The Missing Puzzle Piece: Cooperation, The Third Integral Aspect Of Evolution

The Missing Puzzle Piece: Cooperation, The Third Integral Aspect Of Evolution

Scientists from a wide range of disciplines have attempted for more than a century to explain how cooperation, altruism, and self-sacrifice arose in our dog-eat-dog world. Darwin himself was troubled by selfless behavior. Yet in his great works, the problem of cooperation was a sideshow, a detail that had to be explained away. That attitude prevails among many biologists even today.”

The above and subsequent quotes on cooperation in evolution and human society come from Martin Nowak’s and Roger Highfield’s book, Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed.

Does Cooperation Hurt Survival Of The Fittest?

Why weaken your own fitness to increase the fitness of a competitor? Why bother to look after anyone besides number one? Cooperation goes against the grain of self-interest. Cooperation is irrational. From the perspective of Darwin’s formulation for the struggle for existence, it makes no sense to aid a potential rival, yet there is evidence that this occurs among even the lowliest creatures.

… This looks like a fatal anomaly in the great scheme of life. Natural selection should lead animals to behave in ways that increase their own chances of survival and reproduction, not improve the fortunes of others. In the never-ending scrabble for food, territory, and mates in evolution, why would one individual ever bother to go out of its way to help another?”

To Compete Or Cooperate

We are all cells in the same body of humanity.”

—Peace Pigram (Mildred Lisette Norman)

In the game of life we are all driven by the struggle to succeed. We all want to be winners. There is the honest way to achieve this objective. Run faster than the pack. Jump higher. See farther. Think harder. Do better. But, as ever, there is the dark side, the calculating logic of self-interest that dictates that one should never help a competitor. In fact, why not go further and make life harder for your rivals? Why not cheat and deceive them too?

… Humans are the selfish apes. We’re the creatures who shun the needs of others. We’re egocentrics, mercenaries, and narcissists. We look after number one. We are motivated by self-interest alone, down to every last bone in our bodies. Even our genes are said to be selfish. Yet competition does not tell the whole story of biology. Something profound is missing.”

The Third Integral Element Of Evolution

Previously, there were only two basic principles of evolution—mutation and selection—where the former generates genetic diversity and the latter picks the individuals that are best suited to a given environment. For us to understand the creative aspects of evolution, we must now accept that cooperation is the third principle. For selection you need mutation and, in the same way, for cooperation you need both selection and mutation. From cooperation can emerge the constructive side of evolution, from genes to organisms to language and complex social behaviors. Cooperation is the master architect of evolution.”

Implications For Humanity

The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”

—Bertrand Russell

Human society fizzes with cooperation. Even the simplest things that we do involve more cooperation than you might think. Consider, for example, stopping at a coffee shop one morning to have a cappuccino and croissant for breakfast. To enjoy that simple pleasure could draw on the labors of a small army of people from at least half a dozen countries.”

“Our breathtaking ability to cooperate is one of the main reasons we have managed to survive in every eco system on Earth, from scorched sun-baked deserts to the frozen wastes of Antarctica to the dark, crushing ocean depths. Our remarkable ability to join forces has enabled us to take the first steps in a grand venture to leave the confines of our atmosphere and voyage toward the moon and the stars beyond.”

Cooperation—not competition—underpins innovation. To spur creativity, and to encourage people to come up with original ideas, you need to use the lure of the carrot, not fear of the stick. Cooperation is the architect of creativity throughout evolution, from cells to multicellular creatures to anthills to villages to cities. Without cooperation there can be neither construction nor complexity in evolution.”

Here is Roger Highfield describing cooperation in evolution [12 minutes 59 seconds]:

… cooperation is the third pillar of evolution. And without cooperation, there is nothing constructive really going on in biology… we’re not only talking about cooperation with each other in this generation. If you look at the state of the planet we have to think carefully about cooperating with future generations too.”

Current Problems/Crises Lack Cooperation

Many problems that challenge us today can be traced back to a profound tension between what is good and desirable for an individual. That conflict can be found in global problems such as climate change, pollution, resource depletion, poverty, hunger, and overpopulation. The biggest issues of all—saving the planet and maximizing the collective lifetime of the species Homo sapiens—cannot be solved by technology alone.

They require novel ways for us to work in harmony. If we are to continue to thrive, we have but one option. We now have to manage the planet as a whole. If we are to win the struggle for existence, and avoid a precipitous fall, there’s no choice but to harness this extraordinary creative force. We now have to refine and to extend our ability to cooperate. We must become familiar with the science of cooperation. Now, more than ever, the world needs SuperCooperators.”

What Do You Think?

How has the absence of cooperation being taught as a key integral aspect of evolution, affected your view of the world?

How would your viewpoint change if you were taught: Cooperation is needed for evolution to continue. It is needed for the development of more complex and harmonious human societies. It is essential for solving problems/crises today?

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