According to ecological theory, the population of a species will grow until it becomes constrained by the available resources. These resources then become insufficient to satisfy the needs of all members of the species, and they will compete for them. This is a natural evolutionary process and applies as much to humanity as it does to any other species.
However, competition is of two types: negative and positive. Negative competition involves preventing a competitor from achieving their aims. In a running race, for example, competitors who engage in negative competition will attempt to trip one another up. Clearly, when taken to extreme, this can lead to conflict. Positive competition, on the other hand, involves each competitor striving to be superior to the other. In the example of a running race, each strives to be first to reach the finish line.
Counter-intuitively, positive competition can lead to co-operation, and thus, to human organisation. This form of competition reveals the most competent individual for a particular task. Other competitors, providing they are not engaging in negative competition, recognise that the task is best carried out by that person. They also recognise that there is benefit in excelling in their own niche and trading its outputs with those who most efficiently occupy others. For example, whoever is best at hunting will be recognised as the hunter, whoever best at fishing recognised as the fisherman, and the two will trade fish for meat to the advantage of both. Thus, an efficient “division of labour” emerges, with everyone doing what they do best, and each task being done by whoever is most competent to do it. In the absence of negative competition, trust also emerges, and everyone benefits through a process of trade.
Leadership is just one necessary task in human organisation. In general systems theory it is referred to as requisite hierarchy. It involves organizing the tasks carried out by a group of people to achieve a common goal, identifying who is most suited to each task, amicably resolving any disagreements, and discouraging any negative competition. The most competent leader is also revealed by positive competition. Through a process of trust and trade, e.g., fish and meat for leadership effort, the others come to accept him or her. With a leader and a division of labour in place, an organisation can be said to have formed.
Clearly, positive competition is socially beneficial, and negative competition socially harmful. In the running race, positive competition results in it being won in the shortest possible time, i.e., most efficiently. Negative competition, on the other hand, can lead to it never being won at all, if the participants descend to trading blows at the halfway point. Obviously, the benefits of positive competition described above seem rather idealistic. In practice, all human beings continuously balance their immediate interests with their longer-term interests gained from the support of a co-operative group. We all engage in both positive and negative competition to varying degrees. So, there are many ways in which human organisation can fail and I will discuss some of them in future articles.
Historically, humanity has extensively engaged in negative competition. Like many animals, early man competed aggressively for territory and the resources it contained. However, again like many animals, co-operation probably originated in small family groups. Unlike other animals, however, a virtuous circle, or positive feedback loop, developed. When two organized groups engage in positive competition, they begin to co-operate, and form a yet larger organized group. This, in turn, leads to ever greater skill and efficiency in acquiring resources and, thus, ever greater population. The process scales up. Thus, tribes formed kingdoms, kingdoms formed nations, and nations formed cultural groups, until we arrived at the world we see today.
Some, who feel that they cannot succeed in positive competition, will resort to negative competition. So, to reduce this within organized groups, norms, i.e., codes of acceptable behaviour, and methods of enforcement were established. In smaller groups, such as tribes, this would have been the word of the leader. However, as the membership of organized groups became ever larger, it became necessary to generalize and formalise these norms as laws, and to delegate their enforcement. In the world today, laws exist in all nations. Enforcement also exists, to a greater or lesser extent, and this has a strong bearing on a nation’s success or failure.
Negative competition has always existed between organized groups, from the tribal to the national scale. Hence the wars that we have seen in the past. It could even be argued that the two go hand in hand, because positive competition would result in tribes and nations merging to form larger organized groups. To a large extent this negative competition still exists today and, although they are becoming rarer, wars continue to take place. Unfortunately, control over negative competition between nations is still in its infancy, and many of the existential threats that humanity faces are global in nature. Suggestions as to how to take this forward are, therefore, given in a future article.