Cooperation & Diversity
The current COVID-19 pandemic is testing human societies in more than one way — our mental stability, our creativeness, our ability to change quickly and follow rules. One of the many areas challenged is human ability to trust and cooperate. The numerous difficulties in fighting the new coronavirus reveal both the crucial importance of cooperation, and its fragility. Regardless of whether this crisis is the Pandemic because of which virologists cannot sleep at night, it is a sufficient challenge to prompt us to examine our values and determine our course for the future. If humanity is to continue its path of progress and expansion, if we are to continue to improve our quality of life, we should focus more on understanding and fostering cooperation.
Looking back at history, we see a path of increasing settlement size, and corresponding increase in human cooperation. From the bands of humans who hunted and gathered together berries, to mega-cities offering a home to millions, the trend is clear. A person in the distant past defined themselves as part of their immediate family or clan. With the progress of time, the in-group grows to include the village, town, county and state. The last decades of the XXth century are marked with a clear trend for increased globalization and easy travel between countries and continents. The new XXIst century has witnessed one more step — more and more people thinking and acting as citizens of the world, not only as a style of living and traveling, but also as a concern for the problems we face as humanity, not as a collection of states.
Yet, human development is never a straight line, and so this trend too is sometimes broken. Empires which increase human cooperation and cohesion have been conquered by much less organized tribes resulting in centuries of diminished organization. So far, each time this setback was temporary and humanity was able to come to a new level of unity. UK’s decision to exit the European Union and America’s decreased connectedness to global organizations under Mr. Trump’s leadership could be seen as modern examples of dissolving organizations. They are too recent to be able to see them in their entirety, but still, they do not negate the trend of increased cooperation.
Looking at society from an anthropological point of view, the trend of growing unification is also visible. The citizens of different cultures contribute to a common and more diverse way of life with their typical meals, clothes, or tools. The representatives of distinct traditions bring together not only their tangible artefacts, but also their ideas. As a result we all share a more diverse way of life, and enjoy art, books, or movies that capture more of life’s nuances. In this way our cosmopolitan cities bring together bits of America, India, Brazil, Italy, Russia, Japan, Turkey, Morocco, Kenya and many others. Eventually, we experience life not just in the familiar terms of being happy, sad, or married, but also as people who feel schadenfreude, strive for kaizen and ikigai, admire the way yin and yang are woven in every aspect of life, enjoy our fika with banitsa, gift each other martenitsi for good health, and many more.
At the level of the individual human cooperation is felt just as strongly, even if differently from the more general political and social level. As autonomous people we have increasing opportunities to meet representatives of other cultures. In our encounters we learn to recognize our common values despite the apparently different traditions and worldviews. We learn to work together and achieve grander and increasingly more complex goals, such as ways to feed the whole community, to build houses, parliaments, libraries, have schools, medicine, and space travel. “United we stand…” is such a powerful motto and important message that it has become the basis of folk tales, it is mentioned in the Bible and is often used as a motto in times of crisis.
Cooperation and closeness in groups is important for the individual in another, more personal way. As neuroscientific evidence suggests, people who are in close relationships, such as co-workers, good friends, partners, or parents and children, help regulate each other’s physiology and nervous systems. We’ve all heard of babies calming when hugged by their mother, or distressed partners finding support and strength in the presence of their loved ones. This synchronicity is not only at the level of emotions and arousal, but also at the level of heart beat, sleep and eating patterns. Being so close to one another not only helps us regulate our energy balances and physiology in the moment. It actually creates a more permanent trace in our brains by changing the way they function in the long term. It seems that each of us is the author of our own experiences, but in partnership with those around us.
While it is true that our society tends to move towards greater unity, and hence cooperation, the opposite trend of increased diversity is also visible. Living together and cooperating with others emphasizes the ways people are similar — our shared beliefs, values and goals. However, as we are similar, we are also slightly unlike each other. In many cases these differences are small, or transient, or about minor issues. However, every once in a while there are members of the group who are greatly different from the rest. In times when human societies were smaller and not so well connected, these people were outsiders. They fitted in various stereotypical roles — the village idiot, the strange old lady, the restless wanderer, etc. Until one day, all these outsiders had a way to connect to others like them via the world wide web. Seeing more people like you, discovering that you are no longer a lone black sheep is a very powerful lift of mood and motivation. The previous outcasts find themselves a group to belong to and that allows their different worldviews to be strengthened. In this way what was earlier a minority way of thinking and living gains prominence and can sometimes even seem the norm.
Our everyday lives are full of examples of people who live together, but seem to only share the real world each immersed in their own reality. There are examples on the level of politics, such as seeing the USA divided in its interpretation of the results of the last presidential elections. There are examples in the way we interpret our history — some see it as a road to greater peace and stability, some fear we live in a very dangerous place and should be always ready to protect ourselves. This plurality of truths can be seen in our interpretation of the processes happening to our planet — some affirming global warming and people as its cause vs. those agreeing there may be global warming, but it is certainly not caused by people. “Vaccines are a triumph of human understanding of biology and disease mechanisms”, vs. “Vaccines are a tool for manipulation and population control that should be avoided at all costs.”
I could go on for a very long time describing the disparate and sometimes contradictory ways humans are able to make sense of their reality and experiences. Everyone is convinced their own truth is the ultimate one, yet their truth is idiosyncratic. We have lived long enough in a world of increased cohesion and cooperation, which has created a strong basis for cooperation and interconnectedness. This basis allows us to live in our bubbles and not enter into significant conflict with others. If we do, we can either learn from the encounter and expand our bubble, or we can go our separate ways and decide not to interact with one another. After all, in a time of peace and respect for diversity we are free to think and act as we please, as long we do not harm the other.
However, times of peace and tranquility can be interrupted by great challenges, and we are lucky to have encountered one with the novel coronavirus causing a global pandemic. We seem to react to it in a predictable multitude of ways — denial, panic, calculated coolness, scientific excitement, fear, seeking conspiracies. If there was no crisis, we could enjoy the luxury of living in different interpretations of the events for quite some time. Yet, in this case there is a high cost expressed in human suffering, disease and even loss of life. Also, the way out of this crisis is through even more cooperation on an even bigger scale that we have witnessed so far. Political adversaries, commercial competitors, people with contradictory worldviews can no longer afford to coexist with minimal or no interactions. To limit the damage of suffering and death they should cooperate well and a lot.
Interestingly, even this view has its alternative. While some seek greater cooperation to overcome the crisis, others express their concern that the current crisis has exposed a dark side of our long history of increased political and social synchronization. In this bubble the truth is that people have become too alike in their thoughts and actions, which makes them unadaptive and vulnerable. In the particular case of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite having numerous countries, their responses to the virus have been very similar. When we all chose the same path, that leaves many paths unexplored, possibly overlooking a much more efficient response to the danger.
Even if divided by our diverse perception and worldview bubbles, we are still in the early stages of living in a world of multiple realities. We are still very much connected by a shared worldview, and thus capable of cooperation. This allowed the US people to find consensus about the results of the elections. The majority of us do trust the scientific model of the world and vaccinate themselves and their children to prevent disease, suffering and death. We’ll probably find our way out of the current pandemic by cooperating with each other sufficiently to find a response that will allow us to go back to quality living. However, will it be enough?
As the recent political history and the even more recent COVID-19 pandemic suggest, we still have much to learn about ourselves and how to cooperate. It seems to me that we have grown complacent and taken our superiority for granted. We are flattered by Yuval Noah Harari’s words “Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world.” (Sapiens) However, we can do better, and we should! We should go back to the lessons of history and use them to plan ahead. On the one hand, we will probably need a deliberate effort on both the more abstract level of politics and society, as well as the more personal level of daily interactions. As humans are creatures of habit, to support sustained cooperation we will need a society and political systems that fosters it. Much of what our politics or economy is focused on now is competition, and that often gets in the way of longer term projects and goals. Our educational systems have turned to teaching skills and values, and teamwork is at the top of the list. However, in the end, many schools are very traditional places in which the pupil is on their own, and cooperation is just a term in a report. At the personal level of daily interactions, there are still many challenges summed up by the infamous phrase “No good deed goes unpunished.” All too often people are focused on their own goals and quality of life, forgetting the importance of reaching out and establishing connections beyond their immediate family and friends. On the other hand, we should not succumb to the dark side of human cooperation and create a society of copies. If we are to survive not only this challenge, but many more and build ourselves a good life on a thriving planet (or maybe even beyond), we should make an effort to foster lasting cooperation and thriving diversity.
Inspired by the ideas of
- Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (2011); Homo Deus (2015); 21 lessons for the 21st Century (2018)
- Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made (2017)