Thursday, April 24, 2014

Is it competition vs cooperation; or, cooperation lets competition be?

Since Darwin, emphasis in evolutionary theory has been on competition between individuals and species in the race for optimal fitness -- he or she who passes the most genes to subsequent generations wins.  Darwin saw this through the lens of the rampant cruelty of Nature, and the need for individuals to find food and mates and escape being eaten.

To many, this is a fundamental underpinning of evolution, although in recent years a number of evolutionary biologists have begun to think that perhaps cooperation deserves a larger role.  We have done our part, in our book (titled, in fact, The Mermaid's Tale: Four Billion Years of Cooperation in the Making of Living Things) and here on MT and elsewhere, though, despite our best efforts, competition remains the predominant view of how life works.

In our book we suggest that cooperation is a fundamental principle of life, arguably much more pervasive and important than competition because it happens at all levels all the time, from minuscule intracellular spaces to grander ecosystems, instantaneously as well as over evolutionary time.  It is, we think, hard to argue that competition plays such a central role.

A friend and sometime co-blogger Reed Goodman alerted us to an interesting piece the other day in The Baffler, "What's the Point if You Can't Have Fun?" by David Graeber.  Graeber, currently Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, believes that behavioral scientists have gone over the top in arguing that there must be a rational purpose to every animal behavior.  
I’m simply saying that ethologists have boxed themselves into a world where to be scientific means to offer an explanation of behavior in rational terms—which in turn means describing an animal as if it were a calculating economic actor trying to maximize some sort of self-interest—whatever their theory of animal psychology, or motivation, might be.
Instead, why can't they just be having fun?  

Graeber notes that with the discovery of genes, evolutionary theorists quickly adopted the idea that everything animals did was in the service of passing along their own genes, an idea popularized by Richard Dawkins' in his book The Selfish Gene, but also widely accepted within evolutionary biology as well.  Indeed, evolutionary biologists tend to smell a competitive rat everywhere, nurturing the view that everything animals do must be adaptive, naturally selected, and for the purpose of out-reproducing the competition. 

This of course raises problems like altruism, cooperation among non-kin, animals sacrificing their own life for someone else, and so forth, but these have generally been hand-waved away with we would say rather contorted arguments that reframe kindness, cooperation and self-sacrifice as just competition in disguise.  Of course, that implicitly makes a tautology of every such explanation, based on an axiom -- an assumption -- of pervasive selective determinism.

Graeber isn't at all a fan of this strict view of biology and evolution.  His essay is wide ranging in scope,  from inchworms dangling in air for the sheer fun of it, to the historical context in which the idea that the purpose of life is the propagation of DNA (our genes thus made us invent the PCR machine, for  unlimited propagation of DNA?) could gain purchase, to the discussion of free will and consciousness.  It is provocative and well worth a read.  

But it was Graeber's mention of a 1902 book by Russian naturalist Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) that most caught my eye.  In Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution Kropotkin argues that Darwin was wrong to place so much emphasis on competition, because cooperation -- mutual aid -- is so obviously in evidence all around us.  The idea of the struggle for life as a 'law of nature' was something he just couldn't accept because, as he wrote "...I was persuaded that to admit a pitiless inner war for life within each species, and to see in that war a condition of progress, was to admit something which not only had not yet been proved, but also lacked confirmation from direct observation." 

As a naturalist, Kropotkin spent much time traveling and observing nature. In Mutual Aid he documents  evidence of aid over conflict among animals, in humans and throughout human evolution and history, writing:
As soon as we study animals -- not in laboratories and museums only, but in the forest and prairie, in the steppe and the mountains -- we at once perceive that though there is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species, and especially amidst various classes of animals, there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense amidst animals belonging to the same species, or at least to the same society.  Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.  
But which comes first, evidence or interpretation?
Kropotkin was a prominent figure in 19th century activist politics.  He was, according to the wisdom of the masses, a "geographer, economist, activist, philologist, zoologist, evolutionary theorist, philosopher, writer and prominent anarchist." (Wikipedia.)  He was sympathetic to the plight of the peasant in Russia as a young man, and to socialist ideas, though he eventually settled on anarchism and as a political activist, was imprisoned for subversive activities in 1876.  He escaped from prison before his trial, however, and fled to Europe, only returning to Russia after the revolution in 1917, enthusiastic about the changes he saw happening, though eventually disillusioned by the authoritarian socialism that the revolution became.

Kropotkin disliked capitalism and the idea that life must be a struggle.  As an anarchist, he preferred to believe that humans were capable of mutual aid and cooperation, and that we could effectively run our own societies.  On the other hand, competition was in the cultural air when Darwin was doing his thinking, with the British empire dominating much of the world, the beginning of the industrial age and the rise of capitalism, the economics of Thomas Malthus who was so influential to Darwin's thinking, so it was perhaps natural that Darwin, and Wallace too -- and indeed Richard Dawkins in the 1970's -- framed their theories of evolution in terms of competition.

One can assert that if Kropotkin was driven by his ideology to see in Nature what his filters allowed him to see, then the same certainly applies to the Darwinians and even to the gentle Charles himself.  If Darwin's view prevailed in the west, the cooperation-based views of Lysenko prevailed in the Soviet Union, with disastrous consequences for science.  But viewed in its context, these polarities are understandable. 

What does this say about which view is right?
I don't know.  Ken and I thought we were writing  The Mermaid's Tale about biology.  As we wrote in the book, competition and cooperation are laden words, but we explicitly chose 'cooperation' as an antidote to 'competition' with all its political and cultural meaning.  More neutral and scientifically appropriate terms like 'successful interaction' and 'differential proliferation' would serve science better and be less a matter of defining everything before it's observed.  However, our intention was to describe cooperation not just as kindness, but cooperative interactions among genes, organelles, organs, organisms and species.  In that context, we had little to say about culture, except insofar as we would argue that culture generally and manifestly usually trumps genetically driven behaviors.

So, I was surprised (and of course pleased) to see a recent review of our book on Amazon that says, among other things, "Would more anthropologists and policy makers read this…".  It's a favorable review, so presumably the author sees political and cultural meaning where we were explicitly only intending to describe biology.

But that's okay, and as it should be.  Science is always done in cultural or political context.  To a great extent, we see what we believe.  


Manoj Samanta said...

Some random comments -

1. Stephen Jay Gould often made the argument that various evolutionary theories were strongly influenced by contemporary political and economic movements.

2. Speaking of Kropotkin -

3. I read Graeber's book "Debt - the first 5000 years" and found it thought-provoking.

Ken Weiss said...

I don't know Greaber's book, but Gould was not the first to make those kinds of arguments. They were widely made by socialist and marxist authors in the 20th century and probably the 19th (which I would have read as a graduate student, though can't remember specifics). It is relevant also how Herbert Spencer quickly picked up on Darwinism in this sense, as did others, and it was part of the Lysenko saga in the USSR.

Bones and Behaviours said...

I remember reading a comment thread on TetZoo where people were discussing something akin to this, selfish genes vs group selectionism. Opinions from actual biologists there included open admission of not understanding the difference, and a statement that it doesn't even matter either way to understanding animal social behaviour. Basically, some people from relevant backgrounds seemed to think there is no difference of implication, from the perspective of their research interests.

I admit I don't understand the fuss because cooperation is observable and real just like 'selfishness' even if some instances are spandrels rather than adaptive in themselves. It makes perfect sense to me, for example, that cultures are evolutionary strategies, even though some people take issue with this.

Am I an idiot for not understanding the difference properly?

Ken Weiss said...

If one defines being more common in this generation than in the past as selection, and that is a synonym for competition, then everything is selective. If you see the obvious truth that things interact in order to proliferate, you can see things in terms of cooperation.

But if you're a normal human, perhaps your tendency is to find others who agree with you and who hold a viewpoint you can rally around and feel comfortable about. Such viewpoints quickly become ideologies, even in science.

Anne Buchanan said...

It has been said that where you come down on genetic determinism is a great indicator of your politics. Apparently the same can be said of cooperation vs competition. Observations aren't made in a vacuum, even scientific ones, and I think it's a rare scientist, or person, who can manage not to filter what they see through what they want to see. Thus, far too often (and certainly all over the web) polarization, ideological rants, and blinders rather than the march of knowledge. So much for the lofty idea that scientists strive to disprove hypotheses rather than defend them to the death.

Bones and Behaviours said...

I understand that, but I was thinking of what Jonathan Swift called 'odium theologicum' - theological debates are heated because they are irresolvable by objective means, legitimising argument by means of anvilling.

This applies to non-theology as well, naturally. Is an outwardly scientific debate only politically heated, when it is currently irresolvable?

Or at least, when people think it is - ID proponents for example saying 'you can't prove God didn't do it' to create illusion of open-endedness - therefore keeping the dead creation vs evolution debate going on life support.

Ken Weiss said...

I wish I knew more of Swift, but I think we could liken much of what goes on to the work of a Swift admirer, Laurence Stern (and his Tristram Shandy).

When things are really,truly unambiguous I think you are right that there is little room for tribal warfare, so it is in the unproven or unprovable that we can take sides and duke it out.