Cooperate: “In some ways it’s the opposite of the invisible hand.”

5 Aug

The selfishness of humans is a central assumption of orthodox
economics, where it is thought to lead to benefits for the economy
as a whole. It is what the 18th-century Scottish economist Adam
Smith described as the “invisible hand”.

But [44]evolutionary biologists have come to see cooperation and
selflessness as a big part our success as a species. During the
course of our evolution, they point out, cooperative groups
consistently outcompeted groups of cheats.

So we are inherently cooperative when operating within our own
groups. We have also developed social mechanisms to reinforce
actions that benefit the group. “You could say teamwork at the scale
of small groups is the signature adaptation of our species,” says
evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson from Binghamton University
in New York.

But effective teamwork can include competition, and mechanisms to
promote actions that benefit the group can break down, particularly
in larger groups. It’s also important to remember that in-group
cooperation evolved partly in response to competition between

This evolutionary perspective is radically new to economics, and it
could be relevant to grand-scale economic problems that require
solutions involving cooperation between nations. Take the challenge
of getting nations to work together over economic solutions to
climate change – a particular focus in the run-up to climate
negotiations in Paris, France, later this year. This is a gargantuan
problem from any perspective, but it is essentially an issue of
coordination for the sake of the common good at a massive scale,
says Wilson. “The challenge is therefore to implement at larger
scales the coordination and control that takes place more
spontaneously at smaller scales,” he says – from multicellular
organisms to village-sized groups of humans.

“Morality evolved out of cooperation within and competition between
groups, so when acting as a single group to tackle global problems
we will have to assume the role of natural selection ourselves,”
Wilson says. This might involve pursuing a wide variety of
strategies, identifying those that work best, and then creating
incentives to cooperate on implementation. “In some ways it’s the
opposite of the invisible hand.”


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