Saturday, December 7, 2013

Evolutionary History Retold: Cooperation Out-Competes Competition - Part 1 of 2

A person"s culture colors the way that they see all of reality. This becomes particularly clear in people"s retelling of history. Even if the story is accurate, which facts get told is still the product of the teller"s worldview, perspective, biases, prejudices, and even temperament.

The story of evolution is no exception. The first accounts of evolution, and the history of life on Earth, were told within a very particular historical context - during the height of the industrial revolution in the mid-1800"s in Great Britain. The influences of this time period are quite obvious: the scarcity of resources, the overproduction of offspring, the death of many in the competition for survival, etc. This perspective reflects the contemporaneous societal difficulties - life expectancy was around 40 and society was plagued by such scourges as tuberculosis, cholera, scarlet fever, whooping cough, the Irish Potato Famine, poverty stricken city slums, slavery, political revolution, and many other large scale difficulties. The Malthusian paradigm that there is a brutal tug-of-war between life and death in society rang deeply true to many during Darwin"s time.

The overall point? Darwin had particular emphases (and biases), just like we all do (myself included!). He was a product of his culture, just like we all are. As such, his emphasis (and the emphasis of those that popularized his work) was often on competition"s role in evolution. In Darwin"s words, evolution is "the war of nature" and a "struggle for life." What I"d like to do is retell the history of life on planet Earth with a different emphasis. This emphasis does not in any way contradict what Darwin and his contemporaries put forth. It just expands on it.

Since discussions of evolution focus so much on competition, it makes sense to take a look at the latter -- cooperation. And an analysis of this reveals that nearly every major revolution in evolution is the result of cooperation. I"ll start at the beginning and show how life as we know it, by-in-large, is the product of non-zero sum relationships. Let"s take a look.

Learn about the importance of cooperation at:

Image source:
Top photo by Biggles 621. Bottom photo by Tambako the Jaguar.

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