Cooperation and Darwinism

Sanford Housing Co-op is a cooperative housing community in New Cross which has been around since the 1970s. They have created a remarkable community and offer a real alternative to poor-quality, expensive housing with absent landlords: a problem for many people in rented accomodation in London.  Whilst browsing  their website I found this, describing the recent work of the cooperative’s founder, John Hands, who is writing a book about cooperation and evolution:

Current orthodoxy in biology argues that the Darwinian struggle is the key to evolution, with the most successful species passing on their advantageous competitive genes to their progeny. However, evidence proves this wrong, and rapid changes cause extinction, rather than evolution, of species; it is collaboration that has created the evolution of more complex systems. 19th Century anarchist and biologist, Kropotkin, found that Darwin’s ideas were invalid by examining the eco-systems in Russia under harsh environment conditions. A rise in consciousness, and humans with their reflective consciousness – we know that we know – have given humans a psychosocial advantage, allowing us to decide how we should behave towards one another, and not to follow competitive instincts.”

This passage is an example of several common misconceptions people have about the evolution of cooperation which I want to address. This is in no means a critique of the author, who correctly recognized a challenge facing Darwinian evolutionary biology – co-operation exists in a wide range of organisms, when perhaps we would expect organisms to act independently and competitively in the “struggle for existence”. I can definitely understand how someone – particularly someone so involved in a successful cooperative organisation- would take this viewpoint. Evolution has often been used in an attempt to justify unjustifiable human actions – eugenics being a key example. As a result many have wanted to “reclaim” biology and use it to justify postive actions, such as cooperation and community spirit.

However John’s response to the problem of cooperation – to look to an alternative to Darwinian natural selection – is not needed, nor is it evidence based. Even Kropotkin – the 19th Century anarcho-communist and zoologist mentioned in the passage – did not see cooperation as evidence that “Darwin’s ideas were invalid”. Kropotkin encouraged a different interpretation of Darwin’s ideas, rather than rejecting them. In his 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor for Evolution  he says:

“In the animal world we have seen that the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense – not as a struggle for the sheer means of existence, but as a struggle against all natural conditions unfavourable to the species.”

Which basically is saying that sometimes organisms do better for themselves, are better at reproducing when they cooperate; sometimes cooperation and associations between organisms are selected for by natural selection. There is nothing about this that conflicts with standard Darwinian theory.

Ever since the 1960s, the field of social evolution has explored social interactions such as cooperation and altruism and incorporated them into Darwinian evolutionary theory.  The whole idea behind this is the idea of “inclusive fitness“, i.e. not just considering how many babies an individual has, but also how many more babies  others with shared genes have as a result of the individual’s actions.

Importantly, organisms can act entirely in their own interests while cooperating – there are often mutual benefits to everyone who cooperates, and when cheaters arise there are mechanisms such as punishment which deter cheating. Conflict and competition can also occur within cooperative communities – every now and then sneaky supposedly sterile workers in ant and bee colonies will lay eggs, which are quickly eaten or destroyed – if they weren’t the altruistic colony would break down because everyone would be better off just having their own offspring instead of working towards the common goal of helping the baby-making factory that is the Queen .

This way of looking at the evolution of cooperation may not be as attractive for explaining cooperation in humans as it implies that true altruism couldn’t exist, as we are all ultimately acting in the interests of our selfish genes, greedily seeking replication.  However John did touch on a good point – as humans we do have a self awareness that allows us to act in ways that may not have made sense in our evolutionary past, such as using contraception, avoiding fatty and sugary foods, and maybe… just maybe… being nice to each other for no real reason. We are  shaped by our evolutionary past, but we are not slaves to it.


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