Numerous ethnographies of peaceful societies mention, or in some cases focus on, the issues of competition and cooperation. Children are often cited as never playing competitive games; cooperation is the norm for some groups; individualism rather than cooperation or competition prevails in some of the societies. The importance of this issue is frequently reflected in the ethnographic writings cited in this website.

Agustin Fuentes of Notre Dame University addresses the issues of competition and cooperation as key factors in human evolution in the current issue of American Anthropologist, available on current journal shelves in libraries this week (“It’s Not All Sex and Violence: Integrated Anthropology and the Role of Cooperation and Social Complexity in Human Evolution,” December 2004, 106(4): 710-718). He finds the either/or dichotomy wanting and proposes a more sophisticated, nuanced approach to evolution.

Fuentes rejects the traditional argument that humans are either fundamentally aggressive and competitive, or fundamentally peaceful and cooperative. Human nature is far more complex than that. Both factors, in fact, are involved in human evolution. It would be just as foolish to reject the role of violence and war in the development of humanity as it would be for proponents of the more Hobbesian approach to reject the evidence that peacefulness and affiliative behavior produce changes in humans. Fuentes argues that there is no simple answer to the issue; humanity is too complex. Simple, linear models are not viable.

He proposes, instead, what he calls “cooperative intergroup interactions.” Instead of focusing on individual selection as the basis of evolution, he suggests that scholars should study more carefully group interactions with other groups and with the natural environment. He bases his investigation on Developmental Systems Theory and shows how bio-ecological systems foster facilitation as well as competition. By facilitation, he means the complex interactions of living systems of organisms, all of which thrive due to those interactions that produce mutual benefits.

Fuentes argues that facilitation may be as important an influence on evolution as competition. He cites research on plant and intertidal ecosystems to make his point. Another illustration that might support his argument would be the importance of mycorrhizal fungi in forest soils, which assist in the growth of, apparently, 80 percent of all plants. In these plant/fungus associations, the fungi supply water and nutrients to the plants, and the plants supply sweets to the fungi (Dionis 2002). While the available research may be primarily on plant and animal communities, Fuentes argues that the facilitation concept can just as well provide the grounding for complex competitive and cooperative human relationships.

He develops his argument that human evolution can be understood, in part at least, from the perspective of facilitation by citing the research of Douglas Fry, whose book The Human Potential for Peace is in press. Fry, he says, demonstrates that “the potential for aggressive conflict in a variety of forms is present in humans, but [Fry’s] evidence also indicates that inter-group competition may not be a fundamental adaptive characteristic in human history.”

Fuentes argues that the complexity of cooperative behavior, combined with the flexibility of human adaptations to different environments and situations, has fostered our ability to evolve. Recent research, he suggests, shows that primates engage in relatively little aggressive behavior. Even with all the violence broadcast daily in the world’s media, most members of humanity get along most of the time with most other humans.

His arguments for getting beyond the dichotomy of competition versus cooperation add to the study of peacefulness, and provide an interesting framework for understanding much of the literature about peaceful societies. Fuentes does not deal with the individualism (neither cooperation nor competition) that characterizes many small-scale societies such as the Paliyans, but that is not his major point, and the absence of individualism from his essay does not detract from his arguments.