Evolution Favors Cooperation Over Competition

There is a myth in evolutionary biology, as well as in the zeitgeist, that evolution by natural selection is all about competition.

“Nature, red in tooth and claw”:

Richard Dawkins used this quote in his book, “The Selfish Gene,” to summarize the behavior of all living things which arises out of the survival of the fittest doctrine of evolutionary biology. His unsentimental view of behavioral biology was originally unpopular when the book was published in 1976, coming at a time when the prevailing worldview of human behavior was tabula rasa….

Dawkins used the quote as a corrective, reminding us that we humans are born into a world with pre-existent genetic imperatives that cause us to be competitive despite the best efforts of education and religion to suppress those imperatives.

From Everything2.com

The myth, which The Selfish Gene perpetuated, contends that where cooperative behavior is found in nature, it can be explained by kinship relations alone.  That is, you share genes with your kin, therefore these shared genes have incentive to cause you to cooperate.  To the extent that cooperation exists between organisms that are not close kin, the myth explains this away as co-option of general “social mechanisms” that were intended (by evolution) to facilitate kin cooperation.

Thanks to Robert Aumann and Robert Axelrod, the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (IPD) showed that cooperation can emerge naturally without any notion of kinship or shared genes.

In fact cooperation can exist and thrive in the presence of completely “ruthless” populations of defectors who never cooperate.  Martin Nowak’s 2006 text, Evolutionary Dynamics, explores the cooperative dynamic in detail.  Here are some interesting findings Nowak notes from studying spatial Prisoner’s Dilemma games — a subset of IPD in which the population is arranged in a spatial configuration and individuals interact only with their neighbors:

  • Cooperators and defectors co-exist
  • “Cooperators survive in clusters”
  • “Cooperators can invade defectors when starting from a small cluster”
  • One interesting dynamic occurs when two self-sustaining “walker” sub-populations collide into a “big bang” of cooperation which largely takes over the population.

Cooperation can also emerge based on temporal asymmetries during replacement of individuals in a population with reproduction.  If the choice of which individual will be replicated is made before randomly selecting an individual to be “killed off”, then selection favors defectors.  It turns out however, that if the choice is made after the randomly selected individual is removed from the population, then cooperation is favored.  While generalizing from simple models does not always capture what’s going in nature, this surprising outcome should give us some intuition that the central dogma is in need of further examination.

Cooperation appears infectious under the right circumstances.  Of course the same can be said of defection (aka competition) if you get to choose your circumstances.  However because Earth is a thermodynamically open system where more energy is continually added (from the sun for instance), I would wager that on average, cooperation yields higher payoffs than competition.  And because of this asymmetry, cooperation, not competition, is the more “natural” state of affairs.  If you catalog all of the interactions between all of the agents in the world and divide them into the three categories of cooperation, competition and neutral, I bet you will find more of the former than the latter.  If you start with this premise and look at the world anew, you may find (as I do) that the world is an inherently benevolent place.

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  • Actually, The Selfish Gene doesn’t advocate selfishness in nature. Dawkins uses the title as a metaphor for the gene’s-eye view of the world. From a gene’s point of view (not that a gene has a point of view, mind you) only those copies that are successful – or, at least, are not harmful – will survive into subsequent generations. They could be genes that promote competition (for example, by increasing the release of adrenalin resulting in a greater “fight or flight” response) or they could be genes that promote cooperation (perhaps by inhibiting adrenaline, or by increasing the release of oxytocin during periods of stress). As Dawkins put it himself in his more recent book, The Ancestor’s Tale, “The Selfish Gene could equally have been called The Cooperative Gene without a word of the book itself needing to be changed. . . Selfishness and cooperation are two sides of a Darwinian coin.”

    However, you’re quite right about cooperation being an important force in evolutionary history. I have written on this topic in great detail. If you’re interested please see my post The Sacrifice of Admetus at the following link:


  • @Eric, nice essay, and thanks for clarifying Dawkins’ position. I guess I fell prey to the same commentary around it, much like those who mistake Darwin’s theory for being something other than it is. In retrospect, Dawkin’s should have called it the Cooperative Gene, just to avoid the same pitfall! I will be careful in the future to be clear about Dawkin’s own view vs. that of the “selfish gene” meme he started (oh the irony!)

    One thing I didn’t point out in this post, but have in others is the importance of cooperation in emergence and thus in the creation of complexity and new levels of organization. Here’s the relation between evolution and emergence.

  • Alex Golubev

    funny that he mentions religion, because as someone pointed out to me, religion itself is an evolutionary development that is mroe advanced that a single human. it is an entity that promotes self growth and (ususally) encourages competition with other religious groups. It sounds contradictory in the framework of religion itself (love thy neighbor always or only if they share my religion?), but makes perfect sense as an evolutionary mechanism. It’s interesting to see the different structures of religion that weight self-replications (mormons), or competitiveness (____ i’m not naming names) more than other groups.

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  • If I remember correctly Dawkin’s did not provide the title for this book the publisher did. I read somewhere where I noted that the book could have been equally titles. The Cooperative Gene

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