It looks like we’ve had it all wrong since 1859.
That’s when Charles Darwin began the evolution revolution with his seminal work, The Origin of Species.
But now a series of studies by scientists Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, both researchers at Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, take issue with that old British naturalist’s central theory of survival of the fittest. They contend that what Darwin should have meant was survival of the friendliest. Hare and Woods’ new book, Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity, cites friendliness and cooperation, not aggressiveness and tooth-and-claw, as the successful formula for a species’ survival. Take dogs and wolves, for example. Dogs, descended from wolves, decided early on that a friendly alliance with humans was their ticket out of the wilderness and have been wildly successful ever since. There are now tens of millions of happy dogs while their more bestial, alpha male-dominated first cousins, the wolves, are on the endangered species list.
Another contrasting pair are chimpanzees and their lesser-known, almost identical relations, the bonobos. A sure-fire way, in fact, that one can tell the difference between the two is by temperament. Chimps are aggressive to the point of eating the brains of their prey for spite. Bonobos, by contrast, have strong life-long friendships, work in cooperation with one another, and are hospitable to strangers.
How do humans fit into this grand scheme? Believe it or not, according to Hare, “We are the friendliest human species that ever evolved, which has allowed us to outcompete other human species that are now extinct. When that mechanism is turned off, we can become unbelievably cruel. When it is turned on, it allows us to win. We win by cooperation and teamwork.”
So next time you observe someone belittling someone who practices a different faith, or who doesn’t quite look like most of us, or whose customs and accent don’t quite fit in with the majority, realize that person, by belittling, is letting the whole team down. That is emphatically NOT cooperation and teamwork. That is NOT going to solve society’s ills.
We are not wolves. We are not beasts that thrive on anger, terror and subjugation. That way lies degradation, starvation and extinction. We must live to cooperate and love, not individuate and hate.
If we put our minds to it, we could be a really nice human race. Considering the age of the universe in general and of the earth in particular, we’re pretty much late arrivals, rookies, actually, still feeling our way around a hostile environment. Discarding such losing strategies as bigotry, intolerance, hate and terror, and supplanting them with friendliness, cooperation, and teamwork will not only help us survive a great long while but in time might even get us a reputation as one of the all-time great species. Shall we try it and see?
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