Collaboration Will Take Us Where Competition Can’t

by Michael Sussmanpeople_network-672x372

Across the world, at any moment, on any given day, billions of people go about their business looking out for each other’s best interests. If that weren’t true, the world would not work as well as it does. Cooperation and thoughtfulness abound, while selfish, antagonistic acts pale in numbers.

“Are people inherently compassionate or self-centered?” has remained an oft-posed question because of the difference in impact between acts of cooperation or love and acts of aggression or thoughtlessness.

Hug someone today, and the feeling of love can fade by tomorrow. You almost have to hug them over and over again, and we do. Shoot or knife someone, drive drunk and crash, or meanly criticize another person, and the memory and consequence can last a lifetime. It is this severe and often lasting impact of violence and negativity that muddles our appreciation for the overwhelming amount of cooperation and consideration all around us.

So why did we orient the modern world’s commerce and governance on competition and mistrust rather than cooperation and trust? What would have us think that we must pit individuals, companies, organizations, political parties, and countries in an endless competition for success?


At the heart of my work is the advancement of coordination and collaboration as a far more productive and efficient basis for guiding our business and governing activities than competition. But before I could establish my confidence in man’s ability to collaborate and work in the community’s best interests, I had to ponder, as many of us do, what is man’s true nature.

Particularly in America, we have been taught that striving for individual success is best for everyone because the authority on the subject, Charles Darwin, said that evolution depended on it. “Survival of the Fittest,” which implies that humans by nature are selfish and that selfishness drives the advancement of the species, may have had a more lasting influence on our society than any other interpretation.

So it occurred to me to read The Origin of Species to see what Darwin actually said, not what I have been told he said. And what I found was that Charles Darwin never used the term “Survival of the Fittest.” Instead, he wrote that species, ecosystems, communities, and individuals organize themselves around the long-term interests of the community and future generations. In nature, the community provides the best perches, the best food, and the best resources to those amongst them that are strongest and, therefore, produce the healthiest offspring. He was inspired by the sacrifice and commitment of individuals to place their communities’ best interests before their own. Harmony with the community, not domination of the community, is what he observed. Charles Darwin said that individuals in nature are inherently social and communal, and that is what provides sustainability.

So how did we come to misapply what Darwin wrote in Origin of the Species? We remember that this was the mid-19th century when American and British industrialists desperately wanted a belief system to justify their accumulation of large amounts of control and cash in their own hands, not spread around to their brethren. So they sponsored members of a new intellectual field called Social Philosophy, Herbert Spencer among them, to promote a misreading of The Origin of Species and give their domination cover. The public’s access to the book was rare, and it was influenced instead by public talks and articles by these social philosophers.

I will never forget what I discovered from reading Charles Darwin’s writings outside The Origin of Species. He relates that as he observed the complex interworking of plants and animals in tide pools and hatcheries, he was struck by enormous intricacy, beauty, and selflessness. He said that after all explanations, including Natural Selection, were posed, he arrived beyond rationality, where he simply appreciated the presence of God.

As we face a world where environmental stress and extreme violence are having an outsize impact on our peace and prosperity, do we continue to think, plan, and act as if people are inherently self-centered, which limits our power to address these challenges, or do we embrace the reality of man’s inherent commitment to the community and our offspring?

Our work at OnTrackNorthAmerica is informed by up-close interactions with over 10,000 individuals across the United States who have overwhelmingly expressed their heartfelt desire for a world that works for all.

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Joe Colyn
8 years ago

Michael,
while I’ve not read much of Darwin’s own writing I do recall a wise mentor sharing with me exactly what you state about him that “he arrived beyond rationality where he simply appreciates the presence of God.” Thanks for sharing “the rest of the story” on Darwin. Too often its cut short. Thanks too for your good insight on community.

Phil Cohen
Phil Cohen
4 months ago

Best to live in the present, and really best to step away to see the forest for the trees. I believe it is VERY imprtant to really get a grip on human behavior, not as individuals, but as a species. I strongly siggest you get a handle on Maslow’s Hiercharchy of Needs as a start, and get firm grasp on evolutionary psychology. Humans are a herd species People are only community oriented to a point Self interest is built into us… hard wired through evolution and the requirements of survival to the point that self and immdiate family as a… Read more »

Michael Sussman
Michael Sussman
4 months ago
Reply to  Phil Cohen

Phil, I am happy to ask you to reflect on the evidence that is all around us. In any given day, the overwhelming majority of people go about their lives with consideration and thoughtfulness for others. The world would not work anywhere near as well as it does if that were not the case. So few of us are violent, taking individuals. Humanity has suffered from an mis-assessment and debilitating wondering about human nature when in fact every community trauma or crisis has people acting heroically and civilly, not individualistically!

Kerry Guida
1 month ago

Mr. Sussman, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. It is disheartening to realize how self-serving people have manipulated Darwin’s writings. I once read that human nature can be understood as 90% chimpanzee and 10% bee. Of course, we would share many traits with chimpanzees as we are both primates, but I found the fraction attributed to bees particularly interesting. Bees possess the proverbial “hive mind” that allows them to behave as one super-organism, making them incredibly efficient workers. Every bee in the hive works toward a common goal and is willing to sacrifice itself for the collective good. Like bees,… Read more »

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