b. Competition and Co-operation

Competition & Co-operation

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.

i. A Systems Model of Human Organisation (Part 2)

A Systems Model of Human Organisation (Part 2)

This post is part two of the article begun last week. Due to its length, I have split the article down into three posts, but if you would like to read it in one sitting a copy can be downloaded here

Internal Feedback

Adapting internal processes involves an internal feedback loop in which the command component’s role is to:

  1. gather information from subordinate components. This information is subject to darkness and miscommunication. Darkness implies that the full picture can never be known. Miscommunication may involve subordinate components providing  misinformation or failing to supply relevant facts. Thus, the role of the command component is also to ensure that the supply of information is relevant and policed.
  2. issue instructions, laws, rules, regulations, norms, etc. to subordinate components and to police them. As will be explained later, ideally, this should also include rules to prevent negative competition. There can be difficulties when a command component polices itself, and thus, in a democracy for example, law-making and enforcement are separated.

External Feedback

Influencing the organisation’s external environment also involves a feedback loop. Outputs from the organisation act as inputs to other organisations in the environment. These may then be processed to yield the original organisation’s desired inputs. At its simplest level, an individual may pay for, or in some other way trade for food. At a higher level, a business may lobby government for reduced taxation or regulation. These external feedback loops are what bond levels in the organizational hierarchy together into society.

Each component organisation’s demand for inputs is a motivator. If, at the level in which external feedback occurs, other component organisations share the same motivator, they can act in one of three ways:

  1. Negative Unilateralism. The organisation acts unilaterally and in negative competition with others. The terms unilateral and multilateral are normally associated with international affairs, but here they are used more generically. Negative competition involves preventing competitors from achieving their goals. It includes but is not limited to the provision of misinformation about either organisation’s motivation, abilities and intentions. In this scenario, each organisation strives for its inputs from what may be a limited resource, and no functioning parent organisation emerges. Because negative competition leads to inefficiencies, the full potential benefits are unlikely to be achieved. Finally, open conflict can arise. It is notable that this largely reflects the state of global organisation today.
  2. Positive Unilateralism. The organisation acts unilaterally and in positive competition with others. Positive competition occurs when competitors each strive to be the best, as in the case of a running race. It leads to a  recognition of which component is best suited to what function. This, in turn, leads to co-operation. Each component finds the niche to which it is best suited and/or in which it is the most efficient. Thus, a functioning parent organisation with a command component ultimately evolves. On average, each component organisation will gain greater benefits than the previous option. However, sub-optimisation applies, and the benefits may not be as great as for those who are overwhelmingly successful in negative competition.
  3. Multilateralism. The organisation acts in co-operation with others. In this case a parent organisation with a command component is designed. The European Union is an example. However, because each component organisation strives for efficiency, there is a risk that they will exploit others, rather than contribute to the common effort. This would reduce the benefits for all.

In practice, the above options exist as points on a scale. There are numerous intermediate points between options a and b, and between options b and c, which depend on the attitudes and decisions of the component organisations.

Because we are a eusocial species, we must balance individual or unilateral action in our short-term interest with communal or multilateral action yielding longer-term benefits. For every organisation, there is an optimum efficiency which can be achieved by using positive unilateralism or multilateralism where appropriate. Nations with conflict between the political left, who favour collectivism, and the right, who favour individualism, should take note.

Optimisation applies to an organisation that acts unilaterally. If an organisation acts multilaterally, then we must rise up through the hierarchy until we reach either the global system or a parent or grandparent acting unilaterally. The requirement for optimization then cascades down through component and sub-component organisations, which may then need to operate sub-optimally.

When influencing its external environment, the role of the command component of an organisation is to:

  1. gather information from the external environment. In the systems model, this information is an input, which itself must be sought by influencing the external environment.
  2. make decisions in the interest of the relevant organisation as a whole. The relevant organisation may be the one commanded, its parent, or its grandparent, whichever operates unilaterally.
  3. manage the balance between unilateral and multilateral action to optimise the efficiency of the relevant organisation.
  4. issue commands to sub-ordinate components for the necessary outputs.

This article will conclude with part 3 next week.

h. A Systems Model of Human Organisation (Part 1)

A Systems Model of Human Organisation (Part 1)


I will now use the principles of general systems theory to describe the nature of human society. Due to its length, I have split this article down into three posts, but if you would like to read it in one sitting a copy can be downloaded here

The model is generic and applies to human organisation at all scales. It can only be fully understood if this is borne in mind. Some of the terms used are borrowed from particular aspects of human organisation, such as international affairs. However, here they are used generically. Examples are also given from various branches of human organisation, but again the concept described can be applied generically.

The Structure of Society

Human society is a hierarchy of organisations. In this context, the word “organisations” has a general meaning which includes not only formal organisations, such as those found in business or government, but any group of people who work together for a common purpose. It also includes any individual person. The hierarchy typically comprises the following levels. Level 6 is the highest, and level 1 the lowest.

6. Global System

5. National Groupings

4. Nations

3. Sectors

2. Organisations

1. Individuals

There is, of course, only one global system. However, the other levels each comprise several systems each of which is an organisation. Each organisation, except individual people, comprises several component sub-systems which are also organisations. Thus: the global system comprises several national groupings; each national grouping comprises several nations; each nation has several sectors; and so on. From the perspective of any organisation, the levels above it are its environment. If an organisation is a part of a more extensive organisation at a higher level, then the latter is referred to as a parent or grandparent organisation.

This structure is recursive, i.e., the same principles apply to organisations at every level. This helps to simplify what would otherwise be a very complex social structure.

Progressive Mechanisation & Centralisation

According the biologist, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, it is common for “progressive mechanisation” to occur in biological systems. That is a system whose components initially carry out all the functions of the organism begin to diversify and take on specific roles depending on their location within it. Thus, for example, an embryo initially comprises identical cells but, as it grows, they diversify to form organs, each with a different purpose.

On the other hand, “progressive centralisation” also occurs, i.e., controls such as the nervous system develop to direct the behaviour of those specialised organs, and co-ordinate their activity.

These processes, by specialising and co-ordinating the activities of the components, enable systems to behave in more complex ways than would otherwise be possible. The resulting behaviour is, of course, subject to natural selection and, thus, evolution.

Similar processes take place in social systems. For example, the members of a small tribe will all be capable of carrying out every function of the tribe. However, as it grows into a larger social group, individuals will begin to specialise, and a leader will emerge to organise their activities. Thus, one can expect people who live a relatively isolated and self-reliant rural life to be multi-skilled and individualistic in attitude. Those who live in cities, on the other hand, can be expected to be more specialised and collectivist in attitude.

Requisite Hierarchy

Every human organisation is a self-maintaining system, comprising inputs, processes, and outputs. It also has goals which act as motivators for its behaviour. In an individual human being, our motivators are the satisfaction of our needs, i.e., states that we are motivated to attain. We are also motivated to avoid negative states which I refer to as contra-needs. More generally however, the motivators of an organisation are those things, including its goals, changes to its inputs, etc., which influence its behaviour. In part, this behaviour is the production of outputs, and in part, it is action to sustain the organisation’s continued existence. A significant proportion of a self-maintaining organisation’s inputs can be spent on the latter.

In accordance with the systems principle of requisite hierarchy, every human organisation has a command component. This component is also an organisation. It has a particular role in coordinating the activities of subordinate components, but, in addition, obeys all the general principles of organisations. In the case of an individual person, the command component is the brain. In the case of groups of individuals, it is a high-status individual or sub-group. However, command sub-groups are also organisations with a command component, and recursion occurs until command is ultimately by a single individual. For example, government is the command component of a nation, and in the UK, the Prime Minister is the command component of government. This also helps to simplify what would otherwise be a very complex social structure.


An organisation requires inputs from its environment to carry out its function. Given no changes to the organisation’s internal processes, certain rates of inflow are necessary to sustain certain rates of outflow. For example, the harder a person works, the more food he or she must consume. In the case of a nation, energy, often in the form of oil, is necessary for a certain level of economic output.

All organisations aim to function efficiently, i.e., to maintain themselves and produce their outputs with the least inputs possible. A form of risk/benefit/cost analysis takes place. In individuals and smaller organisations this has an informal and emotional basis, but in larger organisations it can be more formal and have a financial basis.

If inputs alter, or need to be altered, then the command component must decide whether to:

  1. adapt the organisations internal processes. If so, then, initially at least, increased inputs will be necessary if outputs are not to be reduced.
  2. influence the organisation’s environment to gain the necessary supply of inputs. This entails use of the organisation’s outputs.
  3. carry out a combination of the two.

This article will continue with part 2 next week.