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.
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.