(Source: Leonardo Boff; unofficial translation: Novena)

An ever-present question in human searching is: what is our specific essence?

History knows innumerable answers, but the most forceful, a point of convergence for various contemporary sciences such as the new evolutionary biology, genetics, the neurosciences, evolutionary psychology, cosmology, ecology, phenomenology and others, is this: cooperation and solidarity.

Michael Tomasello, well-renowned in the field of non-invasive development psychology in children from 1 to 3 years of age, brought together the best of this field in a volume entitled: Why We Cooperate (Warum wir kooperieren: Berlin, Suhrkamp, 2010).

In his opening essay, he affirms that the essence of the human is in “altruism” and “cooperation”. “In altruism one sacrifices himself for the other. It is empathy. In cooperation many unite for the common good” (p. 14). It is solidarity.

One of Stanford University’s leading specialists in psychology and evolution, Carol S. Dweck, states: “More than the exceptional greatness of our brains and our immense ability to think, our essential nature is this: the ability to be beings of cooperation and relationship” (Why We Cooperate, op. cit., 95).

Another specialist in the same science, famous for her empirical investigations – Elizabeth S. Spelke, from Harvard – affirms: our mark by natur that differentiates us from any other superior species such as primates (of which we are a bifurcation) is “our shared intention” that “fosters all forms of cooperation, communication and participation in common tasks and objectives” (op. cit., 112). It runs alongside language, which is essentially social and cooperative, a specific feature of humans, as understood by Chilean biologists H. Maturana and F. Varela.

Another specialist, Joachim Bauer – this time a neurobiologist from the well-known Max Plank Institute – in his book The Cooperative Gene (Das kooperative Gen: Hoffman und Campe, Hamburg, 2008), and especially in the book The Principle of Humanity: Why We Cooperate by Nature (2006) – supports the same thesis: the human being is essentially a cooperative being.

[Bauer] strongly refutes the English zoologist Richard Dawkins, author of the book The Selfish Gene (1976/2004). And he affirms “that his [Dawkins’ thesis has no empirical basis; on the contrary, it represents the correlate of the dominant capitalism that thus seems to legitimise it” (op. cit., 153). He also criticizes the superficiality of another book of his, The God Delusion (2007).

However, says Bauer, it is scientifically proven that “genes are not autonomous and in no way are ‘selfish’ but instead they aggregate with others in cells throughout the body” (The Cooperative Gene, 184).

Furthermore, he says: “All living systems are characterised by permanent cooperation and molecular communication in and out” (op. cit., 183).

It is well-known in bioanthropology that the human species left primates behind and became human when it cooperatively began to collect and eat what it collected.

One of the axial theses of quantum physics (W. Heisenberg) and of cosmogenesis (B. Swimme) is the affirmation of the cooperation and relationship of everyone with everyone. Everything is related and nothing exists outside the relationship. Everything cooperates with everything to coevolve.

Perhaps the most beautiful formulation was found by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’: on the care of the Common House: “Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth” (n. 92).

Maurício Abdala, a Brazilian professor of the philosophy of science at the UFES [Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo – ed.] in Vitória, wrote a compelling book, The Principle of Cooperation (Paulus 2002), in line with the previous reflections.

Why are we saying all this? To show how unnatural and perverse the prevailing system of capital is with its individualism and competition without any cooperation.

That’s what’s leading humanity to a fatal dead end. With this logic [of capital], the coronavirus would have contaminated us and exterminated the vast majority. The cooperation and solidarity between everyone is what is saving us.

From here on in we have to decide whether we obey our essential nature – cooperation and empathy on a personal, local, regional, national and global level, changing our way of living in the Common Home – or whether we begin to prepare for the worst, on a path of no return.

If we do not listen to this lesson that the Covid-19 is giving us and we go back, with even more fury than before, to make up for lost time, we might find ourselves in a countdown to an even more lethal catastrophe on a threshold to the apocalypse.

Who can guarantee that the dreaded NBO (Next Big One) won’t be that next and last overwhelming and unassailable virus that will end our species?

Big names in science like Jacquard, de Duve, Rees, Lovelock and Chomsky, among others, warn us about this tragic emergency.

It only remains for me to remember the last words of the old Martin Heidegger in his last interview with Der Spiegel, which would be published 15 years after his death, referring to the suicidal logic of the scientific-technical project of modernity: “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten” = “Only a God can save us”.

This is what I hope and believe, since God has revealed himself as “the passionate lover of life” (Wisdom 11:24).

More by Boff, on Novena:

Ecotheologian Boff: “If what prevailed before COVID-19 prevails again, we should prepare for the worst”

Liberation theologian Boff, on COVID-19: “To return to ‘business as usual’ could mean our self-destruction”

Boff: “Capitalism is only good for the rich; for the rest it is hell and for nature, a war”

Liberation theologian, on coronavirus: “All individualism, soul of the culture of capital, is false and anti-human”

Theologian warns on coronavirus: “This pandemic demands a different relationship with nature and the Earth”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.