Evolution of Cooperation
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Evolution of Cooperation

How can we explain the evolution of complex cooperative organizations (altruism, ultrasociality) in humans, given that the "survival of the fittest" predisposes individuals to selfishness?

A fundamental problem in founding an evolutionary ethics is to explain how cooperation and altruism can emerge during evolution (Campbell, 1979). "Weak" altruism can be defined as behavior that benefits more to another individual than to the individual carrying out the behavior. "Strong" altruism denotes behavior that benefits others, but at one's own cost (Campbell, 1983). Both are common and necessary in those highly cooperative systems, which Campbell calls "ultrasocial". Ultrasociality refers to a collective organization with full division of labor, including individuals who gather no food but are fed by others, or who are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the defense of others. In the animal world, ultrasocial systems are found only in in the social insects (ants, bees, termites), in naked mole rats, and in human society (Campbell, 1983).

Highly developed systems of cooperation and mutual support can be found in all human societies. Yet we still do not have a satisfactory explanation of how such social systems have emerged. Therefore we also cannot determine how they would or should evolve in the future. Let us summarize the difficulty.

Evolution seems to predispose individuals to selfishness. Indeed, natural selection promotes the "fittest" individuals, i.e. the ones that maximally replicate. Individuals need resources to survive and reproduce. Finite resources imply competition among individuals.

Altruism (helping another individual to increase fitness) tends to diminish the fitness of the altruist, since more resources will be used by the helped one and less will be left for the helper. Thus, without further organization, altruism tends to be eliminated by natural selection.

Yet all ethical systems emphasize the essential value of helping others. Everybody will agree that cooperation is in general advantageous for the group of cooperators as a whole, even though it may curb some individual's freedom. Cooperation can increase the fitness of the cooperators, when the cooperators together can collect more resources than the sum of resources collected by each of them individually (synergy). This is only possible in a situation that is not a zero sum game.

For example, a pack of wolves can kill large animals (moose, deer) which no individual wolf would be able to kill. Yet, for each wolf separately the best strategy seems to consist in letting the other wolves spend resources while hunting and then come to eat from their captures. But if all wolves would act like that, all advantages of cooperation would disappear.

The optimal strategy for the collective system of all wolves is to cooperate, but the optimal strategy for each individual wolf as a subsystem is not to cooperate. In general, global optimization is different from sub(system)optimization. This is the problem of suboptimization. Since evolution tries to optimize first of all at the subsystem level, we need additional mechanisms to explain global optimization at the level of the cooperating system.

Perhaps the most fashionable approach to this problem is sociobiology (Wilson, 1975). Sociobiology can be defined as an attempt to explain the social behavior of animals and humans on the basis of genetical evolution. For example, a lot of sexual behavior can be understood through mechanisms of genetic selection reinforcing certain roles or patterns. Several genetic scenarios have been proposed to explain the evolution of cooperation. However, as we will show, none of these scenarios is really satisfactory. Therefore, we propose to look at scenarios based on the evolution of culture or memes.

See Further:

Copyright© 1997 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Mar 10, 1997 (modified)
Aug 1993 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory

The History of Evolution

Social Evolution / Conflicts between levels

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Zero sum games

Genetic Scenarios for Evolving Cooperation

Memetic Scenarios for Evolving Cooperation


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