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From the Simple to the Complex
Function by Level of Organization

HelpLink: The Social BeingLinked Module: Statut socioéconomique et santé : le point de vue neurobiologique Presentation by Jean-Pierre Roy, neurobiologist, OMISS
Tool Module: Sociology

Throughout the course of evolution, competition for survival has been only one side of the story. Mutual aid has been the other. The cell structures known as mitochondria evolved from a symbiotic relationship in which the earliest cells contributed raw materials and bacteria contributed energy. Later on, early humans cooperated in hunting, migration, and child care.

Both competition and mutual aid were necessary for the modern human species to evolve. But today, though mutual aid still occurs locally everywhere, we may well ask whether the competition that plays such an important role in industrial society, and the wars, pollution, and other problems accompanying it, may end up destroying our species.

Book : Peter Kropotkin,  Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, 1902Link: L'ENTRAIDE APPORTE AUTANT DE PLAISIR AU CERVEAU QUE L'ARGENT ET LE CHOCOLATLink: Prisoners' DilemmaLink: You Have Found The Prisoners' Dilemma
Link: Social learning and cooperationLink: Is culture what makes us cooperate?Link:  Why are we so nice? ...because generosity wins.Link: Lessons from Hell
Link: Nature's lessons for a more kind society.

It is practical to regard social relations as sophisticated tools by which humans apply their superior mental abilities to satisfy individual needs.

Each of us lives in an environment full of other individuals who often seek their well-being from the same people and things as we do.

The following diagram shows how the distribution of resources affects the emergence of certain social behaviours.

When resources are limited, two kinds of competition can result.

  1. If resources are scattered and cannot be defended, people compete through speed, trying to take the resources before someone else does.

  2. But if resources are concentrated enough to be defended, then people compete through confrontation and aggression.

Because these struggles demand so much energy from both the victors and the vanquished, aggressive competition quickly leads to a stable hierarchy based on the dominance relationships that people have internalized. The winners no longer have to fight the losers for the resources; the losers concede the resources to avoid trouble.

Hierarchies thus reflect the combined result of everyone’s efforts to come out on top. At the top of the pyramid, we find relatively peaceful dominant individuals who remain in biological equilibrium so long as their dominance is not questioned.

At the bottom, we find the dominated individuals who, to avoid punishment, have no choice but to engage their behavioural inhibition systems and learn to live with the agony of resource shortages.

We thus see how aggressive competition gives rise to dominance hierarchies that then define what we call social classes. But the social classes into which individuals are born do not wholly determine their social relationships. For one thing, in today’s complex societies, we can be “dominant" in some areas and “subordinate” in others. For another, power is not a fixed commodity and varies with the associations and alliances that individuals may form.

Because human beings are extremely interdependent, power often goes to whoever is best at manipulating other people’s dependence. And what could be better for this purpose than language, the specifically human tool that can be used to justify anything?

Thus, especially if people can wield language effectively, they can get other people to work for them. In contrast, a dominant male monkey never goes so far as to exploit a subordinate one. He just gets to eat first.

Tool Module: Primatology
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