roger_highfield's picture
Director, External Affairs, Science Museum Group; Co-author (with Martin Nowak), SuperCooperators
The Snuggle For Existence

Everyone is familiar with the struggle for existence. In the wake of the revolutionary work by Charles Darwin we realized that competition is at the very heart of evolution. The fittest win this endless "struggle for life most severe", as he put it, and all others perish. In consequence, every creature that crawls, swims, and flies today has ancestors that once successfully reproduced more often than their unfortunate competitors.

This is echoed in the way that people see life as competitive. Winners take all. Nice guys finish last. We look after number one. We are motivated by self-interest. Indeed, even our genes are said to be selfish.

Yet competition does not tell the whole story of biology.

I doubt many realise that, paradoxically, one way to win the struggle for existence is to pursue the snuggle for existence: to cooperate.

We already do this to a remarkable extent. Even the simplest activities of everyday life involve much more cooperation than you might think. Consider, for example, stopping at a coffee shop one morning to have a cappuccino and croissant for breakfast. To enjoy that simple pleasure could draw on the labors of a small army of people from at least half a dozen countries. Delivering that snack also relied on a vast number of ideas, which have been widely disseminated around the world down the generations by the medium of language.

Now we have remarkable new insights into what makes us all work together. Building on the work of many others, Martin Nowak of Harvard University has identified at least five basic mechanisms of cooperation. What I find stunning is that he shows the way that we human beings collaborate is as clearly described by mathematics as the descent of the apple that once fell in Newton's garden. The implications of this new understanding are profound.

Global human cooperation now teeters on a threshold. The accelerating wealth and industry of Earth's increasing inhabitants — itself a triumph of cooperation-is exhausting the ability of our home planet to support us all. Many problems that challenge us today can be traced back to a profound tension between what is good and desirable for society as a whole and what is good and desirable for an individual. That conflict can be found in global problems such as climate change, pollution, resource depletion, poverty, hunger, and overpopulation.

As once argued by the American ecologist Garrett Hardin, the biggest issues of all — saving the planet and maximizing the collective lifetime of the species Homo sapiens — cannot be solved by technology alone. If we are to win the struggle for existence, and avoid a precipitous fall, there's no choice but to harness this extraordinary creative force. It is down to all of us to refine and to extend our ability to cooperate.

Nowak's work contains a deeper message. Previously, there were only two basic principles of evolution — mutation and selection — where the former generates genetic diversity and the latter picks the individuals that are best suited to a given environment. We must now accept that cooperation is the third principle. From cooperation can emerge the constructive side of evolution, from genes to organisms to language and the extraordinarily complex social behaviors that underpin modern society.