The most successful strategy in life | Lloyd E. Sheaffer

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I came across an eye-opening book this week. 

Lloyd E. Sheaffer (Capital-Star file)

“‘Friendliest,’ not fittest, is key to evolutionary survival, scientists argue in book” read a headline in the The Washington Post last Sunday. The article by Marlene Cimons introduces the new book Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity by Duke University researchers Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods.

Living amidst the latest ugly iteration of social Darwinism with chest-thumping bullying by our blustering, unevolved chief executive and his administration’s not-so-subtle intimations that 23.7% of the US population is less than fully human, the subject intrigued me.

While I have not read the entire book, I did read the introduction and the opening chapters available online which offer the gist of the pair’s findings. In short, the authors’ studies suggest that the reason our species, homo sapiens, survived when other species such as Homo erectus or Homo neanderthalensis did not was homo sapiens’ ability to build friendships and cooperate to survive and improve their lives.  

The Neanderthals and other homo species were stronger, more aggressive, better hunters—i.e. more fit—than our own species; however, they were more hostile and more averse to living in large groups. As such, the authors posit, they never developed relationships and communication skills that could have enhanced their chances of survival.

“If, a hundred thousand years ago, you were setting odds for which human species would be the last one standing, we [homo sapiens] would not have been a clear winner,” notes [Dr. Brian] Hare.

“Survival of fittest, which is what everyone has in mind as evolution and natural selection, has done the most harm of any folk theory that has penetrated society,” Hare says. “People think of it as strong alpha males who deserve to win. That’s not what Darwin suggested, or what has been demonstrated. The most successful strategy in life is friendliness and cooperation, and we see it again and again.”

Friendliness and cooperation are terms growing evermore alien to today’s world experiences, especially during the current fractious pandemic and political environments. As a result, our leaders accomplish little to bring an end to the deadly COVID-19 infections and to the plethora of societal side effects on the economy, on education, on religious and social gatherings, on our emotional and mental well-beings, especially those of our children.

The Survival of the Friendliest authors make specific note of how the nature of politics has changed since overtaken by a Neanderthal mindset.

In the not-too-distant past, the authors say, “Washington was a friendlier place. President Ronald Reagan used to invite both Democrats and Republican to the White House for drinks, ‘just to tell jokes.’  When Reagan called Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill after a heated exchange, Tip said, ‘Old buddy, that’s politics—after six o’clock we can be friends.’”

Things changed, and the seeds of today’s divisiveness were implanted by a brash Speaker of the House—and Harrisburg native—Republican Newt Gingrich. “One of Gingrich’s main tactics . . . was to institute policies explicitly designed to make friendships between Republicans and Democrats difficult, if not impossible.  On Capitol Hill, Gingrich forbade Republican cooperation with the Democrats, either in committees or on the floor of the House. When Republicans spoke about a Democrat or the Democratic Party, they were advised to use dehumanizing language that elicited disgust, to characterize the opposition with words such as decay and sick.” The writers continue, “As comity dissolved on the hill, tools that had allowed negotiation and compromise were vilified.”

Such vile behaviors persist today resulting in the unhealthful “Us vs. Them” perspective held by too many U.S. citizens and cheered on by selfish, homo erectus-like leaders. Such a dangerous view obviates both friendship and cooperation; nothing is accomplished; divisions deepen.

Hare and Woods suggest, “What allowed us to thrive while other humans went extinct was a kind of cognitive superpower: a particular type of friendliness called cooperative communication. We are experts at working together with other people, even strangers. We can communicate with someone we’ve never met about a shared goal and work together to accomplish it. Homo sapiens were able to flourish where other smart human species didn’t because we excel at a particular type of collaboration.”

Lest we go the way of Homo erectus, Homo floresiensis, Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo naledi, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo rudolfensis, our culture and society must regain the traits that have made it possible for us to survive for 2.5 million years.

“Darwin was constantly impressed with the kindness and cooperation he observed in nature, and he wrote that ‘these communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.’ He and many of the biologists who followed him have documented that the ideal way to win at the evolutionary game is to maximize friendliness so the cooperation flourishes,” report the authors.

I have a pastor friend who offers guidance on how to live a full, rich, healthful, productive, Gospel-centered life in God’s world with her mantra, “Relationships, relationships, relationships.” By establishing relationships we develop friendships that enable collaboration that allows us to overcome whatever obstacles life throws at us.

As we move toward selecting who will lead our country forward in a way which engenders a nation that lives up to the ideals set by those who founded this country, we must choose the ones who will ensure our survival as a democracy, as a republic of equality, as a homeland for all who deserve and cherish freedom, and as a society that works together respectfully to confront and devise tactics to solve the forces assaulting us.

After all, “The most successful strategy in life is friendliness and cooperation . . . .”

Let’s make certain we see this success again and again.

Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher, writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].