How Do We Survive?

Cooperation: It keeps us alive.

The title of this post may seem a touch strange, or even ridiculous. You may have already answered this question mentally: “Well stupid, we breathe, we eat, we drink, we reproduce.” And on some level, this is exactly how we survive.

I would ask you to imagine yourself completely alone in a desert, with no bottled water, no prepackaged food, and nothing but your wits to keep you alive. I promise you wouldn’t make it very long.

Alternatively, if you favor moister climes, picture yourself in a jungle. There’s food and water all around, but there’s the constant threat of wild animals, contaminated water, poisonous spiders, disease, and aggressive chimpanzees (see the “Aggression” section of the article I’m linking to). So chances are you wouldn’t make it long there alone either! Besides just these risks, we are under constant threat from environmental disasters, infrastructural failures (bursting dams, etc.), and freak accidents. Every day, someone’s life is tragically ended by a seemingly meaningless and random event.

Looking at life this way, my titular question becomes a lot more valid. Humans really have no special survival mechanisms, at least none that can save us from drought, storms, famine, or semi-trucks. So how is it that we’ve been so successful? How did our distant ancestors ever make it in such a hostile world?

I was recently listening to a podcast, Planet Money (which I would say is one of the highest quality podcasts out there today). Episode #248 (find it on iTunes!) is about the great economist Adam Smith and his political and economic philosophies, and in the podcast, a guest on the show brings up an interesting point about Smith’s philosophy: We as humans are weak and vulnerable, and we survive only by cooperation. He believed that the exchange of goods, services, and most strikingly, ideas is what allows to survive in this harsh world.

Now, this philosophy really took hold with me for one reason or another. The idea that exchange is what allows us to survive is strange at first, but also extremely compelling. As we humans progress through life, we learn more things about the world around us, and the more we know, the better prepared we are to deal with the problems we encounter throughout life. When you get right down to it, the only reason that humans have been so successful is that we’ve been better able to work with each other to advance common interests, and we’ve been better at communicating with each other.

I would say those are the two keys to human survival: Cooperation and communication. By cooperating with each other, we as humans have been able to build huge civilizations, make incredible technological discoveries and advances, and build vastly better lives (on average) than we had even 1,000 years ago! For such a young race (humans probably diverged from neanderthals about 500,000 years ago, while modern shark species date from 100 million years ago), we as humans have done extraordinarily well. While we still tear each other apart in war and can carry out horrifying acts of cruelty against each other, we’re nonetheless able to work together more than any other species, and it’s allowed us to put together everything from mud huts to space shuttles.

Our communicational abilities help a lot too. While other animal species certainly communicate, by hormones, verbal sounds, physical features, and a host of other methods, no other species on the planet can top the human ability to communicate and discuss complex ideas. Unlike any other animals (at least as far as we know!), humans are able to comprehend and construct economic systems, political structures, and, some would say, religious outlooks. We possess a whole parallel world of ideas and principles that no other species on our planet can claim.

And indeed, it’s this that keeps us alive. By working together, humanity has been able to accomplish more than any other force on this earth, excepting the forces of the Earth itself. While it’s true that we sometimes overuse and abuse this power, it’s what has allowed us to stay alive. Without our complex network of social, economic, and technological connections, we lose so much ability to thrive. I may write more on this later, and whether it’s a good or a bad way to be, but for now I’m content to marvel at this. I think it’s incredible how the complex world we’ve built around us, our governments, our countries, our economies, even our dinner table chats, have made us the dominant species on this planet.

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