Survival of the friendliest: how cooperation plays a positive role in evolution

The dominant story about biological evolution is a bloody tale of competition and survival of the fittest. There’s no purpose or morality in nature.  There’s no Creator imposing an Intelligent Design.  Rather, random mutations during cell division result in offspring with a diversity of traits. Those offspring with fitter traits tend to survive and breed.  Weaker offspring die out.  Over many generations, beneficial traits accumulate, leading to evolution and the eventual creation of new species.

Kinda brutal. Just what libertarians would love.

Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed offers a more nuanced story about evolution.  The book presents recent research in biology and mathematical game theory that challenges the primacy of competition as a force in biological and cultural evolution.  According to the new paradigm, cooperation plays a much more significant role in the success of species in than in the dominant approach.

Nowak writes that natural selection is not a sufficient foundation for evolution.

I propose that “natural cooperation” be included as a fundamental principle to bolster those laid down by Darwin. Cooperation can draw living matter upward to higher levels of organization. It generates the possibility for greater diversity by new specializations, new niches, and new divisions of labor. Cooperation makes evolution constructive and open-ended.

An important point is that all this lofty talk is backed up by peer-reviewed science. Nowak published, in major journals, articles about mathematical game theory which explain under what conditions cooperation can evolve in communities of competing organisms.

This topic is of particular interest because of its implications for politics.    The political ideology of the conservative movement in America is based on opposition to government and cooperation, in favor of low taxes, deregulation, and laissez-faire capitalism.   Conservatives can point to evolution as a justification of their ideology, much as Herbert Spenser did in the 19th century. But if cooperation plays a much larger role in evolution than previously thought, then the biological argument becomes less persuasive.

Indeed, government-run health care in most countries provides higher quality care at a fraction of the cost of America’s inefficient market-based system.   Competition is useful in some areas, especially in high tech where innovation is important. But in other areas of an economy, including health care delivery, centralized control and planning make more sense, as they eliminate unproductive rent-seeking.

It’s a battle between selfishness and cooperation, between freedom (including freedom to cheat) and justice.

Super Cooperators is written in a lively style by Harvard professor of Biology and Mathematics, Martin A. Nowak, with science writer Roger Highfield as co-author. The book has few equations or diagrams but the exposition and prose are clear enough so that the educated reader, especially someone with a little background in biology or computer science, can imagine how to reproduce many of the experiments.

Since  the 19th century biologists (including Darwin) pointed to the success of the social insects (e.g., ants) as examples of how traits can evolve that favor the group over the individual.  Called “group selection” or “kin selection” or “multilevel selection” or “inclusive fitness”, these mechanisms represent a kind of higher level evolution, wherein groups that are better able to cooperate out-compete groups comprised by more selfish individuals.    But until recently, most biologists have thought that mechanisms such as group selection have limited effect.   On the other hand, it is obvious that evolution has resulted in highly cooperative species, such as ants and homo sapiens.    Nowak and others researchers have laid mathematical and evidential foundations that explain the origin of cooperation and that support a broader role for cooperation in evolution than previously thought.

Much of the book describes computer simulations of competition in which virtual individuals compete in a virtual ecology (economy).   Researchers have experimented with different strategies for competition.  Depending on the how the economy is set up, the best strategy may involve either selfish competition or cooperation.  Sacrificing one’s own short-term gain can lead to an outcome in which everybody benefits (as in the tragedy of the commons).  Research shows under which conditions one strategy (e.g., “cooperate if the other person cooperated in the past”) can make inroads against individuals using a different strategy (e.g., “always be selfish”).    The research paradigm appears under the name of “Prisoner’s Dilemma”.

In the new framework for evolution, not all is rosy. “There is a dark side to cooperation that comes in the form of parasites, cheats, defectors, and other lowlifes.”  In an ecology of cooperating individuals, a “defector” can exploit the kindness of strangers and disrupt the cooperative strategy.   Cancer cells in the body are an example of non-cooperators.  In a political economy, defectors can take the form of welfare queens who refuse to work. Alternatively, the defector can take the form of wealthy individuals who benefit from government contracts and protections but offload costs (e.g., pollution) to others, don’t pay their taxes, and subvert government laws and regulations to be in their own favor.

Nowak identifies five mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation: (1) direct reciprocity; (2) indirect reciprocity — reputation, via language; (3) spatial selection — organizing into small, local groups helps to protect against defectors and parasites and to increase mutual trust;  (4) multilevel selection — selection at the group level — e.g., tribes that cooperate better out-compete tribes consisting of selfish individuals; and (5) kin selection — people naturally cooperate with people related by blood. For each of the five mechanisms, Nowak presents simple mathematical formulas that describe under what conditions cooperation can out-compete selfishness. For example, if the product of the benefits deriving from cooperation times the probability that you’ll encounter the same person again exceeds the short-term cost of cooperation, then it pays to cooperate. This and other cases imply that cooperation works better if people divide into small groups and cooperate in such groups. The theory explains the prevalence of groups such as families, villages, gangs, cults, corporations, policies, and factions in human societies. It also implies that humans should organize politically at different levels of granularity.

In the final chapters Nowak makes a (somewhat sentimental and melodramatic) call for greater worldwide cooperation, especially on the issue of climate change. He says:

The story of humanity is one that rests on the never-ending creative tension between the dark pursuit of selfish short-term interests and the shining example of striving towards collective long-term goals. …. I have argued that evolution “needs” cooperation if she is to construct new levels of organization, driving genes to collaborate in chromosomes, chromosomes to collaborate in genomes, genomes to collaborate in cells, cells to collaborate in more complex cells, complex cells to collaborate in bodies, and bodies to collaborate in societies.

One can view this area of research as giving a naturalistic explanation for morality.

The research gives intellectual succor for progressive-minded people who want to push back against the regressive forces in American politics who wish to dismantle the New Deal and return the country to the small government, small-minded days of the Articles of Confederation.

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