Cooperation and Competition
It is well-understood that the primary relationship between agents in an evolutionary system is that of competition for resources: food, mates, territory, control, etc. It is also recognized that agents not only compete but also cooperate with one another, sometimes simultaneously, for instance hunting in packs (cooperation) while also fighting for alpha status within the pack (competition). If we look at inter-agent behaviors as existing on a continuum of pure competition on one end and pure cooperation* on the other, it is clear that there is broad range both within species and between agents of different species. Originally, cooperative behavior was explained away as an exception to the general competitive landscape and happened only when two agents shared enough genetic code (such as between parent and child) that cooperation could be seen as a form of genetic selfishness. While this true in a narrow sense, it misses the larger point which is that cooperation between any two or more agents can confer advantages to all regardless of genetic distance. Consider symbiotic species such as crocodiles and the birds that clean their teeth and get a tasty meal in return, without being eaten themselves.
Evolutionary theorists have demonstrated by argument and with simulation that cooperation is not the exception, but rather is a natural consequence of evolutionary systems and arises spontaneously under the right conditions (c.f. Axelrod for instance). I contend that cooperation plays a more fundamental role in CAS and should be seen not merely as a consequence of evolution, but rather as the creator of agency itself. In other words, when two or more agents interact in a cooperative manner such that their individual survival/fitness increases compared to neutral or competitive behaviors, then those agents can be seen to form a new system — new agent — at a higher level of organization.
To be clear, I am claiming that emergence of higher levels of organization of complex systems happens via cooperation of agents at the lower level, and that without cooperation, the burgeoning of complexity would not occur. Consider the emergence of societies of humans and the growth of multi-person groups both in numbers and complexity, from small family groups to clans, tribes, city-states and beyond. While it is true that within these groups competition still exists, it is cooperation that enables growth in complexity. Division of labor (a form of cooperative behavior) is the basic mechanism of value creation in economies. Creation of mores and laws (“social contracts”) are the key enabler for a smooth running society whether it be the size of a family, or a multi-national treaty. Communication itself is a form of cooperative behavior. No communication is necessary to compete, in fact letting one’s dinner know of one’s intentions on the savanna is a sure way to starve.
Even as agents have incentive to cooperate in certain ways, there will usually be incentive to compete in others. The degree to which a newly emergent agent will be recognized as such — for instance a society from individuals, or multicellular organism from single cells — is the degree to which the cooperation is the norm rather than competition. The reason we are quick to call an animal an individual agent distinct from its subsystems of organs, cells, etc, and the reason we do not generally acknowledge societal agency, is because within a society there is much more freedom of behavior of the agents at the lower level, and thus there is more competition to go along with (and to negate the effects of) cooperation. When single cells first banded together into colonies, the cohesion of the multicellular agent at the higher level was not as great as it is today in multicellular life forms. Over time, the benefits to all of subjugating individual interests to common interest took over and formed an agent that not only sustained its constituent parts better than a loose colony would, but that new agent began to be subjected to selective pressures at the higher level. Features of individual lower-level agents that were destructive to the higher-level, such as unchecked motility, proliferation and invasiveness, were selected against by evolution at the higher level. Eventually, individual cells lost their ability to survive on their own and required the multifaceted, tight cooperative interactions of life a a constituent part of the higher-level agent to exist and procreate.
* It is worth noting that cooperative behavior need not (and generally isn’t) “intentional”. For instance the emergence and continued integrity of sand dunes from individual grains of sand does not depend on any intentional behavior on the part of the gains. Rather, the initial physical proximity of the grains to each other, combined with external and inter-grain forces like wind, gravity and friction — which act similarly on these physically proximate grains — is de facto a form of cooperation in this context. Coherence in the realm of physics is a form of cooperation amongst waves of all sorts (water, light, quantum).