cat cooperationCharles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is the basis for evolutionary biology.  The basic idea is that mutations in genes can give any organism, humans included, an advantage in competition.  Through subsequent generations, those organisms that have a competitive advantage will have more success at reproduction eventually leading to a change, an evolution in the species.  His ideas reflect biological understanding and cultural norms prevalent in the 1850′s.  We can see the faith in his theory today when we talk about how a business flourishes when it can out-compete others in its sector.  We also use Darwin’s ideas when we talk about how some employees are better choices for higher management positions because they can out compete and out perform their colleagues.

Darwin’s theory values competition as the motivating factor in evolution.  Now, 100 years after publication of the Origin of the Species, evolutionary biologists question competition as the only driver of evolution.  Cooperation, the opposite of competition, is an equally compelling factor in evolution.  In the smallest human unit, the family, cooperation ensures that the family can work together to create factors that make the whole unit successful, such as parents and children working together to form excellent education experiences which, in the end, will increase the overall welfare of the whole family.  Our cooperation as a society ensures that the whole society supports general aids to comfortable living, such as roads, to more powerful aids for comfortable living, such as stable governments. Observations of other species point to cooperation being just as important as competition in evolving better conditions for survival.  Many animals hunt in packs.  One bee, even the queen, cannot form an entirely new colony.  The colony survives from the queen, the workers, the laying workers and the drones.

Dr. Martin Nowak of the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University writes about cooperation being a key factor in evolution in “Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation”.  In his study, he states, “The two fundamental principles of evolution are mutation and natural selection. But evolution is constructive because of cooperation. New levels of organization evolve when the competing units on the lower level begin to cooperate… Cooperation is the secret behind the open-endedness of the evolutionary process.”

Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal, Director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes National Primate Research Center and author of “Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Why We Are Who We Are” states the root of cooperation is in empathy, something human beings have been hard-wired with before Homo Sapiens evolve. “This capacity [empathy] likely evolved because it served our ancestors’ survival in two ways. First, like every mammal, we need to be sensitive to the needs of our offspring. Second, our species depends on cooperation, which means that we do better if we are surrounded by healthy, capable group mates. Taking care of them is just a matter of enlightened self-interest.”

Culturally, we still value competition over cooperation because competition seems to produce a clear winner and a clear loser.  The decisive edge though, as more and more studies suggest, is cooperation, the heretofore missing link in the Darwin’s theory of natural selection.