The Darwinian Heritage and Sociobiology

By Johan M. G. Van Der Dennen; David Smillie et al. | Go to book overview

4
The Sociobiology of Human
Cooperation: The Interplay of Ultimate
and Proximate Causes

Peter Meyer

In the history of the social sciences, the causes underlying human cooperation have been a major problem. In fact, any social theory has to deal with the problem of whether cooperation and other forms of social behavior arise from the self-interest of individuals, or whether the foundations for cooperation are laid by society and therefore depend on a sort of cultural invention. This chapter suggests that sociobiology with its emphasis on genetic interests sheds some fresh light on the causes underlying conflicts of interest, as well as on those underlying cooperation. Before we embark upon sociobiology's contributions to an improved understanding of this problem, it may be worthwhile to look at some of the theoretical concepts put forward in the history of social theory.

One of the most influential social theorists to address the present issue was Thomas Hobbes. According to his view, individual human beings are engaged in continuous competition, their behavior driven mainly by their interest in selfpreservation, leading to an endless striving for power over their competitors. Hobbes's solution to the nightmare of endless struggle was the establishment of a "commonwealth," an institution designed to protect the most cherished interests, mainly the lives and property, of individual citizens by seizing part of their powers, stripping them of some of the means for the continuation of strife. Regarding the origin of cooperation, Hobbes's theory suggests that in order to avoid endless struggle and continuous "fear of death," people will be compelled by "some coercive Power . . . to the performance of their Covenants, by the terrour of some punishment, greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their Covenant" ( Hobbes, 1968, p. 202). Adam Smith, another eminent social theorist, censured Hobbes's neglect of "sympathy," a natural source of human

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