Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God hath made.…Genesis 3:1
The Social Problem: Cheat or Cooperate?
If only Adam and Eve had not eaten that tempting fruit, then God would have let them live in the Garden of Eden in eternal peace and happiness. Whether the fruit was knowledge, sexual desire, consciousness or, in one even more basic account, our need to steal protein from other living things, it was irresistible. Eve, and then Adam, ate it, God evicted the pair from paradise, and the rest was sin-laden history.
The choice that Adam and Eve faced – whether to cooperate with God or cheat – is a choice humans have faced since our emergence, not as a choice between cheating and cooperating with God but as a choice between cheating and cooperating with each other.We evolved in small groups of mostly related individuals, which gave us enormous survival advantages, and therefore enormous incentives to cooperate with one another. As a result, we have deep emotional ties to our groups, and a powerful hunger for social belonging. But because natural selection was operating at the individual level, it also gave us a paradoxical incentive to cheat. After all, if we could cheat and not get caught, we could still enjoy all the advantages of social living and yet get a leg up on everyone else. This deeply embedded tension between cooperation and cheating, between community and individuality, between selflessness and selfishness, is what I will call The Social Problem. It has been the central challenge of our species since our emergence.