Skip to main content
No. 1918:

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 othersprize 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 else.

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 bit.

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 protectingcooperation -- 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 work.

(Theme music)

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 Cooperation.


Cooperating Monkeys
Cooperating Monkeys (from Popular Zoology, Steele and Jenks, 1887)