Saturday, December 15, 2012

Go to Health: Evolution: Snuggle or Struggle?

Writing in the July 2012 issue of Scientific American, Martin Novak outlined the ways in which cooperation has operated to shape evolution. Novak is a professor of biology and mathematics at Harvard; he has looked at evolution in species from amoebas to zebras, and has found that cooperation, and selfless behavior, is a pervasive phenomenon. The view that competition, for resources, mates, prestige, and leadership has been the most important factor explaining survival is challenged by this view.

Novak looked at numerous species to illustrate his views, and identified 5 mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation.

1.Vampire bats will share their blood meal with one who lost out on a given day; bats remember who helped them and later return the favor. Novak calls this direct reciprocity.

2. Neighbors, or friends in a social network, tend to help one another, so in a population with groups of cooperators, clusters develop that can prevail in competition with those who don’t cooperate. Novak calls this ‘spacial selection’.

3. Kin selection occurs when individuals make sacrifices for their relatives, who share their genes, still fostering the spread of these genes. J.B.S. Haldane, who first mentioned kin selection, wrote “I will jump in the river to save 2 brothers, or 8 cousins.”

4. Individuals may help another member of his (her) species based on the needy individual’s reputation. When the helper is in need, s/he may become the beneficiary of more help, having been seen to be generous. Novak calls this ‘indirect reciprocity’., and feels it is especially important in humans.

5. Finally individuals may perform selfless acts for the greater good of the group, as opposed to a single member. This is known as ‘group selection’. Lionesses within a pride will suckle each other’s young. Ants work together and sacrifice themselves to serve their colony. In his book The Descent of Man Darwin wrote that “a tribe including many members who….were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes, and this would be natural selection”.

Novak writes that cooperation has been a driving force in the evolution of life from the beginning, and that it has been particularly useful for humans because of our language. We can share information about each other – from our family members to strangers anywhere on earth. We are intensely interested in who does what to whom, and why. Reputation plays a major role in our decisions of how to position ourselves in the social network around us, what to do, what to support, what to buy.

Researchers looking at the need for cooperation to reduce climate change have found that people are more altruistic when they receive authoritative information about climate research, and they act more generously when allowed to make their contributions publicly rather than anonymously – when their reputation is on the line. When people receive a gas bill that compares their own consumption with the average household gas consumption in their neighborhood and that of the most efficient homes, they lower their consumption. How’s that for the interplay of competition and cooperation?

Our political parties both embrace concepts of individual struggle and cooperative unity, with Republicans leaning more toward individualism and competition, and Democrats more toward mutual help and cooperation. The balance is constantly shifting. In my home town, Bolinas, it seems that cooperation has been on the upswing for years. I am stunned by the work that people do locally for public good. We have the food programs at the Community Center, and at Mesa Park, Food for Families, the new Saturday lunch at St. Aidan’s Church, the free showers at Sam’s House, the free book store, and the immense amount of volunteer work to put on programs at the Community Center. Volunteer work for other local non-profits is outstanding – everyone I know is involved in one or another. Novak sums up his article with the following: “My work indicates that instead of opposing competition, cooperation has operated alongside it from the get-go to shape the evolution of life on earth, from the first cells to Homos Sapiens. Life is therefore not just a struggle for survival, - it is also, one might say, a snuggle for survival.”

Sadja Greenwood – back issues on this blog -->