"Society would collapse if it weren’t for the uniquely human impulse to cooperate and collaborate. So why, asks Mary Midgley, do we persist in believing that competition is the only way forward?
The term Darwinism has, in recent times, come to suggest that savage, unbridled competition is the ruling principle of life in nature and must therefore rule in human society, too. Darwin’s views have, as neurobiology professor Steven Rose remarks, been seen as “justifying imperialism, racism, capitalism and patriarchy”. Today, he adds, “journalists refer to boardroom struggles and takeover battles for companies as Darwinian”.
All this is actually the opposite of what Darwin wrote when he discussed human and animal societies in The Descent of Man. There, he traced the origins of sociability in animals and pointed out how many kinds of creature show a direct concern for one another. He showed how, as we go up the evolutionary scale and the creatures’ lives become more complex, mutual concern increases and cooperation becomes as noticeable as competition. In humans, the development of intelligence has deepened these social tendencies, making us more aware of one another’s feelings than are most other species. This has also made us notice conflicts between our various motivations towards others – conflicts that distress us so much that we are constantly inventing ethical systems to try to sort them out. That human need for morality is, Darwin said, a central characteristic of the species."