Today, we put teeth in the Golden Rule. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
More and more,scientists are
talking about cooperation as a primary survival
mechanism. The idea has gained momentum ever since
early Darwinians went off the deep end, with all
their talk about competition. Remember Tennyson's,
"Red in tooth and claw?" Well, maybe
that's not how things really work.
Early evidence in favor of cooperation was pretty
anecdotal. But now, in Science magazine,
Gretchen Vogel summarizes current studies of
cooperation. And she takes an odd turn with it.
For forty years, we've been catching on to the fact
that cooperation is more than altruism -- that it
actually promotes genetic survival. Baby baboons
are far more likely to survive when their mothers
are socially involved with one another. Cooperation
makes members of a species more attractive as
potential mates. And so forth. Just how that
understanding transmits within a species is not
entirely clear. But data keep adding up.
Watch people queuing behind a ticket counter.
Almost all of us are scrupulous about keeping our
place in line, even with strangers we won't see
again. Yet the queue brings up another side of our
seeming instinct for cooperation. Elbow your way
into a queue and you'll soon learn just how highly
others prize cooperation. We detest the
elbowers. Strong as our innate belief in
cooperation is, our resentment of violators is even
stronger. Think about your own resentment of
unfairness. People who violate the tenets
of cooperation threaten the well being of everyone
In one set of experiments, behaviorists gave
pebbles to monkeys. The monkeys learned to exchange
their pebbles for cucumbers. Then, experimenters
began rewarding certain monkeys with grapes, which
they far preferred to cucumbers. The monkeys who
didn't get grapes responded by refusing to eat
their own cucumbers. Other experiments show the
same kind of reaction among humans.
My mother called that "Biting off your nose to
spite your face." And, unless you're some sort
of saint, you've done it too. I know I often react
to unfairness in ways that do not profit me one
The Science article offers one profoundly
disturbing example: Suicide bombers who
sacrifice their own lives to punish perceived
unfairness. One scientist glumly observes that we
raise cooperation to its pinnacle as we join
together to wage war. When that happens, two sides
each go to the ultimate extreme. On each side you
see strong cooperation in the cause of correcting
the other side's unfairness.
So, another scientist remarks, "A test for fairness
is probably hardwired." Well, so is the other side
of the coin -- cooperation. Our whole human
enterprise is woven, not just around cooperation,
but also around protecting cooperation --
enforcing the Golden Rule. That fairness
instinct is something that we unleash now and then.
And when we unleash it, we do so at our own peril.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
G. Vogel, The Evolution of the Golden Rule.
Science, 20 February, 2004, pp. 1128-1131.
For more on the theme of cooperation, see The Subtle Texture of
Cooperating Monkeys (from Popular Zoology
Steele and Jenks, 1887)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.