x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Who is the villain?

Cooperation has allowed mankind to build complex societies. But competition has often led to their destruction. The challenge is to find the optimum balance between these two aspects of our character.

There is, we would have said, plenty of evidence - just open any history book - that homo sapiens is a short-tempered, intolerant and belligerent character. Our tools, from the caveman's club to the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, have always been ready to help us impose our will on others.

But the Dutch-born US scholar Frans de Waal, an expert in primate cognition, argues that humans and apes are biologically wired for cooperation, even empathy, more than was previously understood. "Humans have a lot of pro-social tendencies," he told a conference in Vancouver this week.

That contradicted a long-held belief among academics that "moral" behaviour was a human construct, not found in animals. That explained why people so often jettison fairness, empathy and cooperation in times of stress or temptation.

But recent primate research suggests, Dr de Waal said, that cooperation and empathy are innate, rooted in the need to pass on our genes. (He did not, unfortunately, address the common belief that women are more empathetic and cooperative - more advanced, maybe? - than men.)

We agree with the professor - up to a point. Cooperation has allowed mankind to build complex societies. But competition has often led to their destruction. The challenge is to find the optimum balance between these two aspects of our character.