Are Humans by Nature Compassionate or Competitive?

“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.” –Franklin D. Roosevelt

As the parent of an ice hockey player and a lacrosse player, I have often thought about the contrast in behavior between sports and what I normally encourage in my kids.  I have always encouraged them to share, but during the game, parents are yelling for them to “Fight for the puck!”  I have taught my boys to avoid violence, but during the game, it is “Push him out of bounds!” There is a different aspect of our human nature that comes out during sports which I have become curious about.  What is it about competition that changes behavior or are we by nature, competitive?

When I think about competition I think about ‘survival of the fittest.’  Only the best team will make it to the playoffs, so it is important to take down the opponent in order to win.  This led me to Charles Darwin, but I was surprised to learn that Darwin didn’t use that term at all!  In his book The Descent of Man, Darwin argued that sympathy is what leads a species.  Charles Darwin states, “In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”  He noted that sympathy, what we would call compassion or altruism today, is the highest moral virtue.  He predicted that our human evolution will be extending compassion to all people, animals and sentient beings.  He used as examples people who risked their own lives to save people they didn’t know.  Darwin wrote, “Looking at Man, as a Naturalist would at any other mammiferous animal, it may be concluded that he has parental, conjugal and social instincts…these instincts consist of a feeling of love or benevolence to the object in question…such active sympathy that the individual forgets itself, and aids and defends and acts for others at his own expense.” This doesn’t sound like sports at all!

Edward O. Wilson, expanded upon this in his book The Meaning of Human Existence.  Wilson states, “Within groups, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.”  He explained that when we are individually selfish, we try to beat out the competition within our group.  Eventually that weakens the group down to one person who is the ‘winner.’  He compared that to groups who effectively work together.  A group of people who aid and defend each other strengthens the entire group.  When a group of people who are altruists meets a group who is selfish, the group that functions as a team has an advantage.  It does go back to the saying, ‘There is no ‘I’ in team.’  We all need to work together to accomplish our goal.

While I am still working to reconcile the lack of altruism in the competition of sports teams, what I do know is that playing sports is an opportunity for my kids to work together as a team and to see the benefits of cooperation.  When they are encouraging each other on the team and working together they have a much better season.  Perhaps a sports team is a microcosm of our world.  What would happen if we all realized that the entire human race is on the same team?  By separating ourselves into small teams, whether it be by country, political affiliation, race or religion we are like the individuals that weaken a team by acting selfishly.  We are weakening ourselves by separating out and missing the opportunity for altruism towards mankind.  Maybe now is the time for us to evolve into Darwin’s ‘survival of the kindest’ idea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *