The Evolution of Cooperation

“In the world according to Margulis, bacteria are the protagonists. Not only were they the only organisms on Earth for most of its history; they are the organisms in which virtually all major metabolic pathways evolved and they remain the crucial intermediates in biogeochemical cycles. Eukaryotic cells are viewed as tightly integrated bacterial assemblages, plants and animals as assemblages of assemblages. Cooperation, not competition, is the wellspring of evolutionary change, giving rise to a biota so highly integrated that the concept of the biosphere as a ‘global superorganism’ has a significance beyond metaphor.”
Andrew Knoll (italics added)

 

One afternoon a few billion years ago a bacteria absorbed another bacterium but instead of dissolving the stranger in its digestive process it managed to work out a mutually beneficial exchange. This primordial act of cooperation between cells gave birth to the form of life we value most, that which is based on the Eukaryotic cells. A similar primeval cooperation incorporated the mitochondria which have survived as the cell’s powerhouse to this day and the chloroplasts that convert sunlight into sugars in all our green plants.

Cooperation is so obviously fundamental to all forms of life we can easily lose sight of its importance. Atoms dance cooperatively, we could say, to form molecules. These molecular elements interactively cooperate to produce all the myriad forms throughout our universe including organic matter in which the intelligent cooperation among an astonishingly high number of astonishingly complex parts takes place.

The immune system found in mammals, for example, creates cells that kill other cells yet ‘know’ only to kill the foreign invaders. Somehow these cells are able to unerringly identify self and other so that the whole immune system can rest safely in the midst of all the other systems that go into mammalian life. A less well known example is the fact that our cells are programmed to die. The wonderful documentary Death by Design, The Life and Times of Life and Times illustrates how vital this capability is. That a cell knows when and where to dissolves its boundaries back into the larger chemical soup is what allows the proper growth characteristics to be maintained while cells are replaced. Cancer is a disease, at least in part, where cells do not die on cue. It gets better, “it turns out for cells to stay alive they need signals from other cells to tell them to stay alive, and if they don’t get those signals then they kill themselves.” (18:20 – 18:30) Here is cooperation taken to its extreme where an individual gives its life for the sake of the larger whole which is its environment.

The point of the example is not to project altruistic human values onto individual cells but to break out of an overly anthropomorphic interpretation of intelligence.

The circulatory system is another characteristic system of mammalian life that is worth spending a moment contemplating. It provides communication channels across vast distances – an end to end layout of an adult’s arteries, capillaries and veins would stretch approximately 60,000 miles – through lock and key like mechanisms, diffusion gradients and a host of other cooperative exchanges. This example is particularly relevant for those of us in the urban environments of the developed world. Modern cities are constructed around the automobile where the overpasses and clover leaves, on and off ramps and the clogged highways and arterials resemble nothing so much as the pattern of circulatory systems. Driving our automobiles on those streets is only possible due to the cooperation of every other car on the road. Thousands of anonymous humans with lines on the road, a few lights and a few rules manage to function more or less successfully day after day. For the most part the drivers satisfy whatever need or desire inspired their traveling, we get where we are going.

Cooperation is the defining characteristic of humanity’s social life. Economic relationships are built around an agreed upon means of exchanging value in currencies that acquire their worth partly through acts of international cooperative agreement. Currency collapses illustrate their empty innate nature. That our international deliveries arrive on time and goods are manufactured as expected join countless other factual acts of cooperation to make the modern world possible. Even our worse psychopathic predators, individual and institutional, have spent most of the moments of their lives in one form or another of cooperation with the society and environment they have found themselves in. The point is that wherever you look, you find the fabric of cooperation.

Another point that should be noted is how some of our cooperative relationships can be a source of endlessly fresh joy and happiness. Part of the mind training a contemplative undergoes is learning to recognize or remember or be mindful of this aspect of reality. Because cooperation is so pervasive it can come to feel common and can all too easily be taken for granted. To be blinded in this way is an ignorance born from forgetting that for us one day all this will end. How precious a breath or a simple footstep will seem to us then, how much more so a kiss or a friendly word.

All of this cooperation is taking place in dynamic environments full of surprises. They are not rigid structures but rather mutual interactive adaptations continually adjusting to changing conditions. Every grain of sand an ant carries and every dollar bill exchanging hands are unique, never to be repeated instances. Yet the ant nest being built or the purchase being conducted will resemble others that are found throughout time and across all sorts of different locations.

This idea of making continual adjustments in order to guide a dynamic process to its goal is the study of cybernetics. The word comes from the Greek for steering. An oarsman sights his ship’s destination in the distance and keeps their eye on it while continually adjusting the vessel as it drifts a bit to the left and then to the right again and again. Cybernetics is the design science behind much of our advanced technology from radar and missile guidance to thermostats. It is used anywhere the regulation of behavior depends on feedback. This is also how mammalian physiology maintains homeostasis, keeping within a range of bodily temperatures that are not threatening to life. Cybernetics reminds us that the cooperation we are examining often comes about only through active, ongoing, complicated interactions among many forces and features simultaneously. It is not a simple add-on serendipitously cobbled together by evolutionary development but a defining characteristic.

Ecosystem science has found a vast collection of cooperative relationships. Of course not all ecological interactions are cooperative but due to the interdependent nature of all phenomena even the most violent and disruptive are ultimately included in the overall ordering of the biosphere. Succession offers an example where one set of plants takes over from the work of the previous set, yet overall the whole succession process is working towards a maximization of energy use. It is not too dissimilar to the programmed cell death from the biosphere’s point of view.

Another example is found in the relations between predator and prey as each ‘cooperates’ to keep their respective populations within the carrying capacity of their environment through a cybernetic dynamic. Though perhaps stretching the idea of cooperation too far, from the larger point of view it is this complex method of adaptive interaction that provides the environmental conditions for the continual survival of both species. They are cooperating for their own wellbeing.

This brings us to one of the central insights of modern evolutionary theory: the teaching about the role of the survival of the fittest. Evolution is a matter of differential reproduction. Some individuals will project their genetic endowment into the future by having offspring that survive and other individuals will not. Life’s incredible fecundity assures that this filtering process will take place – consider the number of Dandelion seeds a single stalk hosts or the pine tree with its hundreds of cones each carrying a bundle of seeds, the thousands of individuals involved in polliwogs, sea turtles, squid and salmon spawnings. Only a few from these multitudes will find all the causes and conditions line up just as they must to nurture and maintain their individual lives until they in turn are able to produce their own germ cells. This is differential reproduction.

Chance plays a large role in determining which seeds will sprout or which infants will reach adulthood but it is not the only factor at work. The other determinants all involve how well the individual organism adapts to their environments. Adaptive skill applies to the internal environment where cybernetic balance maintains physiological integrity. Adaptive skill also applies to interactions with the external environment where the individual finds food, predators, mates and all the inanimate elemental forces both nurturing and threatening.

An individual could be defined as that which happens at the interface of these internal and external environments.

If survival of the fittest only conjures up Nature programs full of red teeth and claws you are entertaining a simplified caricature of the actual mechanic life has used to ratchet its complexity. Such caricatures slip easily into Social Darwinian clichés: only the strong survive; might makes right; you’re either first or your nothing. These are just selfishness and greed parading around in puffery illegitimately stolen from the science of evolution. The collaborations we touched on inevitably play significant roles in any and all evolutionary adaptations. There are many circumstances where the bullies die out and the cooperative survive, so to insist on ruthless competition as only “natural” flies in the face of reality.

It does however justify the winner-take-all environment of the modern globalized monopolies of hyper-capitalism. Though we deny the validity of Social Darwinism in public discourse we act as though we really believe it is the fundamental truth about life, the universe and everything.

Cull the sick and the weak to make the population stronger. This is the toxic philosophy that is eating like a cancer at the modern mind. It is behind the gas chambers for Jews, starving “welfare queens” to death, obscene CEO salaries, Wall Street eating Main Street, taking resources for ourselves from the barrel of a gun, abusing our women, children and elderly and going all google-eyed at the billionaires amassing their wealth by absorbing or destroying every smaller enterprise they could get their hands on.

Cull the sick and the weak to make the population stronger. A better summary of satanic values would be hard to find. I use the term satanic in its technical sense for that which is opposite the values of Christianity. This exalts the opposite of what Christianity taught about service to the poor and vulnerable. The problem with this view of ‘survival of the fittest’ is that it assumes because we understand some of the survival part we also understand the parameters of the fittest part. Our comprehension of adaptation is far too narrow and self-serving.

I am not denying the role of population genetics or that aspect of nature which is mercilessly red in tooth and claw. I am only suggesting that when our thoughts consider these things they do so within the larger environmental context. The view of Gaia includes these elements that do indeed cull the weak and the sick to strengthen the population but only as one tool among many and never with the mono-vision with which we have pursued it. I am suggesting that the older view of evolutionary theory that saw all acts of altruism, symbiosis and cooperation as aberrations needing special explanations is dated and incomplete. It is true the equations of population genetics suggest, as J.B.S. Haldane famously quipped, “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins” but this is not the only behavior we see out in the real world.

This is all the more remarkable when we understand the nature of the evolutionary process where a blind watchmaker with deep time tinkering has managed to produce endless forms most beautiful. We will take a look at this tinkering free of sky hooks next week.

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