Sunday, September 13, 2009

The importance of cooperation in life: second installment

Back in June, we posted what we called a first installment on the importance of cooperation in life. Distracted by other issues and subjects, we never got around to posting a second installment. Here it is, and rather timely at that, as cooperation seems to be having its day, with entomologists and primatologists, sociologists and political scientists, among many others, now addressing this often slighted aspect of life. We, too, consider cooperation to be fundamental, even describing it as a principle of life in our book.

An essay in a recent Science by science writer Elizabeth Pennisi takes up the subject (On the origin of cooperation, Science, 4 September 2009: Vol. 325. no. 5945, pp. 1196 - 1199). Pennisi reminds us that Charles Darwin was perplexed by the existence of altruism--why would an individual help another at cost to him or herself?
Cooperation has created a conundrum for generations of evolutionary scientists. If natural selection among individuals favors the survival of the fittest, why would one individual help another at a cost to itself? Charles Darwin himself noted the difficulty of explaining why a worker bee would labor for the good of the colony, because its efforts do not lead to its own reproduction. The social insects are "one special difficulty, which first appeared to me insuperable, and actually fata to my theory," he wrote in On the Origin of Species.
And, biologists have been perplexed by this ever since, because it doesn't fit easily within the prevailing evolutionary framework.
And yet, [Pennisi continues] cooperation and sacrifice are rampant in nature. Humans working together have transformed the planet to meet the needs of billions of people. Countless examples of cooperation exist between species: Cleaner fish pick parasites off larger fish, and nitrogen-fixing bacteria team up with plants, to name just a few.
The usual discussions about cooperation, as above, are about social cooperation, among individuals in a population. Widespread as such examples are, they don't even hint at the extent of the cooperative nature of life, which is true at all levels, as our book is largely about. Genes cooperate with other genes, organelles with each other inside cells, receptors on and in cells cooperate with their ligands, cells with cells, tissues with tissues and organs with organs. Organisms cooperate with others of their own species (sexual reproduction being the quintessence of co-operation), and members of different species with each other. So, if cooperation is so all-pervasive, why has it been so consistently overlooked in favor of competition and selfishness?

The word cooperation may be denigrated from a fundamentalist Darwinian point of view as soft-headed goody-goody thinking. 'Cooperation' is indeed a culturally loaded word. But it is no more so than 'competition'! A 'selfish' gene is not competing in the same aware sense that a marathon runner is. Neither are two molecules aware of cooperating in the way members of a soccer team are.

We mean co-operation literally, that is, operating at the same time and place and in appropriate amounts and ways. That includes social cooperation. It might be better to call this 'interaction', as another way to stress that the elements of life don't act alone. But we want an antidote to the very loaded term 'competition', until the mainstream of biology changes that term to something like, say, 'differential proliferation'.

We aren't the first to point out that the idea that life is all about competition fits neatly with the history and politics of the culture within which evolutionary theory developed and grew. Historiographic context analysis is often written as if it shows the falseness of the idea being discussed. That doesn't necessarily follow, but it does seem correct that the words used and the approaches taken reflect social context whenever human affairs are the subject. In this case, our contention is that a cultural obsession with individual-based competition, which was shared by Darwin (but less so by Wallace), affects what we see and focus on and how we interpret it.

The focus on competition is one of the consequences of viewing life on the compressed evolutionary scale. Darwin himself understood that it was impossible for us to understand the immensity of time over which life evolved. Thinking in evolutionary terms makes it easy to forget that life is actually lived from moment to moment, and needs to be understood on that scale as well. When seen at the level of daily life, cooperation is omnipresent, and far more important than competition.

Nor are we the first to point out that even when cooperation is undeniable, it's often quickly redefined as competition--people are only altruistic because they get something out of it, or to help their kin, and so on. Why people help non-kin is easy to explain when you acknowledge the role of culture in what we do. If you filter everything through a strictly Darwinian lens, where reproductive fitness is the ultimate measure of success, and we're all in competition with each other, driven by natural selection, it is indeed impossible to understand why people would jump off a bridge to save a drowning stranger, or choose to limit their number of offspring (even if you explain this with r and k strategies, this only kicks the question back a step), or invent the concept of socialism, or, the ultimate inexplicable action in Darwinian terms, detonate a suicide belt in the service of religious conviction.

But, if you allow that culture can drive what we do, in perhaps biologically inexplicable ways, and not simply our sex drive, or the fact that helping our cousin favors some of our own genes, these actions don't then have to be explained in terms of competition or survival of the fittest or optimal energy expenditure or whatever. A Darwinian purist's post hoc explanations are, for example, to invoke 'reciprocal altruism'. In the moment of truth before you swim to the drowning stranger's aid, somewhere deeply in your reptilian brain is the little message "Do it, because if they survive they may save you some day!"

Baloney! One of us has had this exact experience, and there was no little Devil on the shoulder whispering in the ear.

The fundamentalist view of social behavior rests on the important, automatic, but erroneous assumption that cooperation always involves a cost of sufficient magnitude to be detected by selection and that the act has to be seen in terms of selection and the latent assumption is that the mechanism must be related to altruism itself. That's an industrial-age's argument for 'efficiency' as the Law of Life that justifies harshness towards workers in manufacturing companies.

We suggest to the contrary that cooperation is so fundamental to life that it needs to be accepted on its own terms, and need not even be specifically 'programmed' (or such program specifically reinforced by selection). If anything, for many species the cost is for not cooperating, and translating this into Darwinian terms only distracts from what is important.

What we see and how we view it have implications for what we don't do or don't see in science, even if the latter is there unmistakeably. We think that, regardless of the aspects of differential proliferation that were involved, a focus on the nature and extent of cooperation in its many forms of equal grandeur to anything Darwin ever remarked on, and would be healthy for biology to concentrate on.

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