Competition, You're Beat

Competition has been the dominant way to think about business and economics for well over a century now, leading to a host of laws that aim to create so-called well-functioning markets – but the concept of competition is more deeply ingrained into the way we think and talk about our society. Parents who send their children to private school are trying to give them a leg up on the competition for a place at a top university, itself a leg up in the competitive job market. That most basic of human needs, shelter, should be doled out according to competitive rental and purchasing markets. From Oscars to Nobel prizes, we love rewards that only a few can ever hope of winning. Academia is driven by competition for grant money, with which to do research that can compete for space in top journals. Our hobbies are largely competitive, from team sports to athletics to computer games. Or so it is claimed. Reflecting and reinforcing this obsession with competition, ecology has also stressed competition as the single most important force structuring populations, communities and ecosystems. Species must beat off competitors for their niche, or else differentiate from them in order to avoid the competition. Nature red in tooth and claw.

But it is not obvious to me that our society actually is fundamentally competitive, any more than ecosystems are. OK, our society and economy does seem more competitive than pre-industrial ones. A favourite example of mine is Edwin Muir's writings on moving from Orkney to Glasgow in the 1930s. At this time the two places were either side of the industrial divide, and to Muir, the fundamental difference was not technological or economic but social – unlike Orkney, Glasgow was fundamentally competitive. According to Muir, the effect of this change on his father was so severe that it killed him.

Nonetheless, our society and economy is mostly held together by various forms of cooperative behaviour, enacted by individuals who self-evidently care about many other currencies than just money. Parents raising children, teachers teaching them, individuals working hard to please others in shops, restaurants, and on the front desk. Texts, tweets and updates to friends, family, or just to the world. Anyone who takes pride in their work. Unnecessary acts of kindness, voluntary work, smiles to strangers, a coin dropped in the charity box. Art, literature, religion and love. Ask a person what they think their goal in life is. How many tell you it is to win? Academics too are, at heart, collaborative, working harder than they really need to mentor students, or to carry out research that they think will improve knowledge and the human condition – itself a complex idea that does not reduce to one or a few currencies. At a larger scale, the business and political worlds have long been held together by countless bi- and multi-lateral agreements between governments, companies and other organizations. Most companies have more customers and suppliers than they do competitors. Thankfully, most countries have more trading partners than they do enemies.

Ecological systems are also much more mutualistic than even most ecologists seem to realize. Did you know that every cell in your body is powered by little bacteria that were co-opted into animal cells aeons ago? That not even counting those, there are more non-human cells in your body than there are human ones? That nearly every plant on earth depends on mutualistic soil fungi to extract soil nutrients? That the staggering diversity of land plants was triggered by the evolution of the mutualism between flowers and pollinating insects? That you can walk from Norway to China without ever leaving a forest held together by the symbiosis between pines and jays? That every major transition in the history of life has been characterized by cells or whole organisms aggregating together into larger, more organized, and more differentiated units – a trajectory that has been continued through human history, from groups to tribes to nations to empires to multinationals to NGOs to international conventions to the UN?

Luckily, non-competitive ways of thinking are rapidly being rediscovered. On the business side, recent years have seen a surge in open data and open source code, the formalization of the creative commons, social enterprise, corporate social responsibility, and Wikipedia. In ecology, there is more talk about mutualism, cooperation and mutualism than there has been for decades, and thankfully, we have rehabilitated some crucial, non-individualistic, non-competitive ideas such as group selection and systems ecology.

I say rediscovered, because the modern-day intellectual obsession with competition was a relatively recent one, driven as much by theory (such as Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations) as reality. Early writings on natural history stressed mutualism, cooperation and altruism as much as they did competition, and phenomena were often understood as being 'for the sake of the group'. Contrary to popular belief, all of these modes of interaction are perfectly allowable within a Darwinian framework, as Darwin himself pointed out. Nonetheless, a mistaken, overly individualistic reading of Darwinism led to non-competitive ways of thinking being mostly, or entirely, thrown out, leaving only the most obvious one - competition. This movement reached its zenith with Richard Dawkins' ideas of the Selfish Gene, and Margaret Thatcher's famous statement that 'there is no such thing as society'. As recently as the 1970s people understood that we sent students to university not for their own sake, but for all our sakes – a concept that, sadly, shows no sign of returning, as we pile debt on to students under the self-fulfilling assumption that they will go on to earn more. Surely it is only a matter of time before this argument extended down the educational ladder – surely people who do A-levels also earn more than those who stop at GCSEs?

One can argue that the likes of Smith, Dawkins and Thatcher were right, by explaining away cooperation by saying that it is all in the ultimate service of individualistic competition. But it may be simpler and more useful to admit that our economies, societies, and ecosystems are less competitive, more mutualistic, and more multi-currencied, than we have been told to think.

© 2017 Drew Purves All Rights Reserved