Cheating Monkeys and Citizen Bees–The Nature of Cooperation in Animals and Humans, Lee Dugatkin (1999)

It’s hard to imagine this primer on cooperation in animals is over a decade old. It still resonates today, even if it’s clear that few of the insights we have been able to glean from the study of animals have been applied to enabling human cooperation. It does a terrific job of setting out the framework for understanding animal, and thereby some, human cooperation.

It seems the evolutionary biologists have painted us into a corner when it comes to explaining cooperation. The basic premise of evolution is that natural selection operates at the individual level to choose which somewhat randomly-derived set of genetic instructions is best suited for the environment. But if that’s the case, then why would animals ever cooperate?  Cooperation is expensive and genes like to find the least expensive means to survive and propagate.  Yet cooperation nonetheless happens.

Was Hobbes wrong in observing that life for mankind is a constant struggle of each against every other? That man would never voluntarily cooperate; it would always require the force of government to compel cooperation? Perhaps instead, Locke was correct in his belief that man was a naturally cooperative beast that wished his fellow well, and needed no government coercion to force his cooperation. The question is profoundly important for theological, political, and most importantly, economic reasons. The basis for cooperation must be established if a society depending on cooperation is to be viably functional.

Dugatkin lays out four potential paths to cooperation: Family dynamics; reciprocal transactions; selfish teamwork, and group altruism.

Cooperation based on family dynamics depends on the idea in evolution of the selfish gene. Family members are more closely related to each other genetically than they are to non-family members, so even if each has only the selfish impulse for its own gene’s survival and propagation, it can still be expressed as cooperation within the family. Apparently altruistic acts, like risking one’s own life to save a drowning brother, are actually just expressions of the selfish gene–after it’s done the proper calculus to determine whether the expected return exceeds the probability-discounted cost of dying.

Reciprocal transactions are what you would think: Tit for Tat, or TfT as one study described it. Cooperative behavior depends on the expectation that it will be reciprocated. It is the idea forming the foundation of human interactions in the marketplace. For the legal system, it is contract law. Locke observed humans agreeably cooperating in this manner and concluded their hearts were basically pure. But of course, this is only a first derivative of the selfish gene at work, cooperating because of the expected gain to its own survival prospects. There is no true altruism at work here.

Selfish teamwork is cooperation to achieve an individual goal that is not possible through individual effort. It is the lion pride hunting cape buffalo. It is cooperation in agriculture and irrigation from which the first civilization arose in the fertile crescent. Neither is it altruistic. Lions only cooperate in the hunt for large prey that can’t be taken individually. They hunt smaller prey individually.

Group altruism is the cooperation that confounds the evolutionary biologists. It is the social insects, like ants and bees, foregoing any chance of reproductive success for the benefit of the colony. It is the soldier standing guard at an outpost, prepared to give his life in defense of the society to which he belongs. Such altruism can arguably be claimed to be similar in its motivations to the cooperation that arises through family dynamics. A worker bee is more closely related to her sisters (75% common genes), than she would be to her own offspring, were she allowed any offspring. But in some cases, the family dynamics can’t explain it all. The soldier may be guarding a society to which he has very few genes in common.

Group altruism begs the question: On what level does natural selection operate? At the level of the individual organism, or that of the group? If natural selection operates at the individual level in these “superorganisms” such as ant and bee colonies, and some human societies, it necessarily must select according to what makes the individual fit for the superorganism–the superorganism is the environment in which the gene flourishes or dies. If so, then the theory of evolution by dint of random genetic mutations in the genetic code of individuals seems a bit difficult to defend. How can any one individual so impact the superorganism that random genetic mutations in an individual genome yield new species?

Dugatkin explores the  internal cooperative dynamics of these superorganisms. Within any group that has both individuals seeking to selfishly propagate their genes, and individuals that are selflessly devoted to the group, the selfless individuals will necessarily lose out to the selfish ones in the evolutionary battle for reproductive fitness. But among competing groups, the ones with the most selfless individuals should win out over groups of mostly selfish individuals. This is an enlightening consideration. To take the United States as an example, once the selfish individuals (Social Security recipients?) outnumber the selfless ones, it would seem the US would suffer among its competitor groups, i.e., other economic and political systems. In a Hobbesian struggle of all groups against all groups, groups that instill or enforce selfless cooperation would seem to have more viability than those that promote or allow individual selfishness. Autocracies, either of the left or right, should be more competitive than democracies. But that has not been the case, as the history of the twentieth century stands as testament. Perhaps Hobbes was wrong and Locke was right–man has no predilection for or against cooperation, but does so as circumstances compel. Perhaps democratic societies full of selfish individuals are able to defeat autocracies full of selfless ones in the same manner that lions hunt cape buffalo collectively, but ground hogs individually.

In any event, there is a great deal to learn about human cooperation from observing our fellows in the wild. Better understanding the types of cooperation, and social and environmental structures in nature that compel them, could yield a better understanding for how best to achieve human ends that are only possible when we cooperate.

This is a great and enlightening read. Anyone with an interest in the subject should find its observations fascinating and the writing is clear and lucid and accessible to any layman with just the barest of foundations in evolution theory and cooperative ecology.