Section Logo
Facebook   Twitter   LinkedIn   Email  

Page1of 3
< 1 2 3 >
Cooperative! Part 2
Torn between me and we

by DK Holland

Chimpanzees live in families. They clobber their neighbors while they happily groom and calm each other, building trust with one another. Yet, at the same time, they steal from the most vulnerable, even within their own families, and are even known to cannibalize their young when threatened. Most of all, they protect their territory. Chimps are our closest living relatives—96 percent of our DNA is identical—so it's no wonder we are uniformly convinced that we are natural born competitors,1 that war is inevitable, that we’re narrow minded, looking out only for our kith and kin. And that nothing will ever change about that. None of this is necessarily true.

Only the fittest survive, so says Charles Darwin, a concept often misinterpreted as most aggressive, strongest—and that you’ve got to be watching out for number one. But we now know it's the most cooperative who may be the fittest, who are part of the “we” who have survived to pass along their genes, even in the land of great apes. After all, over the centuries, the more aggressive quite often die without ever contributing to the gene pool; they take too many risks, anger their peers, get knocked off. (A huge exception is the ancient Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan who sired so many offspring all over Europe and Asia he may even be camped out in your DNA.)

As incredible as it seems, the brutality and overall toll of war has greatly diminished over recent centuries.2 The bottom line: We now realize we are happier, more relaxed, get more accomplished and make more balanced decisions when we cooperate, find common ground. On a planet where humans were once an endangered species (inhabited by under ten thousand breeding individuals), the population is skyrocketing towards ten billion humans by 2100 (a breathtaking increase of three billion in but a century). We are all getting squeezed. And, if sea levels rise as projected to two to six feet by 2100, high-population port cities like New York, Jakarta, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Cape Town, Casablanca and Sydney will be devastated. Species on all continents will face mass migration and/or extinction. The survival of our species hinges on our ability to cooperate effectively.

Chimps are hunter-gatherers; their food source is wherever they are. They are stuck walking on all fours and since they don’t have backpacks they can’t carry much. Consequently they must protect their precious territory from all others. The instinct to protect our tribe, to defend our territory, is also primary to humans, yet we have gone on to make the Internet, build the United Nations, flourish through international commerce while chimps still crack the same old nuts under the same old tree. We have clearly made a choice: We have decided we have to cooperate within and without our tribes. And we are starting to question whether aggressive competition ever gets us what we really need, want or desire—or if it ever did.

Although early humans were hunter-gatherers, like chimps, we evolved to become agrarians and tradesmen, clerics and teachers, manufacturers and creators of intellectual property. Each and every one of these endeavors has required mastering the skills of cooperation. And this evolution has clearly enhanced our mental faculties and quality of life as well. Is it a coincidence that the human intelligence quotient (IQ) has increased around the globe by 30 percent just in the last century? This advance means we are more able to grasp concepts, expand our thinking and therefore our doing, all of which can build our moral fiber, and enhance our ability to work well with others.3


The correlation between trust and cooperation is undeniable, and the lowest levels of trust are generally found in the poorest countries. However, while homogeneous Norway, Finland and Sweden have the highest degrees of trust of all, the culturally diverse USA ranks way, way down with Mexico, Iraq and Chile. Humans often trust based on superficial assumptions, favoring people who dress and act most like us or whose status we admire. Put a wig and a dress on a man. Or change his suit to a dashiki. Or the color of his skin. Or put him in a wheelchair. Do you still want to follow his lead?

We develop trust by sharing hugs, handshakes, knowing looks and intimate actions. Physical proximity also works to glue us together. Chemicals like oxytocin are created in our brains so when we connect (even by text or e-mail) we are encouraged to trust even more.4 And since we will never understand everything, at some point, you have to trust somebody or some group that knows more than you do. Whether it’s mom, a best friend or the government. And since many decisions must be made for the benefit of the greater good—for us—it’s not just for you or me. In a culture of me, this is a bitter pill to swallow.

When we live in cubbyholes with others just like us—gated communities, corporations, private schools, clubs—where we never have to interact with anyone unlike us, we reinforce our beliefs with the beliefs of those with whom we are most vested in getting along. And then we can’t help but demonize or discount outsiders.

Karl, truly a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a riddle, appeared at our Manhattan design firm one night in 1994 and stayed on as our janitor for many years. I don’t even know how he/she (we were never quite sure which) got hired. Karl’s pale blue eyes, ghostly smooth skin and hair, subtle hips and giddy laugh earned him/her the cruel nickname the “ex nun.” It struck me that Karl, whose age was also indeterminable to me, must not have been accepted in many employment situations. The plea for mercy in his/her eyes suggested that he/she had often felt the sting of exclusion. 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.