Nature Red in Tooth and Claw
The typical view held by most lay people who “believe” in biological evolution is that species compete with one another for resources. Individuals within a species, likewise, compete for scarce resources. The winners of this competition have the advantage when it comes to procreation, and hence, their genes, the ones that made them more fit, are passed on differentially greater to the next generation.
Competition between conspecifics within a population, between individuals of different species whose econiches overlap, and between predators and prey has been taken as the main operating form of natural selection. Conspecific competitions include food and mates. In the latter case the role of sexual selection has been found to play a major role where, generally, males compete through courting and fighting behaviors to curry the favors of females. The case of competition for resources between species that have overlapping econiches is most readily seen when an invasive species out competes the native species, say for food. Competition between predator and prey is for the right to live. It is the only case that could be described, to some degree, by Tennyson's famous (poetic) description.
Though the notion of competition as the main mechanism for evolution has enjoyed wide appreciation by the public, presumably because it is relatively easy to imagine, it is by no means the only mechanism. And, as it turns out, it may not even be the main mechanism. The more evolutionary biologists study the life histories of various species, the more they are coming to appreciate a more subtle role that cooperation and coordination play in what may surely be called “progress” in evolution. There is a rapidly growing body of knowledge about how cooperation and coordination act to stabilize a biological system. By that I mean the system as a whole becomes more able to exist and thrive in a much larger environment. Cooperation and coordination have been the main mechanisms involved in the evolution of eukaryotic cells, multicellular organisms, herds, and eusociality — the capacity of individuals to work collectively for the good of the group as a whole.
In this post I'd like to review the strength of the argument that cooperation and coordination are the principle means by which new levels of organization emerge that ultimately give rise to new entities (systems) and that those are better able to survive in a non-ergodic universe (see my earlier post in which I explain non-ergodicity and its relation with evolution). I will argue that, in fact, the ultimate of coordination is a necessary condition to increase the likelihood of any system achieving long(ish)-term sustainability. Unfortunately this argument also boost the claim that human society is not sustainable because it has not yet evolved such a level of coordination.
I probably need not say a great deal about this mechanism. Competition between two entities simply means that they will attempt to grab resources or clobber each other to the point that one wins and the other loses (a zero-sum game in game theory). The winner takes most if not all. Darwin's (and Alfred Russel Wallace's) genius was to recognize that every species will procreate far more offspring than could be sustained in the embedding environment. They would have to compete with one another for food and mates. As a result the stronger or, to put it more neutrally, the most fit, would out compete the weaker (less fit) and as a result have more offspring in the next generation. Differential fitness comes from variations in heritable traits. Darwin didn't know what this might come from but recognized it in the field. We now recognize that the heritability of traits arises from genetic variation — differences in gene alleles that create differences in the phenotypes (which includes variations in behaviors). Those differences arise spontaneously in the form of gene mutations that generate different codon triplets at critical locations. Most mutations, it seems, do not affect critical locations in the transcribed protein, so are neutral (Carroll, 2006b). But every once in a while a mutation, either in a critical location in a protein-coding gene, or a regulatory gene, cause a change in the recipient's physiology or development, with consequent changes in morphology or behavior (or both). If the change makes the individual more fit, then it will have a tendency to spread through the population in subsequent generations.
Ultimately a new species might emerge by one of several mechanisms. I will save the descriptions of those for another post, but eventually, with sufficient differentiation, populations emerge that do not interbreed and are counted as different species.
Generally speaking, if you acknowledge neo-Darwinian evolution as the mechanism for speciation (essentially sufficient descent with modification to generate different species) then you are already very familiar with this description of how it works. And, perhaps feeling satisfied in understanding it, have also assumed that this was all that was needed to explain the history of evolution as written in the fossil remains records and the genomes. But, as the story of life is anything but simple, it turns out this is not the whole story. Not by a long shot.
Over the last several decades evidence has been accumulating that cooperation between species, and between conspecifics is a much more important mechanism for fitness increase than had been realized. The number and kinds of symbiotic relations that are being documented attest to the widespread occurrence of cooperative morphologies and behaviors that lead to greater fitness for the mutualists. There are even cases of what were probably parasitic relations coevolving into mutualisms.
Cooperation evolves where two or more individuals have some form of specialization that can be brought to bear on, for example, a resource acquisition problem. Both individuals have capabilities that together improve the acquisition such that there is more than would have been available to each individually. A good example of this are the various forms of gut bacteria that operate in the rumen of cattle and other ruminants. They break down cellulose and through fermentation make nutrients available to the ruminant as well as themselves. Without these bacteria, the ruminant would not be able to digest the grasses anywhere near as efficiently.
Another good example is the relation between many kinds of corals and the endosymbiotic dinoflagellates known as zooxanthella. The former receive nutrition from the latter and the latter have a protected home.
Among conspecific examples there are many. Originally biologists were interested in altruistic behaviors as an example of cooperation. Altruism is described as the behavior of one individual helping another such that the former's fitness is reduced and the latter's is improved. Diminished fitness means the altruist has a lower chance of getting all of its genes into the next generation. The long standing explanation for altruism has been the degree of relatedness determines how likely an altruistic act will occur. Siblings are more likely to help one another than are cousins, for example. Parents (in species that nurture their young) will help their offspring, obviously.
While altruism plays some role in the evolution of cooperation it is not the actual starting point. It cannot explain individuals not related to one another are able to perform acts of altruism under the right circumstances (the good Samaritan behavior). Nor is it useful in explaining synergistic symbiosis. In fact the latter requires nothing more than standard evolution theory to explain it. If the benefit derived from two or more individuals, either of the same or different species, is greater for all parties than the situation before cooperation, then whatever genetic propensity that led to the adoption of the behavior will be selected for. The two (or more) are more fit in their mutual environment than either is independently.
Today the concept of group selection (Sober & Wilson, 1999; Wilson, 2013) is being rejuvenated to explain the phenomenon of eusociality, what E.O. Wilson describes as the behavioral propensity for groups of conspecifics to organize, specialize in work duties, protect a common nest, and, in extreme cases, centralize the reproductive function in one or a few individuals while the rest of the group acts to support that function. Ant colonies, Wilson's expertise, are examples of such. But the same mechanism of evolution applies, according to Sober & Wilson (David Sloan, not Edward O.) show that group selection was a powerful force in shaping human tribalism.
Cooperation depends on individuals being 1) motivated to share responsibilities, and 2) being in direct communications with the others that are participating. The first requirement takes on multiple forms depending on the level of organization. For example, at the pre-eukaryote stage of evolution, when microbes were first starting to work in teams, the motivations were purely metabolic. Something about linking up for certain microbes (chemically) made living easier. When we get to people we get a whole plethora of emotional motivations as well as straightforward cognitive recognition of the advantages. I enjoy making quality spears and so prefer to spend time doing so. You enjoy hunting and so prefer to do that. You can see the quality of my spears and I can see the results of your hunting. You figure that having really good quality spears will improve your success so we work a trade. I make your spears and you provide my meat. Not too hard to understand.
The second requirement is captured in that last example. I can see what you do and you can see what I do. We can talk to each other. We can assess relative merits (utility) of each others' work and arrive at some kind of trade bargain. Our communications are direct and efficient.
A market, as it is generally conceived in economics terms, is actually a mechanism for groups of specializers to trade goods and services in a mass cooperative process. Markets work when there is adequate communications between buyers and sellers AND adequate transparency into relative values of goods based on the amount of work that was done to produce a good or service. Buyers compound their understanding of that work with the utility they perceive of having that work done for them. The product or service must fulfill a legitimate need for the buyer. Unfortunately, as the nature of the work and the products have become increasingly complex and highly specialized that transparency is lost. Moreover, some products and services are touted for their novelty or hedonic sake rather than any legitimate utility. Thus establishing fair prices in an overly complex market environment becomes infeasible.
Competitive markets superpose cooperation and competition in the hopes that the latter will improve products and services and bring prices down as sellers compete for buyers. The so-called “free” markets are ideals in which evolution and fitness play a part in driving progress. It makes for a good story. But, unfortunately, it doesn't really work out too well for humans. First, the market participants have a tendency toward cryptic behaviors. Motivated by a desire for profits and winning the competition for customers, producers/sellers are tempted to cheat for advantage. Dominators will always tend to arise in complex markets based on cooperation with competition thrown in for the sake of progress. The economic history of free markets has demonstrated this time and again. You would think we would learn but we don't. This is ideology trumping reality. Our steadfast belief in this myth gets us into trouble over and over again.
In the kinds of natural systems I have been describing cooperation between near neighbors in a complex network of relations is still necessary. Indeed cooperation is essential for stability of an on-going producing system. But when systems reach a level of complexity where it becomes difficult or impossible for clusters of nodes that are cooperating locally to cooperate globally something more is needed to make it work. The evolution of systems like eukaryotes and multicellular organisms shows repeatedly that mere markets (cooperation) cannot long survive. Something more needed to evolve that would provide coordination services between those clusters. Something above the network of working processes was needed to ensure transparency of a kind, and adequate communications channels providing legitimate information flows. And it would have to minimize, if not eliminate competition in order to achieve an integrated whole that benefited all of the participants.
Cooperation, while a necessary first step along the path to eusociality, or eukaryoticity (if there is such a word), or multicelularity (again if there is such a word), is not sufficient to explain the high degree of interaction between components that had once been individuals but learned to work together (Bourke, 2011). Once an aggregate of cooperating individuals reaches a certain level of complexity there arises a need for something more reliable than the motives of the individuals to cooperate. For one thing with increasing complexity there is also increasing specialization and decreasing direct communications between all of the cooperators. When multicellular life forms were first evolving there needed to be a system of coordinating signals in addition to direct communications between nearest neighbors. The evolution of large-scale signaling systems, specifically the endocrine and nervous systems with their role of coordinating disparate tissues and organs made higher complexity possible. But then the higher complexity created a need for more refined coordination. The hierarchical cybernetic system I described in How does Hierarchical Control Systems Theory help us? is nature's way of permitting more complex systems to emerge and thrive.
In the economics/markets system we actually are witnessing the emergence of a coordination mechanism arising from simpler cooperative mechanisms in the form of supply chain management. Supply chains depend on a lot of imposed transparency and communications if they are to work properly. This is supplied by the computer-based systems employed by members of the chain to coordinate the ordering and shipping of goods or provision of services. The Internet ensures the existence of low-cost communications and the programs provide the regulatory protocols for assuring communications of “truth”. The epitome of what can further evolve after the emergence of supply chain coordination is the optimizing power of the Just-in-Time flow process that minimizes inventory costs.
Unfortunately supply chains can be misused by human decision makers in near-monopoly (high volume) end users. Walmart, for example, takes great pride in their leverage over small supplies in driving down costs. The results of this abuse of the supply chain concept have made the news recently. The problem is that the supply chain is still embedded in a competitive environment. That environment has not yet coalesced into a unitary system like a whole cell or body. In fact there is a long way to go.
Nevertheless, the emergence of coordination mechanisms like supply chain management demonstrate that cultural evolution is very much at work. Other examples include regulatory agencies that attempt to enforce transparency and communications. These emerged as problems in commerce showed that the effects of cryptic behaviors, greediness, and cheating required some kind of governmental oversight. Human society is an evolvable system even if it has not really become a whole system. There is much emergence of mechanisms yet to be accomplished to make it so.
There are actually two kinds of coordination that takes place in whole systems. The first, an internal coordination, is called logistical. It deals with the coordination between internal work processes to assure the overall optimum. Individual work processes can be subject to variation in production. The logistical coordinator's job is to regulate the flows of resources (like energy and matter) between those processes to balance the overall process. The work processes are not in competition with one another, even when there are redundant processes doing the same work. Such processes have no concept of profit so there is no reason to be in competition.
The other form of coordination is called tactical. This is actually the whole system coordinating its behaviors (like its final products) with its environment. It must monitor the status of its resource suppliers and its product/waste acceptors and continually adjust the work of special interface processors (e.g. ordering and receiving in the supply chain example) to make sure the whole system has enough and is not accumulating products and wastes. Living systems do this very well! Companies and many non-profit organizations do it well enough generally.
An important point to note is that coordination control is not the same thing as a planned economy as realized by communist societies. These were obviously flawed. But we should also recognize that the flaws came not from the propensity to want coordination but from the flawed minds of the implementors. Low sapient humans simply could not recognize how coordination could or should be achieved. For starters they simply did not understand the lower level work processes themselves so could not design an effective coordination mechanism that would be a service to those processes. This is the key idea. Coordination isn't imposing an arbitrary “boss” on the work processes. It is evolving, or in the case of an intentional system, designing a regulation mechanism that serves the interest of all members while serving the interest of the whole. In the case of the Soviet Union, not only did they have many flawed understandings of their internal work processes, but their tactical coordination was based on that all too flawed human propensity to compete with physical power as opposed to simply doing a better job (the Sputnik space program being possibly the only near exception - it was still motivated by a desire to rule space for military purposes).
Coordination regulators provide a system with resilience. If they are using accurate models of the subsystems they manage (or the entities in the environment they interact with) then they can adjust the balance of flows in response to environmental stresses in order to mitigate those stresses (e.g. physiological adaptation). Resilience is a necessary condition for long-term sustainability, but as I argue below, it is not a sufficient condition.
When we look at the case of eusociality as it is emerging in the evolution of groups we find that coordination is still very much a factor. Some authors, writing, for example, about eusocial insects, like to emphasize the seeming lack of a top-down coordination of the whole colony or hive. They will wax eloquently about how termite hills emerge from the group actions of individuals even though there is no command center that instructs those individuals what to do. This has a romantic (and politically correct) feel to it but fails to recognize a simple fact. Each member of a colony (or hive) developed into the kind of worker, or scout, or whatever, under the influence of biochemical signals that ultimately started with the establishment of the colony. In fact the development of a colony is essentially the same as the development of an embryo to a fetus to a free-living individual (see: Development; note that the eggs laid by a queen correspond to the pleuripotent embryonic cells in that the biochemical environment they are subjected to during their development determines which caste they become). It is all under the command of developmental controls which determine the fates of cells (in the case of individuals) or individuals in the case of a colony. This is, in fact, a form of top-down coordination that is continually implemented in the pheromones that individuals of various types (or castes) exude. Those pheromones are the means of communication and they do coordinate the cooperation between individuals, but they are governed by biological coordination level mechanism. The termites don't just randomly cooperate to build a nest. They are guided by the elaborate, biologically-determined, communications systems.
An interesting speculation I keep coming back to is that the evolution of Homo sapiens as a eusocial animal, and thus human social groups as units of selection, was driving our development toward the kind of whole entity-ship that we witness in eukaryotic cells or individual multicellular entities. These have succeeded in evolving successful coordination controls that make sure the internal subsystems interoperate most efficiently given the econiche that they occupy. Is it not possible that human groups were developing such coordination mechanisms under the pressures of group selection prior to the advent of agriculture? I think there is reason to believe it was so. Our development of symbolic language (including numeracy and math), our strong empathy, and other attributes of sapience all appear to provide internal mechanisms for members of a group to not only cooperate but to voluntarily submit to coordination for the good of the whole group. The human propensity to develop governance mechanisms as the complexity of a society increases suggests to me the embryonic formation of coordination regulation. It is our feeble attempts to realize what we are biologically programmed (even if poorly) to do. What is wrong with this is that the component parts, i.e. us individuals, had not yet evolved a level of sapience that would mitigate things like greed and cryptic behavior and make each individual more dedicated to the fitness of the whole. I suspect that at a sufficient level of sapience, what I have called eusapience, individuals would not only “feel” motivated to act in behalf of the whole group, but intellectually understand what to do, why they need to do it, and how it will benefit the whole. In other words, unlike the ants that mindlessly follow pheromone orders, humans will be intellectually eusocial, still realizing the consciousness of their self, even while willingly participating in a working society. They could achieve true resilience.
A strategy is a pattern of actions that an entity will follow to anticipate what the environment will do and, perhaps, be better able to preadapt to changes. This sometimes includes making significant alterations to basic operations to either mitigate a prospective threat or exploit a new resource. Commercial entities and armies have long recognized the value of strategic management. Strategies address how the entity will fit into a future environment, not just how well it fits in the current one.
In biological evolution, strategy is determined by selection for fitness in a given environment. No process or species “plans” for implementing changes in their fundamental operations (behaviors) either in response to substantial and long-lasting changes in the environment, or in anticipation of such changes. The econiche, including all of the behaviors in a species repertoire, constitute the “plan” for its future (where plan is in scare quotes for a reason). Species are evolvable (obviously) and it is chance mutations that provide a way to explore new options.
But something that I consider truly marvelous, but not mysterious, has emerged with the evolution of the genus Homo and especially the species sapiens. Human beings have brain functions not found to any appreciable degree in any other animals. They can think strategically at a far grander scale than any other animal including our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos. Strategies, for humans, are more a matter of choice than chance. A group of humans anticipating a cold winter can decide to spend more time stocking foodstuffs and making warmer clothing. This is fundamentally different from what a mere biological system can do.
Strategic thinking is one of the hallmarks in my definition of sapience (see the work at the above link). While there are small inklings of the ability in our cousins (e.g. chimps are known to “plan” to go to war with a neighboring tribe) it is nothing like what we are able to accomplish. Strategic thinking is a clue that evolution has reached a much higher level of organization than merely biological. Our eusociality along with the emergence of the capacity for strong strategic thinking and leadership abilities in a few members of a group are evidence, in my opinion, that humans had transcended mere neo-Darwinian evolution even as being bootstrapped to this level by that same evolution. As if to underscore this insight, consider that we humans are the first biological creatures on this planet to actually know about evolution. We are rapidly developing the kind of knowledge needed to explain and understand evolution. Someone once described mankind as evolution learning about itself. This is not anthropomorphizing as it is normally understood. This is based on these facts. It doesn't necessarily follow that it is an anthropocentric viewpoint either. In fact, properly understood as a phenomenon, it immediately burdens humans with a responsibility that other animals do not carry. We have to regulate ourselves if we are to be truly fit in our Ecos environment. Thus far we have failed rather badly.
We, as a species, were on the path to higher sapience pre-agriculture. And while agriculture, with its requirements for mere cleverness (and not sapience) may have shifted the selection criteria, the fact that we had already passed the threshold means that we have a base from which to work. Continued reliance on a form of agriculture (my favorite is permaculture) need not preclude us from taking responsibility for what we do. And I submit that given our status as beings that understand evolution part of that responsibility is to get back on the right track to evolving yet higher sapience. Gene mutation based on pure chance is not the only way in which new capabilities might arise. Strategic thinking includes putting together intentional adaptations meant to address the future environment. We humans have learned how genetic mechanisms work and are now very close to understanding how regulatory networks in our DNA operates to modify (and enhance) existing phenotypes. I think we are very close to understanding the regulation of brain development. My own hypothesis regarding the role of Brodmann area 10 in providing strategic regulation to the rest of the brain, where intelligence and creativity and affect reside, might provide an insight into how to boost sapience. If our social fabric can hang together for another decade I am betting we will see this come to pass.
Unfortunately the prospects for the latter are looking dimmer, almost by the day. By my alternative plan to not practice an active genetic modification program, but rather rely on the fact that every trait has a greater or lesser degree of variability in the population and that if we could find very high sapient young people to form colonies prior to a bottleneck event, we would achieve the same thing in a more naturalistic way. At present I cannot predict which would be more likely to succeed. I guess I would now favor both. I realize there are significant moral implications to the intentional modification scheme. I can already hear the cries of “eugenics” by the limbic-controlled crowd. There would be questions about who gets to decide who gets modified and a whole plethora of others like it. My only defense is one of urgency and pointing out that we are not talking about designer babies being smarter or more athletic. We are talking about boosting wisdom itself. Surely that is a worthy objective.
Whole entities achieve stable, resilient, sustainable existence when they are not merely complex, but have a hierarchical cybernetic system in place to coordinate the whole, and to be able to anticipate the future of the whole environment. If a human society is to achieve this status it needs to evolve greater sapience than we see at present in individual members. We have been so used to the classical view of economics with its myopic vision of the role of competition as well as its ratification of greediness that it is going to be very hard for most people to see there really is another, much more enlightened view of what successful systems look like. People will first fear what they perceive as giving up their freedoms (a deeply instilled Western cultural view). Individualism has ruled in the West, in its extreme form, the Ayn Rand libertarians, and in most other ideological versions no matter how supposedly liberal. Everyone in the West agrees that individual freedom is supreme.
The only problem with this is that true freedom isn't the ability to do what you want when you want to. True freedom is freedom of the mind. Freedom from mental stress, freedom from false beliefs, freedom from lesser human propensities that lead to tyranny and destruction, and, most importantly, freedom to think about reality as it is, not as someone fools us into thinking it is.
Many Eastern philosophies do not even consider individualism as worthy of contemplation. They have evolved recognizing that humans are social beings and that what is best for society is also best for individuals living in that society. Western man simply got caught up in too much belief in human speciality of the wrong kind. We might be special, but we belong to the Ecos. We are not masters of it, we are its children. And we owe it our service.
If a small contingent of highly sapient beings make it through the bottleneck there may come a day when social organizations are modeled on the sustainable systems template. Communities of humans may achieve higher complexity and yet remain cohesive and free of most internal strife. Of course, just as cancerous cells run amok in our bodies occasionally, nothing is perfect and some of those societies may experience a similar loss of internal peace. But except for that it is not hard to envision social units existing in a way commensurate with the demands of the Ecos. Those groups might even engage in some new kind of competition (i.e. friendly competition) that would still be part of the evolutionary process of pushing progress.
Perhaps. It might be feasible. But only if some of us, now, can find a way to increase the likelihood of higher sapients getting through what is coming so fast.
Bourke, Andrew F.G. (2011). Principles of Social Evolution, Oxford University Press, USA.
Carroll, Sean B. (2006a). Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo, W.W. Norton & Co., New York.
Carroll, Sean B. (2006b). The Making of the Fittest, W.W. Norton & Co., New York.
Sober, Elliott & Wilson, David S. (1999). Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.
Wilson, Edward O. (2013). The Social Conquest of Earth, Liveright, New York.