Saturday, January 14, 2012


Cooperation, the secret weapon of our species

Mark Pagel, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Reading
together-jacket.jpgIn his thoughtful Together: The rituals, pleasures and politics of co-operation, Richard Sennett argues there are ways to overcome ingrained tribalism
RICHARD SENNETT'S Together is the second in a planned trilogy of books about "the skills people need to sustain everyday life". The first instalment, The Craftsman, proposed and explored the notion of an innate human impulse to do things well. Together is about the craftsmanship of cooperation.
Sennett, a sociologist, worries that humans suffer from a deeply ingrained tribalism that "couples solidarity with others like yourself to aggression against those who differ". He is alarmed by the way societies develop tribalism within their ranks. The US has become "an intensely tribal society", he says, noting that "tribalism, in the form of nationalism, destroyed Europe during the first half of the twentieth century". Today, he warns, the once inclusive Netherlands "has its version of American talk radio, where the mere mention of the word 'Muslim' triggers a Wagnerian onslaught of complaints".
If Sennett is right, trouble is brewing. Our world is more interconnected than at any time in its history, and all demographic projections point to mass human migration from poorer to more prosperous regions. In response, Sennett wants to explore the nitty-gritty details of how people can be encouraged to cooperate. He is especially interested in modern capitalist societies that, he says, promote conditions leading to social withdrawal or, as political scientist Robert Putnam puts it, "hibernation".
The causes of this hibernation are many, but Sennett singles out the corrosive effects of economic inequality, the breakdown in workplace relations and the psychological effects of living in an uncertain world with few social supports. These will sound familiar, but Sennett fleshes them out with the degree of detail and analysis we expect of sociological field studies, including his own interviews with Wall Street workers who lost their jobs in the 2008 banking crisis.
Sennett is stern in his prescriptions for rescuing cooperation in the light of these isolating forces. He cautions that it requires commitment and empathy, and he champions the repetitive shared experience of ritual, from religious ceremonies to workplace routine, as a way of promoting social cohesion.
By "commitment", Sennett means more than just personal commitment - to running a marathon, for example. It is a commitment to community. One example where this was lacking, he notes, was among young African Americans in the 1960s. Having enjoyed better education and economic prospects than their parents, this generation had the choice of remaining in their (often poor) communities or seeking out more salubrious ones. Many did the latter, often perpetuating deprivation in the areas they left.
Still, there are reasons for optimism. The history of the many tribal societies that have colonised the world ever since our species walked out of Africa around 60,000 years ago has indeed been one of near-continual conflict over land and resources. But conflict turns out to be an endlessly creative force, responsible - surprising as it might seem - for most cooperation. No species has exploited this fact more than our own. Early bands of humans formed into tribes that were bands of bands. Collections of tribes later coalesced into chiefdoms and collections of chiefdoms became nascent nation states. At each stage formerly competing entities formed cooperative coalitions that generated wealth more often than conflict.
As challenging and demanding as cooperation is, it has been our species' secret weapon, and those of us alive today are the descendants of people who had what it takes to make it work. This thoughtful book outlines the craftsmanship we will need to ensure that it continues to do so.

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