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Cooperative! Part 1
Torn between me and we

by DK Holland

The innocent child stretches out her tiny hand to a stranger—to share a toy, a cookie, a flower (a young orangutan might well do the same). Then the child begins to grow up. She starts to learn that, when lending a hand, one will be offered in return. Or not. The child quickly learns to manipulate, persuade, rationalize—and cooperate. Although chimpanzees learn these social tactics as well, human babies have a unique opportunity: They have years to cultivate their behavior in relative safety since they remain dependent so much longer than any other species.

Almost all living creatures are self-serving almost all the time—including humans. We hear, read, see and remember whatever benefits us. We practice reciprocal altruism when that works. Or tit for tat when that works. We are constantly juggling our actions and our emotions, deluding ourselves into thinking we are kinder, more pure and selfless in our motives than we really are, struggling with conflicting values. But it comes down to (like all other sentient creatures, including bees) survival. That’s reality. We are driven by two basic and essential drives—to endure and procreate.1

Honeybees live in a hive of 70,000 (at the peak of the season) with each bee fulfilling a very defined role. The hive is almost all girls—only a few boys (drones) bred by the girls (worker bees) to mate just once with the queen. That’s it: They die in the act. Any drones that are still around in the autumn are kicked out before the hive winters over. There can only be one queen in the hive and her sole role is to populate the hive with brood. And it’s the responsibility of the entire hive to make sure the queen survives and to replace her when she is no longer able to do her job. When the new queen hatches she must kill any other queens in the making. Undertaker bees embalm hive invaders and tidy up bee corpses. Contrary to popular belief, a honeybee will not sting you unless it feels threatened because it will die and it needs to survive for the sake of the hive. Hives in all these ways provide us with the quintessential model of objective, structured cooperation.

But, unlike the bees and all other species, we can see beyond our “hives.” We believe in free will—the idea that we can imagine, plan and create a future for ourselves, that we control our own destiny. Whether this is true or not is open to much debate. Regardless, just like the bees, each of us has a role to play because we rely on community and cooperation to survive. Few of us thrive going solo.

A healthy human hive has to have dramatically fewer than 70,000 inhabitants to cultivate meaningful cooperation. True unity is simply not possible with really large numbers. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar says men can hold roughly 150 effective, developed relationships in their brains (the number is some-what higher for women).2 Language, Dunbar theorizes, allows for gossip and other forms of social grooming to help create, interweave and bolster human relationships, but our cortex limits the number we can cultivate. This would be true of Chinese workers, American graphic designers or Congolese mountain gorillas. The Guarani, an indigenous Brazilian people, rise each morning before dawn to sit in a circle, share tea and their previous night's dreams. In a daily ritual, they tell creation stories in a circle, as do parents to help their children settle down to sleep and say goodnight to the day. The Guarani live in tribes of about 150.

We are headed for ten billion humans on this planet before too long (from less than one billion at the start of the nineteenth century). How will we cope? The larger the population, the more stressed we become as individuals: And yet our drive to network has ratcheted up our connections dramatically. The honorific “friend” has, in the process, been dumbed down.

Quakers, named the Religious Society of Friends when it was founded in the seventeenth century, are still well known for their one-room Meeting Houses and facing benches; these are hives where cooperation and trust can thrive among Friends, as they are commonly called. Since it is essential to encourage fellowship and unity within Quaker communities, Meetings encourage members to split off and create new Meetings if attendance gets too large, roughly at Dunbar’s number. Hutterites, like Quakers, are known for their pacifism and cooperation, but unlike Quakers, Hutterian societies are somewhat cloistered, living and working in colonies at the size that supports Dunbar’s theory. Similarly some companies are led by Dunbar’s number limiting the size of departments, work spaces and even parking lots to encourage cooperation and cross-pollination. In his wisdom, Steve Jobs designed Pixar’s campus in Emeryville, California, so that everyone would run into everyone in the atrium, the common space. Cross-pollination happens when you least expect it.

When you spend eight to ten hours a day in your work hive, you pay significant attention to professional relationships, developing interpersonal dynamics, shorthand communications and nonverbal cues with your co-workers. You develop trust by understanding and respecting each other’s strong points, failings, quirks and sensitive spots. That’s the most efficient and productive way to work. Dance troupes, soccer teams, gospel choirs and Navy Seals all rely on camaraderie to create the flow. Any good team works toward a goal greater than the sum of the individuals involved. Group synchronicity creates a high unlike any other.

A herd of deer grazes in a field. They need to find a good water source soon. One by one their heads turn. When over half the herd has pointed in a certain direction, they will instinctively migrate toward the democratically agreed upon watering hole.3 Most species that swarm, flock or herd make similar group decisions, spontaneously, without language, working in unison often with split-second timing. In humans, synchronicity comes with the trust that’s developed by being together in close proximity, by developing relationships and complementary or mutual goals.

Neuro-economist Paul Zak, AKA Doctor Love, calls oxytocin the “moral molecule” which, when created by your body, enters your brain and bloodstream, increasing calmness, empathy, greater tolerance and trust.4 Zak prescribes eight hugs a day, each of which releases oxytocin—makes you feel happier, which improves your relationships and ultimately makes your world a more peaceful place. This works for aboriginals in remote New Guinea, web designers in Brooklyn and Bonobos in the Cincinnati Zoo. In fact, Bonobos, among the apes that are closest to humans, spend a great deal of time hugging and having sex of all manner and description. They are indeed the happiest, most peaceful of all primates. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.