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).

  • Interesting stuff, and I agree that all too often evolution is reduced to “nature red in tooth and claw” without any thoughts towards cooperation/symbiosis/etc. I was reminded of this just last night as I read the book A Primate’s Memoir about baboons in Africa; several males that would normally beat up on each other teamed together to oust the dominant male of the group, even though only one of the 6 cooperative males would be the new leader (and probably beat up on all the rest). The relationship between corals and algae remind me of cooperation as well (even though they don’t consciously, willingly “cooperate”), and I think you’ve got something as far as cooperation at basic levels in order to give rise to more complex interactions and systems. There is certainly an odd interplay between cooperation and competition as well, the motivation for cooperation sometimes comes from the need to acquire resources, but done in such a way that it’s more likely to more regularly meet needs than getting potentially greater rewards alone.

    Anyhow, thank you for writing this, and keep up the good work.

  • Keith Allpress

    I am afraid you have badly misunderstood evolution.
    A modern evolutionary biologist will speak exclusively of “natural selection”, and NOT “survival of the fittest”. The mechanism of evolution is quite simple and easy to understand. Change occurs in small mutations in individual organisms, and these changes can persist in the reproduction of the organism, and that obviously the occurrence of a trait in a population will be directly tied to the effectiveness of the reproduction of that trait in the population FOR WHATEVER REASON.
    Complexity IS an increased level of integration by definition, a massive internal increase in associational workings within an organism, and with its environment, and yes OF COURSE that can evolve directly.
    You can overlay the masculinised language of competition, or the feminised language of cooperation on this, or do anything you like in any context, but social interaction is a higher level phenomenon, and has NOTHING to do with the basic theory.
    You can see this most clearly in the simple fact that asexual reproduction PREDATES sexual reproduction. In fact it is ludicrously obvious, that in order to reproduce sexually the most extraordinary degree of cooperative behaviour is mandated. In this context, competition is obviously nothing more than a bit of social discrimination behaviour overlayed onto these cooperative rituals. I am afraid you boys are reading far too much into that.

  • Keith Allpress

    I hope you will forgive my little dig. But it is just that it is all too easy to forget that we operate from a particular social and cultural perspective and that can skew our take on things. So my point is really, that natural selection occurs for whatever reason and the gene survives. In fact, evolution can proceed without natural selection.

    I mean a trait such as the shape of your nose can evolve into a whole bunch of different shaped noses, that has no significance whatsoever. Its just incidental change that will just keep happening. If something happens to the environment that suddenly means the shape of your nose becomes highly significant, then “natural selection” might mean that individuals with that nose predominate.

    It doesn’t mean that we have “nose-offs” with each-other, it could just mean that the infant mortality rate becomes a bit uneven depending on nose shape. Maybe its just that some babies are better able to avoid a nasty flue virus, or that some populations are better able to identify eachother in the dark using nose flute technology, or that women are able to cooperate better by deciding which male gets the virgin by gathering the best smelling roses. Who knows? Its for whatever reason.

    Now the discussion of the interplay of competition and cooperation is still interesting too, as long as we agree not to attach any undue significance to competition as some kind of driver of motive force of evolution, because as I have so carefully tried to explain, it isn’t. All these kinds of phenomena come under the “for whatever reason” umbrella.

    The extreme case would be a benign environment with plenty if not unlimited resources. If competition were all that significant, then under such a regime there would be need for competition for resources. Would evolution slow to a halt? No. Mutations would still occur.

    The organism would tune to the environment very closely and become super efficient. Take sexually reproducing dinousaurs for example. Larger individuals, like T Rex, will evolve. This dramatic change would have almost nothing to do with competition, but everything to do with efficiency of the organism itself. A larger mass to surface area ratio means that the individual does not need as much food to keep himself warm. And if he or she is a carnivore, then his very existence depends on the success of the whole food chain, and his numbers will be self-limiting.

    Under benign conditions an organism that has plenty of resources will attune closely to the environment, but that is a fragile and unadaptable strategy. A severly changing environment can stress populations indiscriminately. The production of oxygen by certain organisms altered the entire balance of life on earth and gave rise to an evolutionary explosion. So we do not just get organisms evolving, we have strategies evolving. At the cellular level, strategies are transferred sideways, so for example the innovations inside bacteria were transferred to other cells by all kinds of “jumping genes”. Strategies can be at any level of organisation. At the upper level, human beings strategy is being highly adaptable omnivores, that has been successful up till now, but we have wrecked our own environment and we will soon suffer the consequences.

    In animals because of the seasons, babies need to be born during the spring. But with humans, we can have them all year round. No suppose there is a “randy” gene.
    It will spread like wildfire so that the whole population soon inherits it. But then that is counterproductive in all animals, except humans, because we can have babies in winter. So we have a genetic arms race involving randiness, until we are all randy to the same level, and it is self-levelling. That’s the thing about the selfish gene, it looks after itself, regardless of what populations think is going on.

  • Keith,

    I think you mistake my position for the strawman that I am arguing against :-) That is, we are mostly in agreement. There are some nuances I’d like to point out though.

    While it is true that evolution — aka natural selection — can proceed without overt competition (i.e. genetic drift), it cannot without some form of differential reproduction in the population. This post summarizes the situation. Whether you see that as overt competition or not, it at the very least is implicit competition. This is not to say that organisms have just one form of interaction with one an other. They can “compete” on the reproductive dimension, while at the same time cooperate on one or more survival dimensions (food, safety from predation, protection from the elements, etc).

    I agree with you that cooperation is a sort of higher level phenomenon, but I will go even further and suggest that it works in the following multi-level dynamic. Agents at Level 1 (e.g. single celled organisms) interact with one an other, that is they compete along some dimensions and cooperate along others. (BTW, I view behaviors in this context as being laid out on a continuum of fierce, overt competition on the one end and highly altruistic behavior on the other end, with most behaviors falling somewhere between the extremes). Those behaviors on the “competition” end of the spectrum tend to lead to differential reproduction rates and thus are the drivers of evolution by natural selection of a population of Level 1 agents. Those behaviors on the “cooperation” end of the spectrum tend to lead to the creation of new composite Level 2 agents — for example multicellular organisms. Those Level 2 agents also interact with one another on a spectrum of behaviors, leading to evolution at Level 2 and the emergence of Level 3. And so on.

    In summary, I believe that competitive behaviors drive evolution by natural selection and cooperative behaviors drive the emergence of new levels of complexity. Both dynamics happen simultaneously, and affect one another in a myriad of interesting ways. Up until recently, the focus in science has been almost entirely on the evolutionary dynamic. When cooperative behaviors were discussed they were jury-rigged into evolution in an uneasy fit that has lead to controversies like this one. By bringing into the discussion the notion that cooperation leads to emergence of higher-level agents, the apparent unease between evolution and cooperation goes away and we start to see the beginnings of a new synthesis that makes much more sense, agrees with the data, and has better predictive power than modern evolutionary biology alone.

  • Keith Allpress

    The point is that you do not need to invoke competition or cooperation in order to define evolution, you do not need to overlay such emotive concepts as “fitness” either.
    It is purely and simply a mechanism. Change can occur in isolated individuals, and can be propagated by the reproductive process.

    Take infant mortality for example. That is a massive input into the selective process. The child that does not make it to adulthood will not propagate his or her genetic code. Now whether you chose to see this as a consequence of “implicit competition” whatever that is supposed to mean, it is irrelevant. It could make just as much sense to frame it up as some kind of level of cooperation. This is all anthropocentric hoo-ha.

    In fact the changes wrought by evolution are best viewed as a drunkard’s random walk, without meaning or purpose, but subject to the basic universal distribution laws of mathematics. So life is always dominated by simpler forms such as bacteria, up through the massive species explosion represented by beetles, with a dwindling species of complex animal forms in standard food chain heirarchies.

  • Cooperation does not lead to differential reproduction (i.e. the selective process), but rather just the opposite. Competition does lead to differential reproduction. While I understand your reticence to anthropomorphize or use loaded terminology, at some point you have to pick some descriptive terms that actually say what’s going on. I agree that these terms are way overloaded with historical prejudice, etc. I am not using them in that way.

  • Keith Allpress

    I think we are coming to the crux of it. You use the phrase “leads to”. In other words, you are postulating a “cause” for an evolutionary event. You see you just don’t need to have a cause.

    Life is a dynamic and hence unstable condition, it is only maintained by a constant energy input flux. It is a small miracle that any organism can stabilise itself enough to repair the constant DNA damage it suffers. It is not evolution that needs “explaining”, if anything, its the opposite. The fact that living systems don’t evolve into fragmented chaos and disappear overnight.

    The fact that organisms have managed to find a way to preserve their reproductive cells and correct the constant damage done to them. The reason we sleep, and the reason we age, are all due to the fact that we need time out daily to repair the broken systems. (Metabolism itself is a dangerous process that generates destructive waste products.) The strategy is to invest energy into trying to minimise the mutation rate, at least until the organism has reproduced.

    So you simply don’t need to look for any mystical “driver” or “cause”, or anything that “leads to” evolution. So selection is not a cause, because there is no-one or nothing specific to “do” the selection. Selection is a post-rationalisation.

    So we observe a PARTICULAR evolutionary change, such as the emergence of a sub-population, and THEN we can say, OK, in this case, in this context, for this environment, at this point in time, on this planet, etc. perhaps we can identify what selective principle might have been at work.
    It is detective work, it is after the event.

    It is differential, so that can be an increase or a decrease in any of the BALANCING factors that we identify with the stability of the population. We can choose to focus on anything we like. For example we may choose to perceive that a population is in a complex dynamic with its own members, other life forms, and the environment. Or maybe sunspots. And we can make inferences.

    I can see why you would give sexual selection behaviour such a high weighting in your worldview. But then you would be conveniently ignoring the vast majority of evolution of life on earth, which is asexual.

  • Keith Allpress

    We can develop any number of conceptual handles to describe emergent systems behaviour. How about “exploitation”? When we “technologise” our anthropo-centric language terms, we have to be careful that we don’t project a personality into that.

    Why not say that biosystems are “successful” when they can “exploit” their community with other organisms? In other words the cult of the individual organism is now subordinate to their communal context. Everybody benefits from synergism but those that predominate will be those that benefit more than others. If you are really hung up on using the metaphor of “competition”, then you can call this “competiton for synergism” if you like, but in the end these are only metaphorical handles, only words.

    Organisms live in ecosystems that totally rely on other organisms. A man is not an island. Better to view an “ecological niche”. I fail to see that a concept like “competition” is some kind of universal good, or really has much explanatory power. The dinosaurs are not extinct because they were outdone by mammals. Mammals simply moved into the niches they left behind as the climate changed. Plate techtonics and climate change explain all things better than the net result of competition between species.

    Take sexual competition within a species. Having to attract a mate increases dependance between members, increases risk. It does lead to social structure to sustain it, which would sustain it but is that enough? How could something like sex get established? It complicates reproduction, the organism then has to attract and dock with a mate. There has to be some hidden advantage to it, something to counter-balance all the negatives as a package deal.

    The answer is that it stabilises the organism. A second copy of the broken DNA can be supplied by the mate, and prevent a mutation. Its got nothing to do with choosing a better version, instead it has everything to do with keeping the status quo alive and well.

  • Keith,

    I think you are ascribing meanings to words that I do not intend. Asexual species “reproduce” too. I was not referring sexual reproduction. Similarly with “competition” and “cooperation”, no morality or gender or human-centric or techno-centric agenda is intended. These are merely descriptive terms to classify behaviors and interactions between agents (biological, technological, cultural, whatever).

    I suggest you read my posts in chronological order because I address language, metaphor and causality early on. I think you will see that I am a kindred spirit here. But at some point, because we are human and working in a written medium of blogs, we have to use language and have to use words to convey our thoughts. Communication is imperfect, but you are making it unnecessarily hard by assuming connotations that I don’t intend. It’s as if you are continuing an argument with someone else that I was not party to and assuming I hold their same beliefs :-)

    As for evolution, I understand that causality is a chicken and egg problem. But regardless of whether selection is “cause” or post hoc descriptive “effect”, it’s a real phenomenon that is part and parcel of evolution. If there is no selection (i.e. differential heritable reproduction) involved, then there is no evolution. At least not in the sense that Darwin or anyone else talks about.

  • Keith Allpress

    Your opening thesis
    “It is well-understood that the primary relationship between agents in an evolutionary system is that of competition for resources”
    is wrong. Nothing personal.