The direction of evolution and the future of humanity

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 (new) The most recent and refined version of the evolutionary worldview that was first presented in Evolutionís Arrow can be found in the 34 page document The Evolutionary Manifesto which is here

Chapter 3.    Why Cooperate?        


Without cooperation, you would not exist.

Almost everything we use and depend on in our everyday life is produced and brought to us by the coordinated actions of many other people. Almost everything made by humans is produced cooperatively.

Consider a very simple manufactured device such as a ballpoint pen. It is the product of the coordinated work of thousands of people across the planet: manufacturing and moulding the plastic components, collecting and processing the petrochemicals that are used to make the plastics, manufacturing the metal components, producing the alloys from which these are made, mining and processing the various ores used in making the alloys, transporting all these raw materials and components around, inventing, designing and refining the design of the pen, and so on. None of these tasks are carried out by individuals acting alone. They are done by individuals who are members of cooperative organisations such as multi-national companies. These organisations in turn use materials and services produced by other cooperative organisations and so on. Everything is the product of an immense network of cooperation.

Even unprocessed food such as vegetables are produced through the cooperative activities of many people: fertilizers, insecticides, farm equipment, irrigation systems, transport, and so on, are all produced and organised cooperatively. And each individual involved in this production relies on many other goods and services that are also generated cooperatively.

Not only is our physical life completely dependent on cooperation, so too is our mental life. Many people have contributed to the development of the ideas in our culture about how the world works, the place of humanity in it, what is right and wrong, how we should live our lives, and how we should relate to others. Without exposure to these ideas we could not think as we do and we would not have our current worldviews. What we think and the contents of our minds is as much the product of social cooperation as our technology and our food.

Viewed from afar, human society is a dynamic network of cooperative activity that inseparably interlinks our lives and our actions. But it is not just that we are all totally dependent on the cooperation of those around us. We are also totally dependent on cooperation within us. We are composed of cooperative living processes. If the living processes that make up our bodies did not cooperate, we would not exist. Their cooperation is us.

Each of us is an organisation of about a million billion cells. These cells are specialised into many different types that team up to form organs such as the heart, stomach, and bones. The digestion of food, the transport of food to cells, the fight against invading cells that cause disease, the transport of oxygen to cells and the use of thought to solve problems are all the product of extensive cooperative amongst highly specialised and differentiated organs and cells[1]. Like the goods and services produced in human society, the key functions of the human body are all the product of the coordinated activities of thousand and thousands of differently-specialised and interdependent cells. If this cooperation breaks down, so to do our bodies. Cancer is one example of what happens when cells go their own way at the expense of the body.

And the cells themselves are cooperative organisations. Without extensive cooperation between the molecular processes and organelles that make up cells, we would not exist. Each of our million billion cells is made up of thousands of incredibly small and intricate parts that cooperate together to produce the functions of the cell. At the molecular level, a human cell may contain up to 100,000 different proteins. Proteins are differentiated and specialised in many ways: some provide support for the components of the cell, some form part of the cell membrane, some have the ability to contract, moving the cell or parts within it, and many are specific enzymes that regulate the essential chemical reactions that enable the cell to function. Often these enzymes cooperate to form teams in which each member regulates a particular step in a sequence of reactions.

Just as humans team up to form corporations, and cells are organised into organs, groups of molecules may also form larger structures called organelles. These too are differentiated and specialised, with mitochondria, the so-called power houses of the cell, releasing and converting energy for use in the cell, ribosomes providing sites for putting together proteins, the nucleus housing most of the genetic material, and lysosomes providing places in which food can be digested without dissolving other parts of the cell[2].

As with our bodies and our social systems, the functions of our cells are produced by the cooperative activities of many specialised and differentiated components.

In summary, we are cooperators that are made of cooperators that are made of cooperators and so on. It is cooperation all the way down.

But why all this cooperation? What are its advantages? Are they the sort of advantages that can drive evolutionary progress? In Chapter 2 we saw that evolution would be progressive if there were general potentials for improvement in living processes that were on-going. Are the potential benefits of cooperation on-going in this sense? As evolution proceeds to exploit the advantages of cooperation, will there always be potentials for further improvement that will draw evolution forever onwards?

We know that much of the cooperation we see around us must be advantageous because it has succeeded in competition with alternatives. Cooperation is widespread only because it has been able to defeat non-cooperation in evolutionary struggles. The teams of cells that have formed multicellular organisms such as birds, insects and mammals have proven competitively superior to individual cells in many environments. And the teams of molecular processes that have formed cells have almost completely replaced the less cooperative molecular processes that preceded them.

But why are these cooperative organisations competitively superior? Why can a group of living entities that team up do better at evolution than individuals who do not?

The key to the success of cooperation is that combinations of individuals whose activities are coordinated can do things better than individuals, and can do things that individuals cannot.

One of the main ways in which cooperation enables things to be done better is through specialisation and division of labour. In a cooperative organisation, every individual does not have to do everything needed for survival. Instead, an individual can specialise in a particular task, performing the task not only for itself but also for others in the group. This lets the others specialise in other tasks for the group. The result is a highly interdependent organisation in which key tasks are performed by individuals who are specially adapted and equipped to do them[3].

So we do not all have to do the work of a plumber, a carpenter, and a medical doctor. We do not have to spend time learning all these skills, we can specialise in one job and do it far better than any individual who had to learn them all. And because we do the one job full time, it pays to develop special tools and equipment to enable us to do the job even more efficiently.

Similarly, a specialised nerve cell is free to develop the structure and processes needed for it to transmit electrical impulses effectively. It does not have to retain a structure that enables it to perform all the other tasks of cells in our bodies. And the cooperative division of labour within cells enables protein enzymes to specialise in particular tasks. So an enzyme can develop the structure needed to regulate one specific step in a chain of reactions, rather that having to have a generalised structure that can control many steps.

Sometimes individuals also have natural advantages that make it more efficient for them to specialise in particular tasks. For example, cells at the front of animals are best placed to sense the environment because they meet new conditions first. And many Portuguese farmers specialise in wine production because of the suitability of Portugal’s climate.

In all these ways, a cooperative division of labour can enable living processes to function more efficiently and effectively. It can improve their ability to get food, to move, to fight enemies, to solve problems, to understand how the world works, to use this knowledge for better adaptation, and to evolve. Whatever evolutionary challenges face a group of individuals, they can deal with them better using a cooperative division of labour.

So wherever evolution has been able to fully exploit the benefits of cooperation, we always find the extraordinary level of specialisation and interdependency that results from a high degree of division of labour. We find it within cells, within our bodies, within our social systems, and between nations[4]. And there is every reason to believe it will also be a feature of organisations that are capable of future evolutionary success on even larger scales.

But it is not only through a division of labour that cooperation provides advantages. Cooperation is also able to exploit the fact that combinations often have new features that their components do not[5]. Combinations can do things that individuals cannot. We are most familiar with this in non-living things: nickel and chromium combined with steel produce stainless steel. Unlike steel alone, it is rust and tarnish resistant. And bricks combined together in various ways can make a house or a bridge or some other useful structure. Individual bricks cannot.

Similarly, combinations of living things can also do things that individuals cannot: amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, are unable to regulate chemical reactions in the cell by themselves. But when combined to form protein enzymes, they can control and manipulate other atoms and molecules, determining how they react and what larger molecules are constructed in the cell. A flock of birds or a troop of baboons is able to detect stalking predators that individuals are unable to. And combinations of cells in our bodies form tubes to carry blood, teeth that enable us to chew food, and many other useful structures that individual cells cannot.

Cooperative combinations can also have significant evolutionary advantages because of their larger scale. For example, larger-scale organisms can have adaptations that are more complex. A bacterium could not evolve a brain as complex as ours. This level of complexity was possible only after billions of cells teamed up to form multicellular organisms. Larger scale can also provide power over smaller groups, over individuals of the same species and over individuals of other species that are used for food. Larger-scale human groups are generally better at defending and taking territory. Many animals combine in groups to chase off predators that would easily overpower a single individual. Predators such as lions and dogs that combine to hunt as groups are able to round up and kill larger and faster prey than they could as individuals. And males in a number of species including dolphins and baboons often team up to successfully fight for sole access to females[6].

But more importantly, the ability to form larger-scale cooperative groups enables organisms to manage and manipulate their environment over larger scales. Large human organisations can operate mines, build dams and establish communications networks of a scale unimaginable to small bands of earlier humans. A human social system organised on the scale of the planet is likely to be able to develop the capacity to prevent large asteroids from colliding with the planet. Dinosaurs and bacteria have been unable to adapt on a sufficient scale to do this. In general, multicellular organisms can cope successfully with larger-scale environmental threats than can single celled organisms. And single cells can adapt to larger-scale threats than could the first living molecular processes.

A further very general advantage of cooperation is that it can prevent the harmful effects of destructive competition. Non-cooperating individuals pursue their own interests even where this damages the interests of others[7]. A population of such individuals will damage each other’s interests, and all will loose. Obvious examples are fighting between animals over food and territories and the chemical warfare waged between plants over places to live. Competition between rabbits on an island can result in the destruction of all food sources, resulting in the death of the rabbit population. Pollution is another example. A company that seeks only to maximise its profits will engage in activities that degrade the environment if this produces the highest profit.

The advantages of cooperation mean that a whole world of new adaptive opportunities is opened whenever living processes team up to form a cooperative organisation. This has clearly been the case when molecular processes teamed up to form cells, when cells teamed up to form multicellular organisms, and when humans teamed up to form social systems. Each of these levels of cooperative organisation has been able to conquer new environments and develop adaptations unknown to the levels that preceded them. We can be sure that new evolutionary opportunities will also be opened up as human organisation expands to the scale of the planet and beyond. Exactly what these new opportunities will be, we cannot know with certainty. The adaptive opportunities that were opened up by the move from single cells to multicellular organisms are unimaginable from the point of view of a single cell and its life experiences. What could the trunk of an elephant, the wings of a bird, the heart of a deer, or a jet aircraft possibly mean to a cell? But what we can know with certainty is that by expanding the scale of human cooperative organisation we will open up greater adaptive capabilities. And as we shall see in later chapters, it will increase the chances that humanity can play a significant role in the future evolution of life in the universe.

The evolutionary advantages of cooperation are significant. Wherever evolution is able to exploit these advantages by organising cooperation, it will do so. There are two key reasons why the evolution driven by these advantages is likely to be progressive: first, the advantages of cooperation are general. They apply to cooperation between any living processes. They do not depend on the existence of any special local circumstances or conditions. Any organisms, whether of the same species or not, can benefit from the evolution of suitable cooperative relationships between them. Whatever the evolutionary challenges faced by organisms, they can meet them more effectively through cooperation.

This brings us to the second reason why the advantages of cooperation can drive progressive evolution. They can do so because the advantages continue to apply no matter how large cooperative organisation becomes. The advantages do not cease once cooperative organisation reaches a particular scale. Further increases in cooperation will deliver further evolutionary advantages. Increases in the scale of cooperative organisation did not stop providing advantages once cooperation reached the scale of a single cell, or the scale of multicellular organisms, or of human villages. In all these cases, the potential benefits of cooperation between organisations of the largest scale continued to drive the progressive evolution of cooperation.

Currently, the potential benefits of increased cooperation are expanding human organisation to the scale of the planet and beyond. There is every reason to believe this expansion will continue. No matter what the scale of cooperative organisation, greater benefits will be achieved by further increases in scale, whether by the expansion of existing organisations, or by the evolution of cooperation between organisations of the largest scale. Living processes that cooperate over the scale of a solar system will have much greater adaptive capabilities and opportunities than us. But their abilities will be far inferior to organisms that cooperate to manage the matter, energy and living resources of a galaxy. The potential benefits of cooperation can be expected to continue to drive increases in the scale of cooperative organisation at least until the universe is organised into a single cooperative organisation of living processes.

However, the potential benefits of cooperation can drive progressive evolution only to the extent that evolution is capable of exploiting the benefits. If evolution is unable to find ways to make cooperation work, progressive evolution will stall. This is a serious difficulty if the views of many mainstream biologists are correct. Most evolutionary theorists believe that evolution is very poor at organising cooperation, and that self-interested organisms will usually win evolutionary struggles. Consistent with this, there are many instances in the world around us where evolution seems unable to organise cooperation. In the next Chapter we will look at barriers to the evolution of cooperation that have been identified by evolutionary theory, and see what implications the barriers have for progressive evolution.

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[1].       For a comprehensive picture of the functioning of multicellular organisms from an integrated systems perspective see Miller, J. G. (1978) Living Systems. McGraw-Hill.

[2].       For a very clear account of the structure and functioning of cells see Rensberger, B. (1996) Life itself: exploring the realm of the living cell. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3].       See Chapter 2 of Ridley, M. (1996) The Origins of Virtue. London: Viking.

[4].       A comprehensive picture of differentiation, specialisation and integration at all levels of living processes is provided by Miller: Living Systems. op. cit.

[5].       See Corning, P. (1998) The Cooperative Gene: On the Role of Synergy in Evolution. Evolutionary Theory 11: 183-207.

[6].       Many examples of advantageous cooperation between organisms are given by Dugatkin, L. (1999) Cheating Monkeys and Citizen Bees: The Nature of Cooperation in Animals and Humans. New York: Free Press.

[7].       See the classic paper Hardin, G. (1968) The tragedy of the commons. Science 162: 1243-8.

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