A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution

W.G. Runciman writes:

How is it that the members of a species as greedy, quarrelsome, egoistic and deceitful as ours still manage to live together in societies sufficiently harmonious and orderly not to be constantly breaking apart? Mid-20th-century sociologists used to call it ‘the problem of order’, which many of them saw as constituting the raison d’être for the academic discipline of sociology. But they didn’t have much success in solving it. The ‘structural-functionalists’, who stressed the normative and integrative aspects of human social organisation, were answered by the ‘conflict theorists’, who stressed the constant struggles between incompatible ideological and material interests. Politics came into it too, as sociologists for whom the US was the showpiece of enlightened liberal democracy clashed with others for whom it exemplified unbridled competition, entrenched racism and the systematic exploitation by the rich of the poor.

(LRB 23 February 2012)