On Cooperation and Competition: Implications for social progress and international relations

05 Feb 2021 – Written by Lorenzo Faggiano


  • Cooperative vs. competitive tendencies are always present within all societies, but there has historically been much debate about which of the two is the “default” in human nature and is more beneficial to social progress.

  • Our own view on the issue matters: we build institutions that preserve and foster those characteristics we believe to be advantageous, and we set up cultural frameworks that promote them.

  • When shifting the debate towards group behaviour, more layers need to be included into the discussion. Of particular importance is group identity, and how it evolves and shapes our understanding of the system around us. At the international level, collaborating with group members appears to be a winning competitive strategy, while reasoning in terms of group identity might hold precious insights on how to promote international cooperation.


It is widely accepted that as humans we are inherently social animals, constantly seeking companionship of others to look for meaning. An individual who is naturally unsocial is either not human or more than human, as Aristotle argued. However, if our tendency to form bonds with others is innate, it is worth asking which type of bonds emerge depending on the situation and what is the fundamental relationship binding individuals in society. As we will explore, there are two main schools of thought: one argues that competition and self-interest are the fundamental propellers of human society. The second, instead, argues in favour of collaboration and mutual aid as necessary components of social progress.

The interesting question to investigate, however, is not whether as humans we are intrinsically prone to cooperation or competition, since both traits are abundant in all societies. Rather, it is our perception of cooperative and competitive tendencies that matters, since they will have important repercussions regarding the organisation of the social order and political institutions. Society is a process rather than a structure, as Herbert Blumer, the American sociologist, reminded us (Morrione, 1988). Society is not given, but rather socially constructed through interaction: we create, reinforce and shape society through every social action we complete. Thus, our collective beliefs that transpire from everyday interactions will have important consequences for the society.

On Competition

In 1957, Ayn Rand published the dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged, in which a libertarian hero by the name of John Galt rebels against the collectivist society which, in his view, has failed to protect individual rights. The book itself is an expression of Rand’s “ethical egotism”, the concept by which the pursuit of one’s own self-interest is not only beneficial, but also moral. Rand, whose ideas are channelled through Galt’s words, makes a clear point: “By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man – every man – is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.”. For Rand, selfishness as a survival strategy is rooted in human nature. Capitalism, with its emphasis on individual achievement and competition, is the most desirable way to structure society. “Every living species has a way of survival demanded by its nature,” Galt insisted. “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

The concept that self-interest and competition, while maximising individual well-being, indirectly increases social welfare was famously formalised through Adam Smith’s baker, which provides us with food not because of benevolence, but rather because it is convenient for him to do so. (Smith, 1971). Indeed, the notion of competition as an innate feature of human nature and the means through which social evolution takes place has a long history in social sciences. In the 19th century, as the discoveries of Charles Darwin started making waves among the intellectual class of the time, many were quick to apply Darwin’s discoveries to the social world and the evolution of human societies. Originally conceived as biological speculations to explain the accumulation of individual variations in incipient species, the conception of the struggle for existence as a factor of evolution was applied to a much broader set of processes, such as intellectual progress and moral development. Competition quickly became perceived as an innate attribute of biological nature, an efficient way to organise and define the dominance hierarchy across different species.

Herbert Spencer, the 19th century Victorian philosopher, was among the first to generalise Darwin’s findings into a comprehensive theoretical framework, the Synthetic Philosophy, which embraces elements of psychology, biology and social sciences and has the theory of evolution at its core (Spencer, 2008). Indeed, he was the first to coin the term “social Darwinism” and “survival of the fittest” to describe the process through which social evolution takes places. In Spencer’s view, society progressed not despite adversities, but rather because of adversities. He reversed Malthus’ claims on demographic dynamics, arguing that it is exactly population pressure and the constant increase of population beyond the subsistence line which triggers a process of adaptation and never-ending improvement. Because of his views, Spencer was always opposed to any form of state intervention even in the form of aid to the poor, and always defended individuals’ right to pursuit their own self-interest.

On Cooperation

However, many disagree with the idea of evolutionary struggle as the core of social evolution. The most prominent advocate of what I will define as the collaborative approach is surely Peter Kropotkin, Russian zoologist and anarchist philosopher, which argued that cooperation is at the heart of human development and evolution. While never fond of Darwin himself, Kropotkin mostly criticised his followers and their biased application of Darwin’s theories to the social sphere, exasperating the concepts of survival of the fittest and competition, which never found much space in the original theory. Just like Darwin during his trip to the Galapagos islands, whose wildlife inspired and catalysed his “Origin of the species” (Darwin, 2012), Kropotkin studied extensively, during his military service in Siberia, how local animals coped with the extreme weather conditions of the region. In his seminal work Mutual Aid, he stressed how collaboration is much more prominent than competition in determining the survival of species. As he writes: “I obviously do not deny the struggle for existence, but I maintain that the progressive development of the animal kingdom, and especially of mankind, is favoured much more by mutual support than by mutual struggle.” (Kropotkin, 2012). His work consists in a meticulous analysis of observations and instances in which animals and humans alike collaborate to survive and achieve prosperity. By studying the burying practices of beetles, the coordination of land-crabs to travel to the sea and deposit their spawn, the nesting practices of ants or the social organisation of ancient tribes, he shows how cooperation is just as important as competition in the struggle for survival. As Kropotkin points out: “There is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence…Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.” (Kropotkin, 2012).

Recent anthropological studies on hunter-gatherer societies seems to hint towards a renewed emphasis on collaboration as a fundamental factor of evolution. A study by Bird on Aboriginal Australians details the practice of sharing catches after lizard hunts among Martu hunter-gatherer women, showing that the most successful hunters share the meat with all, strengthening their reciprocal bonds and distributing the burden of resource scarcity risks (Bird et al., 2018). A parallel study of Mbuti hunters, residing in Congo’s Ituri forest, shows similar results: these tribes rely on a social system of radical egalitarianism to regulate cooperation and competition (Boehm et al., 1993). A member which refuses to contribute to the common good or takes advantage of others is quickly expelled. The author, Christopher Boehm, also studied more than 150 hunter-gatherer societies defined as “Late-Pleistocene Appropriate”, meaning those societies that continue to live as our ancestors used to live (Boehm, 2009). In his research he found plentiful examples of sharing and cooperation both towards relatives and non-relatives. Examples of defection and antisocial behaviour, although present, were surprisingly low.

Cooperation and IR

Considering these results, it does not seem that competition and individualistic behaviour are the “natural state” of our species. However, the role of competition must not be overlooked. As humans, we have a natural tendency to form groups and to define ourselves in opposition of others (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Group membership, indeed, is an important component of our identity. It is well established in the social psychology literature that we perceive members of our group to be more “human”, thus more deserving of our altruism (Harris & Fiske, 2006). Paradoxically, studies suggest that cooperative behaviour is a winning competitive strategy, meaning that groups whose members were able to efficiently cooperate had an evolutionary advantage over the others, and were able to survive and prevail (West, 2007).

It is useful to remind that, of this theoretical debate on the fundamental tendency of human nature, it is not the truth that we must be interested in, but rather our perception of the truth. Cooperative and competitive behaviours are common practice among everyday life, and the natural state of humans is neither the Hobbesian war nor the all-loving peace and harmony Rousseau had in mind. However, the way in which we perceive such tendencies is critical on how we decide to arrange our social landscape. A society in which competition is viewed as an efficient way to achieve progress will most likely allow the unimpeded pursuit of self-interest among its citizens and build a cultural framework which justifies such pursuit. On the other hand, a society in which people are viewed as inherently collaborative will potentially build institutions that foster the creation of strong welfare states and oppose practices of exploitation or hierarchical dominance.

The consequences of our discussion for matters of international relations are not trivial. Indeed, although relationships among nations are ultimately relationships among people, their logic is not equivalent. In particular, group identity covers an important role that must not be omitted. As mentioned earlier, social groups constitute an important part of an individual’s identity, and group membership is often used as a discriminant to categorise other individuals. Since research has shown that a winning evolutionary strategy might be to collaborate with in-groups and to compete with out-groups, the question of how group boundaries are drawn immediately becomes relevant. What cues do individual use to determine who is their group member and who is not? How do identities come into being? These questions have always been important for matters of international relations, but their relevance will increase even more with the gradual dilution of nation-states. If at the international level cooperation is deemed, at least to some extent, beneficial, then how can it be promoted? Previous studies have suggested that, in IR, cooperation does not always fail because of intentional defections, but often because of the lack of communication among states. Thus, incentivising communication and providing proper venues in which states can interact might be an efficient way to increase cooperation.

The theoretical reflections proposed in this article seem to suggest another way is possible. If cooperation is convenient at the group level, then we must work on our concept of “group”. In this optic, international cooperation might be achieved by promoting a shared identity which binds people from different backgrounds under a common cause which, in this case, would be none other than social evolution. Arguably, it is the reason states originated in the first place. Surely, it is what the European Union has attempted to do over the past decades. Born as an economic union, the EU’s biggest achievement might have been the emergence of a shared solidarity among historically rivalrous populations, preventing costly and unnecessary between-groups competitions. Because of this reason the path traced by the EU is one we must hope other nations will embark on. Whether this was achieved by leveraging on individual competition or cooperation, however, is still open for debate.





Bird, R. B., Ready, E., Power, E. A. (2018) The social significance of subtle signals. Nature human behaviour, 2(7)  pp. 452–457.

Boehm, C. (2009) Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behaviour. Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press.

Boehm, C., Barclay, H. B., Dentan, R. K., Dupre, M. C. (1993) Egalitarian Behaviour and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy. Current Anthropology, 34(3), pp. 227-254.

Darwin, C. (2012) On the origin of the species and the voyage of the beagle. Berkeley, CA: Graphic Arts Books.

Harris, L. T., Fiske, S. T. (2006) Dehumanising the lowest of the low: neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychological Science, pp. 847-853.

Kropotkin, P. (2012) Mutual aid: A factor of evolution. Mineola, NY: Courier Corporation.

Morrione, T. (1988) Herbert G. Blumer (1900–1987): A Legacy of Concepts, Criticisms, and Contributions. Symbolic interaction, 11(1).

Smith, A. (1971) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Librito Mondi.

Spencer, H. (2008) A system of synthetic philosophy. Obscure Press.

Tajfel, H., Turner, J. C. (1979) An Integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In: Austin, W. G., Worchel, S. (eds.) The social psychology of intergroup relations. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

West, S. A., Griffin, A. S., Gardner, A. (2007) Social semantics: altruism, cooperation, mutualism, strong reciprocity and group selection. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 20(2), pp. 415-432.

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Recommended citation:

Faggiano, L. (2021) On Cooperation and Competition: Implications for social progress and international relations, IDRN, 05 February. Available at: https://idrn.eu/democracy-and-civil-society/on-cooperation-and-competition-implications-for-social-progress-and-international-relations [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].