Acton Institute Powerblog

Science: Human beings were made for creative cooperation

Popular culture presents the human race as competitors in a selfish struggle for the survival of the fittest. However, new scientific research finds that the human race has a natural tendency to cooperate—and that religion increases philanthropic giving and voluntarism during a crisis.

“Humans are quite possibly the world’s best cooperators,” according to a summary by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, which sponsors research into the topic. “Cooperation has never been more relevant” than during the global pandemic of COVID-19.

Scientists have concluded that finding innovative ways to help others crosses all societies.

“Need-based transfers are a universal human trait,” said Athena Aktipis, assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University and co-director of the Human Generosity Project.

When people see that someone is in need, and they have the ability to help, very often people spontaneously help without expecting anything in return,” Aktipis said. “This is especially salient during times of disaster.”

She and her fellow researchers observed selfless cooperation everywhere from the Maasai tribe of Kenya to ranchers on the southwestern border, and in locations from Tanzania to Texas, Fiji, and Mongolia.

After they performed in-depth experiments, Aktipis fed the Maasai tribe’s practices into a computer model and found that generosity produced better results than a transactional relationship for everyone, every time—including for the charitable party.

This deep-seated drive to cooperate takes its cues from the morality inherent within the broader culture.

“Reputational concerns shape behavior to be prosocial and altruistic,” said Erez Yoeli, the director of MIT’s Applied Cooperation Team.

Much seeming hospitality comes from the expectations, norms, and mores of our peers. Moral suasion renders government coercion unnecessary.

People tend to be highly responsive to cues of social pressure, and when they see those cues, they increase giving a lot,” Yoeli said. “Without anybody being aware of it, altruism is all happening under the surface.”

This echoes the view first laid out by Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith, whose subsequent book The Wealth of Nations popularized the notion of the “invisible hand,” first rose to prominence by promoting the notion of the “impartial spectator.” Much of our moral compass comes from external pressure, he wrote:

We can never survey our own sentiments and motives, we can never form any judgment concerning them; unless we remove ourselves, as it were, from our own natural station, and endeavour to view them as at a certain distance from us. But we can do this in no other way than by endeavouring to view them with the eyes of other people, or as other people are likely to view them. Whatever judgment we can form concerning them, accordingly, must always bear some secret reference, either to what are, or to what, upon a certain condition, would be, or to what, we imagine, ought to be the judgment of others. We endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. If, upon placing ourselves in his situation, we thoroughly enter into all the passions and motives which influenced it, we approve of it, by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed equitable judge. If otherwise, we enter into his disapprobation, and condemn it.

The innate human tendency toward cooperation can be magnified when religion suffuses society with the value of human life and a compelling rationale to help others. People of faith are among society’s most active helpers, said Joseph Bulbulia, the chair of theological and religious studies at the University of Auckland.

His team of researchers found “a lot more volunteering and five times the level of charitable giving among highly religious people” than among secular people. Their philanthropy creates “a massive hidden giving economy.”

Others have quantified the churches’ economic impact on the U.S. economy. The total economic impact of all 344,000 U.S. religious congregations is somewhere between $1.2 trillion and $4.8 trillion—“more than the annual revenues of the top 10 tech companies, including Apple, Amazon, and Google combined,” according to a 2016 study by Brian and Melissa Grim.

“Churches,” Bulbulia concludes, “will become much more relevant and important in the longer-term rebuilding phase.”

The Christian church’s greatest contribution to rebuilding after the coronavirus could come in erasing artificial divisions created by the ever-increasing politicization of society. Perpetual antagonism quickens the heart of collectivism.

Socialism, which masquerades as cooperation, has perfected the divide-and-conquer strategy. Pope Leo XIII called “the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict” the “great mistake” of socialism.

Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity. Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvelous and manifold. First of all, there is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice.

The fact that identity politics has added ethnicity, sex, and gender identity to socialism’s class warfare is this generation’s unique contribution to human iniquity.

Science reveals that the human race’s instinctive and overwhelming advantage comes from cooperation, not endless fratricide. In these times, Pope Leo XIII wrote, the best citizens strive “to keep before the eyes of both classes the precepts of duty and the laws of the Gospel,” which “tends to establish harmony among the divergent interests and the various classes which compose the body politic.”

Both science and faith hold that we were created for cooperative creativity. A free and virtuous society allows us to fulfill the grace-infused design woven into human nature.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.