April 3-Nature: Collaborative or Competitive?

I expect that when most people hear the word “nature” their minds go to the outdoors – those places that are “outside.” Some might think of the natural world – the whole of life. But my mind also thinks about human nature and humans in nature and human relationships with the natural world. Nature isn’t an “other” to me — it is part of “we.”

A few weeks ago I attended a training program to become a qualified administrator of the Intercultural Development Inventory tool, an instrument used to assess where people are on the continuum of their intercultural development. I shared this three-day training experience with 29 people from all walks of life who have at least one thing in common: a desire to facilitate our ability to thrive in the multicultural world in which we live. Most of the participants were staff from universities with students from all over the world where understanding the importance of intercultural interactions is essential. I was there in part because of the vision of the congregation I serve to be a radically welcoming sanctuary, and the vision of our faith movement to be a voice for compassionate engagement.

One element of cultural difference came up in our conversations: competition vs. collaboration. I have heard people say that humans are inherently competitive … it’s part of our nature, our evolutionary imperative to survive. However, there are millions (perhaps billions) of people who were raised in collaborative cultures. In the college setting this can be problematic when they bump up against the definition of plagiarism. There are international students who default to working together on research projects and papers and no one person “owns” the end product of their work. They see this as a way to achieve the most creative results. Yet, in the white Euro-centric culture of most of our educational institutions, it is imperative people “do their own work.” In certain circumstances, to collaborate can be construed as cheating.

In the late 20th century, George Price, a brilliant mathematician, developed the Price Equation to calculate the evolution of various human traits. He was particularly focused on altruism and spent the last years of his life determined to prove  that genuine altruism was possible if one willed it strongly enough. He ended up giving away all that he had and living on the streets himself to prove that it was possible for altruism to be truly selfless.

I am not sure why Price was so bothered by the idea that we might do good because it feels good. There is evolutionary evidence that collaboration, supporting others, being generous, and working together serves our survival more so than competing against one another. A world in which only those who survive through competition prevail feels like a disconnected and fearful world to live in. We might benefit from questioning what is truly our biological human nature and what has been embedded in us through the powerful cultural norms that shape our lives.

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