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Chris Froome, tour de France, individualism and cooperative groups

We now know that Chris Froome is the 2nd British winner of the tour de France in as many years, an extraordinary achievement. Cycling  might not be everybody’s favourite sport but it does offer fascinating insights into the relative importance in human nature of both individualism and being a  group player. 

How often in this race did we see individuals or small groups breakaway from the main pack of riders. How often too were they clawed back by cyclists working hard for each other. These of course were cyclists who were also arch rivals yet when they needed to they pulled together. When a breakaway group did succeed and escape the peloton this was partly because the breakaway group all worked for each other, and often also because the main peloton had too many people making individual breaks rather than working together. Groups of individualists, however brilliant, will never outcompete highly cooperative groups. This is true of all team sports but also it seems of groups in human evolutionary history [1]

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Pinker's Porkies and Views on Human Nature

Not long ago Stephen Pinker, who appeared on Desert Island Disks this week,  published a book to great acclaim called The Better Angels of Our Nature [1]. In this he argued that violent deaths had steadily been decreasing over the last few centuries. His message overall was that things are getting better, and this was a message that has pleased many people, not least those who think that the socio-economic system in which we currently live is as good as it gets.

Pinker presents in a paradoxical way. He talks and writes like a  typical left-leaning liberal but many of his ideas have a somewhat reactionary tinge. In particular his enchantment with the idea that our personalities are primarily formed by our genes has been taken to suggest, as argued  by Judy Rich-Harris [2]  who he greatly admires, that parents make very little difference to  how a child turns out. His book the Blank Slate [3] similarly took huge swipes at the idea that our personalities might be the product of our experiences,  and I think in that he set up various ‘straw men’ to easily knock down. His argument was in too many ways selective, ignoring for example the extraordinary research from epigenetics showing how genes and environment interact powerfully and that genes have different effects depending on the environment that triggers them. More importantly he ignored the massive evidence about the  powerful effect of early experiences on programming our brains and hormonal systems [4], particularly the effects of stress, anxiety, trauma and neglect, and he also ignored  the extraordinary body of research from attachment theory about the impact of early experiences.

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Guest — Liz
It is so important to challenge the notion that aggression and violence are 'natural' and therefore inevitable. So thanks for offe... Read More
Monday, 01 July 2013 10:07
Guest — Simon
Interesting stuff. I don't get the impression that Pinker is suggesting something as simplistic as violence is natural or inevita... Read More
Tuesday, 09 July 2013 11:43
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