It is an ages-old question; are humans predominantly competitive or collaborative?  If we can be both what conditions how we behave from moment to moment?

The story as told in Genesis, arguably one of the oldest of all written records, suggests that all life is about competition – if the Jews were to inhabit Israel, first they would have had to get rid of Jericho.  Archaeological evidence from these early civilisations shows that these were very harsh places.  Thomas Hobbs, the 16th century English philosopher, claimed that “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  Later Thomas Huxley, known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” was largely responsible for over-emphasising Darwin’s conclusion that life was about “the survival of the fittest.”   Meanwhile Darwin, with very many other biologists through to this day, has shown that it is not the most powerful that survive, but those “most adaptable to change” by giving sustenance to mere aberrations and replacing the old status quo before dying off like the Dodo.

And it is not just the economists who believe that humans are an unequivocally competitive species.  Freudian psychology also stressed the competitive, harsh nature of life epitomised by the (supposed) universal reaction to challenge as being ‘fight or flight’ – you have to go all out to win an issue, or admit defeat before sustaining damage.  “But that”, said an Australian psychologist recently, “could only have been proposed by male psychologists, for women have the more subtle response of ‘bend or befriend.”  Meanwhile Behavioural psychologists and evolutionary scientists are beginning to note that there are very few entirely ‘male’, or ‘female’ brains.  Most of us appear to be somewhere on a spectrum.  In terms of our deepest instinctive reactions, it is not just women who think in terms of ‘bend or befriend’ or men who are limited to ‘fight or flight.’

In her fascinating book published last year, Mothers and Others; the evolutionary origins of mutual understanding, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy shows that the great evolutionary achievement of our species is the development of empathy.  Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s position, and – critically – see yourself from the outside.  Hrdy writes “without the capacity to put ourselves cognitively and emotionally in someone else’s shoes, to feel what they feel, to be interested in their fears and motives, longings, griefs, vanities, and other details of their existence, without this mixture of curiosity about, and emotional identification with others, homo sapiens would never have evolved at all.”  The ability to learn from each other flows from enhanced mindreading and this has led to unprecedented advances in the realm of culture. This, with cumulative cultural knowledge in technology, has put our species on a totally different track.

In an even more recent book, The Empathic Civilisation, Jeremy Rifkin shows how recent discoveries in brain science and child development are forcing us to rethink the long-held belief that human beings are, by nature, aggressive, materialistic, utilitarian and self-interested.  The dawning realisation that we are a fundamentally empathic species has the most profound and far-reaching consequences for society.  In a celebrated review published in 2007 evolutionary psychologists summarised this as meaning “selfishness beats altruism within groups; altruistic groups beat selfish groups every time.”

Those learning structures that are moving towards a new empathic approach to education show a marked improvement in mindfulness, communication skills, and critical thinking as youngsters become more inwardly looking, emotionally attuned and cognitively adept at comprehending and responding intelligently and compassionately to others.  Civilisation increasingly depends upon mutual understanding; the world is too small a place for alpha males (and females) to ‘strut their stuff.’  That is the challenge to all of us, especially as we educate children for the world that is hurtling towards us.