Spirit Quest


Humans are meant to be cooperators 

not just consumers in this place called Gaia

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

“Nature is bloody in tooth and claw.” So wrote Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his poem In Memoria A.H.H. It is a requiem for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1833. These often quoted words are a grim reminder of the battle for life.

Some years ago my wife was on a safari in the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya. One day her group was taken on a hike. This was quite unusual and somewhat daring. Mostly they were transported by Landrover, which afforded protection from the wild creatures that abounded in the bush looking for their next meal.

She was the oldest of her group and was advised not to tarry but stick close with the other hikers. Animals, such as lions, find that the oldest and the slowest are best available for food. She needed no persuading. They had already seen the remains of banquets with vultures enjoying the leftovers.

Rather than being a crude and cruel way to feed the lions, it was part of the process of the survival of the fittest. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote, “From the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” In other words, the most fit survive and pass on their superior genes so that nature might be perfected.

Humans, however, have often not allowed nature to have its way and struggle to find the means of protecting the weak, allowing them to live longer and, indeed, to prolong the life of our species. As the Book of Genesis puts it, we are to multiply and dominate (subdue) nature rather than being victims.

There have of course been times when this compassionate process was frowned on as going against nature. Thus, Adolph Hitler had little patience for the sick and the weak. It seems he was an ardent believer in what is called Social Darwinism. The Arian race was to be advanced above all others. “Untermenschen” (inferior humans) such as Gypsies, Jews and Gays were to be eliminated. Thus was the holocaust justified.

Much of what I am writing was inspired by Martin A Nowak’s book “Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed”  (Free Press, 2011) He challenges the long held theory of development by aggression. He does not deny that there is a bloody kind of survival system. It is after all only too evident all around us. However, he points to cooperation as being at least as powerful, and an even more important means for survival and improvement of the species.

Anthills and beehives are splendid examples where thousands live and thrive because they work together, each at their own task, working for the common good.

To help the weak, the sick, the aged, is not just a compassionate activity, it is in fact divinely sanctioned by not only the three monotheistic faiths of humankind. Even those who have grown rich and powerful have been moved to endow institutions of care and healing. Our governments reward the philanthropist with tax breaks and seats on prestigious boards.

According to Nowak cooperation is a means of bettering society.

Unfortunately there is an aggressive streak in many of us. Watch the participants in games such as chess and even Bridge where the point is to vanquish the opponent. There are also cooperative games where players working together bring about rewards for the participants as a whole. Unfortunately these games do not enjoy much popularity. I recall introducing our family to ecological games where the point is to deal with pollution and other natural menaces in order to produce a healthier environment. These games were interesting and educational but invariably cribbage and crokinole won the popularity contest.

If you truly love this planet, as Helen Caldicott advocates, humankind had better learn to cooperate and work for the common good. Survival depends on human willingness to live together in peace and harmony. And yet there are those who believe that it is each out for themselves that is best. They conveniently disbelieve in global warming, and advocate allowing the powerful to have their way. Corporations complain bitterly when threatened with higher taxes that are needed to fund public services. One of Prime Minister Harper’s mantras is “get government out of the face of people,” and that “small governments are best.” In other words letting the powerful have their way assures that the best possible world will naturally emerge. The survival of the fittest.

Nature may have lots of blood and tissue between its claws but it is only humans with very few exceptions that overeats, gathers more than it needs and despoils the environment for its own selfish benefit.

However, I believe that there is a spirit of cooperation within the human psyche. I see it in programs such as Habitat For Humanity where people build homes for those who cannot afford homes for their families. Watch them at work and you will recognize the sense of joy in working together for a good cause. There are many other examples of the movement of the spirit of cooperation.

Bertrand Russell stated, “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.” The Spirit of Cooperation is at least as strong as that of individual survival. Humans are meant to be cooperators not just consumers in this place called Gaia.


Thanks, Hanns for an interesting article.  I agree with most of your points.  

Yes, let's encourage cooperation and collaboration for the better good.  Some competition is healthy if the individuals or teams are aiming for a constructive, sustainable outcome (i.e. science fairs, solar car competitions)  

Then there's badminton.  Everyone benefits with some exercise, practicing hand-eye-foot coordination. In the end, the only loser would be the poor birdie.  

Habitat for Humanity is a good thing.  Instead of funding to build individual homes for poor people to OWN, how about projects to build small cooperative, affordable living buildings with common yards and gardens.  

In the big picture I think we are all renters on this planet.  One swift flood, earthquake or mud slide could wipe away any evidence of property "ownership". 

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