Cooperation in the natural and human world


Though historically many people, even in Charles Darwin’s own day, took the theory of evolution to indicate that human beings and organisms in the natural world have an inherent selfishness, Darwin himself disputed the more simplistic formulations of this, and in fact we see cooperation throughout the natural world.

Kinship selection

One of the inherent forms of cooperation in nature that Darwin early pointed to is “kinship selection.” In the natural world, this is seen to be at work when members of a given gene pool work to pass on the genes of their own family, even if it requires self-sacrifice. Bees, ants and wasps offer some of the most common examples of this. Even female worker bees, who have no progeny of their own, for example, still work for the protection of queen, enabling their own gene pool to be passed on through her. Various warning calls of animals, like prairie dogs, that inform their kin of dangerous coyotes, while drawing attention to themselves that endangers their own lives, are further examples. In human relationships, too, we often see family members working for the benefit of one another, even long after their interests have diverged. Is a mother or father’s sacrifice for her or his children another example? In any case, there is often no direct pay-back for the sacrifices of parents for their offspring.

Reciprocal altruism

Other cooperation in the natural world is thought to emerge from “reciprocal altruism.” Altruism itself, often defined as “other regarding behavior,” is sometimes thought to have pure and less pure varieties. Reciprocal altruism is a non-pure variety. It occurs when an individual finds that cooperation with others in a group serves his or her long-term interest. This is expressed metaphorically in the proverbial phrase: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” In fact, interestingly, we find among chimpanzees precisely this type of cooperation. Chimps, who live communally, are bothered by certain parasites, and quite regularly find mates for helping them deal with these pests. In these relationships, one chimp will pick the parasites from the back of another, hand combing its mates back, and eating the parasites, by the way. In reciprocation, the mate will do the same for its partner. Sociobiologists, those who study the social behavior of animals, often trying to learn lessons from humans from them, have noted that the chimps in such relationships spend about the same amount of time doing this for each other. If the one monkey grooms the other for about ten minutes, the other reciprocates for about the same period of time. As another example, chimps and some other monkeys also form alliances with others for protection against dominant members of their group. There is much detailed literature on such mutual altruism among primates and other animals. One point that sociobiologists have noted is that such altruism is more likely if the members of a group have long-standing interactions with one another.

Another often sited example of reciprocal altruism in nature is among vampire bats. Vampire bats, whose food is the blood of mammals, typically live in groups in hallowed out trees. Their cooperation is not with the cows, whose blood they suck for nutrition, but with other members of the bat community. At times some members of the community will be too weak to fly out at night to get their food. When this happens other members of the community who are able to go out will take more blood from the cows than they need. Coming back to the trees, they then will cough up blood for the bats that were too weak to fly themselves. Over the long run, because of this the individuals and community are served.

Reciprocal altruism in human groups

There are many examples of cooperative behavior among humans. We have pointed already to family relationships, which may be traceable in part of kinship selection. Beyond that, however, game theorists — that is, social theorists who look at the emergence of social cooperation using a game structure — and others have noted many cases of altruism that emerge where there are long-term relationships between individuals in social settings. Robert Axelrod, an early theoretician on such issues, wrote in The Evolution of Cooperation (1981) of many such examples. One famous case involves soldiers in World War I, when there was trench warfare. Those left in opposing trenches for long periods of time found that if one side shot up the other’s mess tent, then the other side would retaliate similarly. If, however, they shot over the mess tent, then the other side would also react similarly. Since soldiers on the opposing sides all benefited from having their food from the mess tents, this cooperation emerged. The extremest example of such emergent cooperation in this war setting was demonstrated in the famous Christmas Truce in 1914 when the Germans, on the one side, and the French and English, on the other, temporarily stopped the fighting for a day to enjoy a game of football (that is U.S. soccer). This was not the only incident of this. Clearly, from the generals’ perspectives, this was not a good development. Military leadership eventually found that if soldiers were rotated out of the same spots regularly enough such cooperation would not develop.

Reciprocal altruism is also thought to be important for markets. Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand” points to a cooperation that can emerge in business even when individuals are acting on the basis of their own self-interest. A shopkeeper, for example, who wants to get continued business may not charge low prices or engage in other good business practices because of his inherent morality, but because, where there is competition from others, he will only get continued business if he offers products at a competitive price, offers good service or does other things to distinguish himself from the others. The shopkeeper here is not primarily moved to cooperate by his good intention toward others but rather by an enlightened self-interest, which serves as an “invisible hand.” This is explained as rooted in reciprocal altruism. In many cases, Smith argues, cooperative behavior emerges in interactions where, among other things, reputation comes to matter.

Selfishness versus self-interest

There is some philosophical discussion about whether any behavior is purely altruistic, that is, done with no sense of self-interest. The debate is too involved to pursue in detail here. However, it is clear that much human behavior, like that of young soldiers who die in sacrifice for their country, raises a hard case for those who maintain that all action is selfishly motivated. Such soldiers, many of whom have internalized an identity that focuses on duty and responsibility, might conceivably be seen as acting on the basis of their own interest in living in accord with that identity. But the sacrifice for others can hardly said to be selfish as we tend to understand that word.

Group selection

Some proponents of pure altruism point to a controversial mechanism in evolutionary theory to explain its origin — namely group selection. According to proponents of group selection, groups that had better social coordination and better cooperation would have outperformed groups of egoists. In this context certain individuals could have been selected within groups (even genetically) who were altruistic to others. Whatever one makes of the genetic selection of altruistic individuals — and, for example, of an “altruistic gene” — it is less controversial that social groups would have noticed the value of internal group cooperation for their own well-being and their own competition with other groups and reinforced moral behaviors socially and culturally, thus that such behaviors would have been passed on through social learning in “cultural evolution.”

The origin of morality

Here we have been able to point to much cooperation among organisms in the natural and human world. Many theoreticians take reciprocal altruism to be one of the roots of human morality, perhaps coupled with natural affections or natural empathy such as we see expressed toward family members or children. Humans, who have the capacity to construct theoretical systems, go on to develop moral codes with “shoulds” and “should nots.” This surely helped to coordinate the social lives of individuals in their diverse social groups.

The fields of moral psychology, often with those working in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, looks at the roots of moral theory. This is all related to metaethics. There is much fascinating work being done in this area. Here however we will not be able to pursue this in more detail. Going forward our attention will be directed toward examining the dominant codes for moral behavior that have been developed and continue to generate interest in the field of philosophy.

Share Post :

Leave a Reply