Competition and Cooperation

Spirituality of Evolution, part 2

Evolution doesn't always tend toward greater complexity. When it does, complexity emerges from two powerful forces: competition and cooperation.

Number one: competition. Various “arms races” appear in nature. Consider the beetle – and remember we have a common ancestor with them, too. When beetles first came along, there weren’t any animals specifically adapted to eat them. After a while, “various animals did acquire, by natural selection, the means to kill and eat” beetles. This spurred a response. The bombardier beetle is able to squirt out a scalding chemical mix upon would-be diners. This prompts beetle predators to adapt accordingly. Skunks and one species of mice “have evolved specialized innate behavior patterns that cause the spray to be discharged harmlessly, and they can then eat the beetles.”

This sort of arms race among species drives them toward complexity. “In North America, the ‘relative brain size’ of carnivorous mammals – brain size corrected for body size – showed a strong tendency to grow over time. And so did the relative brain size of the herbivorous mammals that were their prey.” (Wright, Nonzero, 270) As the predators got smarter, the prey had to get smarter too to find ways of eluding capture, and as the prey got smarter, the predators had to get smarter still to keep on outsmarting them. It was an arms race of brain power that drove toward the greater complexity represented by those relatively bigger brains.

Besides arms races between species, there are arms races within a given species.
“The male chimps, it turns out, spend lots of time scheming to top each other. They form coalitions that, on attaining political dominance, get special sexual access to ovulating females – at the great Darwinian expense of less successful coalitions. So males with genes conducive to political savviness should on average get the most genes into the next generation, raising the average level of savviness. And the savvier the average chimp, the savvier chimps have to be to excel in the next round. And so on: an arms race in savviness – that is, an arms race in behavioral flexibility. There’s little doubt that this dynamic has helped make chimps as smart as they are, and there’s no clear reason why the process should stop where it is now.” (271)
Meanwhile, the female chimps have their own selective pressure to develop political savviness. Female savviness increases the prospects for their young to survive. Competition pushes species toward more behavioral flexibility – more complexity.

Number two: cooperation. Cooperation can benefit both parties, but if you’re premature in offering your cooperation, it’s disastrous. You get taken advantage of: left with nothing, or eaten. For a cell, or something even simpler, such as an autocatalytic protein, payoff is measured only in terms of how many replications of yourself will persist through how long a time. Entering a cooperative relationship is risky. But under the right conditions, it improves your chances of replicating.

Mathematician John Nash (portrayed by Russell Crowe in the 2001 movie, “A Beautiful Mind”), established the mathematics of cooperative strategies. In their blind, stumbling way genes come to pursue strategies without thinking about the goal. Over time, natural selection preserves the strategies that lead to the most payoff – the most replications over the longest period of time – and those are just the strategies that Nash’s mathematics tells us would necessarily produce the most payoff.

Sooner or later, given enough encounters, the mitochondria’s precursor and the nucleus’ precursor are going to figure out how to cooperate to create the nucleated cell. Then these more complex nucleated cells are going to work out schemes of cooperation to form multi-celled organisms. Then those multi-celled organisms are going to come to take in more and more different cells, each taking on more and more highly specialized functions – all as strategies for giving themselves more payoff, more replication.

It takes an awful long time for dumb cells to stumble blindly onto the cooperative strategies that John Nash proved do, in fact, most improve their odds. It takes billions of years. The vastness of the time scale alone induces awe and wonder. And there’s something beautiful about that slow, slow, slow, incredibly patient unfolding of life. Frankly, a story of creation in six days feels spiritually short-changing.

Creation ambles and rambles, moving in no straight line, going down a lot of dead ends, gradually working out ways to overcome the barriers to cooperation. There is indeed an inexorable logic of cooperation pulling alongside the push of competition. The social species – whether humans or ants -- have hit upon ways to utilize Nash's equations. We are, you could say, the Nash ramblers.

The same logic that leads cells to cooperate to create a larger organism eventually leads individuals (in some species) to cooperate to form a larger organism called "society." The need for one group to compete with another puts a premium on cooperation among the members of the group -- and better cooperation within groups intensifies the competition between groups. Cooperation works, we might say, “in harmony” with competition, like chimps forming coalitions to compete with other coalitions.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Spirituality of Evolution"
See also
Part 1: Our Best Myth
Part 3: The Terrible, Violent, Beautiful, Gracious Jungle

No comments:

Post a Comment