Are we wrong to believe that competitiveness must and always will be the central animating principle of human action? Media studies scholar Michael Karlberg thinks so. In fact, he believes that another animating principle, mutualism, is both central to human interaction and necessary to aid human society in meeting the myriad challenges it faces regarding climate change, inequality, governance, education and many other issues.

I saw Karlberg speak recently at a private gathering in Washington, D.C. He is measured in his tone, clear in his delivery and compelling in his logic. He poses the following question: If nearly all of our institutions are premised on competition (commerce, politics, education, recreation and many others), is it any wonder that our competitive instincts are honed and expanded while our cooperative ones atrophy?

Karlberg is not naive enough to believe that all this can be changed overnight. But he does make a convincing case that competitiveness is as much a problem emanating from social institutions that inculcate and incentivize competition as it is a problem of human nature.

The way forward, he asserts, is to build new institutions that emphasize cooperation; it’s a sizable task, but one which has already begun as he explains at the end of a TEDx talk which he gave in 2012. However utopian this goal may seem, Karlberg reminds us that the current “culture of contest,” as he styles it, has given us the existential threat of climate change spawn by endless economic growth and consumption. In fact, the “culture of contest” is creating a series of social and ecological challenges so profound that unless we change that culture we may drive ourselves toward extinction.

Not surprisingly, the competitive view of human nature is dominant in how we conduct international relations. In another presentation I saw recently international lawyer and scholar Sovaida Maani Ewing asserted that international relations based on national self-interest merely results in a world that lurches from crisis to crisis. Ewing, who runs the Center for Peace & Global Governance, suggested that long-term stability in international relations will only come from agreements based on shared principles. That sounds very much like a move away from the “culture of contest.”

Karlberg and Ewing clearly have a contrarian and more hopeful view of human nature than we are used to. Is there evidence that they are right?  Is it possible that what makes humans happy isn’t consumerism and competition, but sufficiency and cooperative relations?  Quite possibly the answer is yes according to a recent piece in The New Yorker magazine which summarizes the main arguments of scholar James C. Scott’s new book, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

Scott, it seems, doesn’t buy into the putative superiority of modern governance and social organization over more “primitive” forms. He is, however, not a mere primitivist for he cites new understandings and evidence of the earliest settlements. According to the New Yorker piece Scott believes the agricultural revolution was “for most of the people living through it, a disaster” resulting in poorer health, rising inequality, slavery and other ills.

The summary continues: “War, slavery, rule by élites—all were made easier by another new technology of control: writing.”

The same article touches on the Kalahari Bushmen, one of the last large groups of nomadic peoples in the world. What we know of them squares well with Scott’s conclusions. The Bushmen do not accumulate surpluses, but live for the day, stopping their foraging when they get what they need to eat. Yet, they are well-fed with stable and felicitous social relations, valuing solidarity over competition and individual achievement.

The piece goes on to quote economist John Maynard Keynes as follows:

When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.

We are no closer to realizing today such a world than when Keynes wrote the above words. But here is the key point, according the article: “The study of hunter-gatherers, who live for the day and do not accumulate surpluses, shows that humanity can live more or less as Keynes suggests. It’s just that we’re choosing not to.”

And, this brings us back to Michael Karlberg. Karlberg claims that the “culture of contest” is not a necessity so much as an artifact of a flawed, one-sided understanding of human nature. The Kalahari Bushmen provide a window into our human past that suggests Karlberg might very well be right.

What that past tells us is that humans are far more complex than we imagined—that is, they are not merely self-maximizing machines—and far more influenced by the incentives of the system in which they are enmeshed. And this conclusion counsels hope for the project championed by Karlberg and for a world that desperately needs the cooperation which would emerge as a result.

Image: “Selfish Shellfish” at PixelACHE (2005) Finland via Anthere at Wikimedia Commons.