A Rant About Rats and Ants

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

Kai Grotepass argues that if the betterment of humanity is the goal of our activities, then we need both competition and collaboration.

Anyone who has grown up in modern society and has stopped for a moment and thought about what we are doing will have at some point, consciously or otherwise, pondered the nature of human progress. Is life nothing but an endless competition, a rat race with everyone grabbing as much as they can before they meet their demise? Or are we a collaborative community, working together towards ends greater than ourselves, a global colony of proverbial ants? Or, to ask a more subtle question, do these two seeming opposites result in different answers?

If one is required to compare a number of things – as is the case here – the first step should almost always be to ascertain the contexts and circumstances within which the comparison is taking place. With this case, there are two natural positions from which one may easily approach the topic. The first premise is that of the individual, which is, par necessity, mostly aligned with the values of the modern liberal outlook on life. The second is that of society, not in the sense of the moral or ideological views held thereby, but the concrete improvement of knowledge and structure within society from an objective standpoint, which could perhaps be more concisely defined as a ‘special premise’ as in, pertaining to the species.

Illustration by Mieke Verster

From the position of the individual the first and most obvious step is that competition is a negative, and only through collaboration does one improve and progress. This conclusion may be drawn with the following logical step: Competition, in and of its very existence, implies the prospective possibility of failure, or loss, both of which are typically viewed as unfavourable occurrences. Collaboration in contrast has no such drawbacks and instead facilitates learning and progress. Further steps along this path, however, display the obvious flaws in such an oversimplified deduction. Without conflict the individual would stagnate. We have been built up by evolution from challenge and strife, all desire and motivation are fundamentally tied to this concept, the fear of losing and the elation of success or victory. If this were not the case and the primary motivators of man were something else, humanity would not have won the contest of survival so many times.

Illustration by Maria Esteves

From the second point of view the steps of logic have their order inverted, however largely coincide in their conclusion. While society may currently ‘view’ it as wrong, the reality is that the loss of some portion of its number is often a necessity to facilitate growth, this is the foundation of natural selection and evolution. As such it would seem the natural choice to enforce an environment of extreme competition to facilitate the optimal improvement of the whole by weeding out the weak and letting the strong attain their potential. This is after all the underlying principle of the most successful and prolific economic system on the planet to date, namely Capitalism. This however, is once again an oversimplification, one must view the society as a whole, and from this point of view it can clearly be seen that such a rampantly competitive environment inhibits the progress of the whole by restricting access to all achievements that would be impossible to accomplish alone.

Thus, if the goal is overall improvement, using almost any method of measurement, cooperation is an indisputable necessity. There does not exist a superior of these two options. I instead would argue that from almost any frame of reference in which the betterment of humanity is the goal, they are both wholly necessitated, and by no means mutually exclusive. Without competition there is no motivation, and thus no progress, while without collaboration in turn, it would be impossible to accomplish anything of an existentially ‘ad rem’ scale.

Kai Grotepass

First Year Engineering Student,

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