Cooperation Works Better than Conflict

Alexander Forbes - Cambridge, Massachusetts
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, March 26, 2010
Alexander Forbes
Photo illustration by Mel B. via Flickr

Harvard physician and researcher Alexander Forbes sees the march of evolution through time, and he acknowledges the work of a higher power in the process. Forbes believes it’s a force that can inspire humans toward greater cooperation and mutual respect.

Age Group: 65+
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The notion that science and religion are antagonistic and incompatible seems, to me, utterly false. Science is the quest for eternal truths in the universe by disciplined minds, and I am sure that if pursued in the right spirit, science engenders reverence. Reverence and worship are as much part of the normal human being as hunger for food, or zest for action. Primitive man, naturally, worships the sun—prime source of light and warmth, and indeed of this earth, itself. I sympathize and find the blue sky overhead as noble a setting for worship as the temple or cathedral.

I disagree with the cynics, who hold that all organized religion is a racket conducted by parasites who fleece the gullible. The history of religions reveals examples of just that. Indeed, our present civilization is not fully free from that reproach. But I am sure the well nigh universal tendency of man to revere, and worship, and to build his noblest edifices for the purpose, means more than wholesale surrender to self-seeking parasites. Religion is not a weakness. It is a vital element in human nature.

Geology tells the story of the change in our planet through millions of years from a mass of molten matter, in which no life could exist, to a fit abode for living creatures. Biology takes up the story and tells how life has evolved from origins as primitive as the protean molecule, to ever more highly organized forms—animals that see, hear, and feel, much as we do—and through them to human beings, who can reason, cultivate the fine arts, and organize a cooperative and harmonious society.

I find in this cosmic sequence a profoundly stirring drama. Those who say that all this is just a complex of physical and chemical reactions, devoid of meaning or purpose, are blinding themselves to all that matters most in our lives. If a chemist analyzes a volume of Shakespeare and finds nothing there but paper and ink, his report is quite irrelevant to me as I read Hamlet. Analysis of a symphony by physical apparatus may appear complete to the physicist, but it means nothing to the musician.

Viewing the pageant of the universe in its entirety and contemplating man’s rise from the protozoan to his highest spiritual stature, I find in the creative force that did all this, something we can worship with all the reverence that is in us. In the struggle for survival through the ages, cruel competition has been stressed as a necessary element. Yet, in spite of this, many animals lower in the scale than man have found that cooperation works better than conflict, and actually promotes survival. How much more does this apply to civilized man?

I believe that when neighbor countries learn that friendly trade is better than warfare, they will live better. When management and labor learn that their common aim, production, is better served by teamwork than by quarrels and strikes, they will fare better physically and spiritually.

I deplore the hostile conflicts between rival churches calling themselves Christian. The need for worship is expressed in many ways. The creeds and rituals that suit one type of mind, do not satisfy others. Dogmatic insistence that one form of worship is right and all others wrong is as alien to the spirit of freedom, to which our Western world is dedicated, as the tyranny of the dictator. Only when mutual respect and friendly cooperation replace dogmatism and bigotry will the true spirit of liberty prevail on earth.

Dr. Alexander Forbes was a pioneer in the field of neurophysiology. He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1910 and devoted himself to research on the human nervous system. Forbes served as a professor emeritus of physiology at Harvard for many years.

Photo illustration by Mel B. via Flickr