooperation is good business practice. However, another matter impinges on rampant individualism, which cannot be treated in a way that so readily generates agreement….”