Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cooperation Outcompetes Competition - The Evolution of Morality

When people don't believe in evolution it's never because of science. It's for religious reasons often masquerading as moral reasons:

Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ ideas thus powerfully shaped Stalin’s approach to society. Oppression, self glorification, atheism and murder resulted from Stalin’s rejection of his Creator after reading and believing the evolutionary ideas of Darwin. And the most tragic aspect of all? That while Stalin was turning his back on his Creator, he was building his philosophy on a lie.

Hitler’s understanding of the history of life, and that of Marx, Stalin and Mao, was not devised by a German, Russian or Chinese. It was shaped by an Englishman named Charles Darwin.
Those quotes are, of course, complete rubbish, but, in some ways, understandable. Humans have an innate fear of nature. Predators, poisonous snakes, spiders and harsh elements eliminated those of our ancestors that weren't afraid of nature on some level. I think it's possible that this evolved fear might be a partial explanation of why people fear evolution - a purely natural explanation of our own origins.

This negative, almost condemning tone, can even be seen in Darwin's choice of words, or more accurately, the public's choices of Darwin's words (since he wrote much on altruism as well) . The full title, often unknown, of Darwin's most well known book is: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The most quoted section of this watershed book ends speaking of the "war of nature, from famine and death.” One can attribute this bellicose view of nature from his contemporary Europe that was in the throws in industrialization, colonization, political turmoil, Marxism, and Malthusian philosophy, poets like Tennyson who spoke of nature being "red in tooth and claw" and even Freud, who in Civilization and Its Discontents spoke of renunciating 'animal' passions.

There's so much more to the story, though! Thankfully, many great scientists/writers are bringing this message to the public (EO Wilson, Kropotkin, Matt Ridley, Frans deWaal, Robert Wright, et al).

Here's why this matters: identity proceeds activity.

Creationists (nor evolutionists) need to be afraid of learning about our past, though. Nature is nice. Evolution is a pragmatist to the extreme and the bottom line is that cooperation works. It's not just polite, it's a smart long term strategy.

Controversial thesis: nearly every major revolution in evolution is the result of cooperation. Let's take a look.

  • The First Life - 4 Billion years ago- The first life, our cenancestor, was a community of gene, metabolism, protein sharing organisms. Living came from nonliving as a team.

    • Gaia - 3.5-2.0 bya -- Cyanobacteria produce enough oxygen as a by product of photosynthesis that the Earth's atmosphere is drastically change enough that the Earth 'rusted' causing iron in the ocean to dissipate and produce most of today's iron deposits. This 'pollution' also paves the way for future complex aerobic life to evolve.
      • What Earth's atmosphere would look like without life:
      • 98% Carbon dioxide
      • 0% Oxygen
      • 1% Nitrogen
    • What Earth's atmosphere actually looks like, since life has drastically changed it:
      • .00035 % Carbon dioxide
      • 21% Oxygen - not too little to be anemic and not too much to have rampant oxidation, mutation and out of control conflagrations
      • 78% Nitrogen - highly stable, wonderfully innocuous media
      • Source: James Lovelock's Gaia

    • Endosymbiosis - 2.0 bya - Scientists like Lynn Margulis looked at mitchondria, the powerhouse of our cells and other eukaryotes, and said, "Gee-whiz, these mitchondria divide like bacteria, have protein making ribosomes like bacteria, have their own unnucleated genome like a bacteria, are structurally shaped like a bacteria...I wonder if they once were bacteria!!??!" When you think about it, it's a shocking proposition. We, and other eukaryotes aren't one thing, we're many things working together. We aren't a human. We're trillions of evolved bacteria working together, bacteria that if you were to separate us from our friends, the mitchondria, we'd quickly die, as would they. This genius idea might have come about as aerobic bacteria (the mitchondria) and anaerobic bacteria (that'd be 'us', so to speak) dividing the labor, became specialists and after billions of years are absolutely, completely, 100% dependent on each other. Marvelous!

      • 1 bya -- Multicellular life further refines the idea of working as a team of specialists. As oxygen continues to build up in the atmosphere, complex organic molecules like collagen, that use oxygen, can start to stick stuff together to build the vast city scape networks of multicellular life.

        “...Astonishing is the thought that a human body consists of 10 trillion cells and that a brain contains about 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses.” --William R Murry in the essay Grandeur in This View

        • Sex - 600 mya -- Organisms wise up and start sharing the best of their DNA in exchange for the best of another organism's DNA thus 'spawning' a revolutionary new way of evolving - sexual recombination, the shuffling of genes. Another major advantage is having a bank of reserve genes stored in recessive genes.

          “DNA in a single cell of our bodies, so small we cannot see it, if stretched out would reach from fingertip to fingertip of our outstretched arms and that there are trillions of cells in a body and that there is enough DNA in those cells to reach to the sun and back, can fill us with profound amazement." --William R Murry in the essay “Grandeur in This View”

          • Digestion - 600 mya?-- Simple animals with the first digestive tracts co-evolve with bacteria (and later fungi and protists) to digest food more completely. Consider ourselves. By count, we are more bacteria than human. It's been estimated that a normal person has 10 trillions cell, but on and in us we have100 trillion bacteria cells. Once again, on another level, we are cooperation on legs.

            • 500 mya -- Plants colonize the land possibly by the symbiosis of fungi (structure) and cyanobacteria (food production).

                • 200mya - Mammals - What makes us so different from other organisms? How is that we rule the Cenozoic? Warm blood? No, think of other warm blooded animals like birds and arguably dinosaurs. Is it having fur? Not really. Feathers are probably more effective at retaining heat. Is it our differentiated teeth. Eh. I think what makes us special is the way we take extraordinarily good care of our young - we feed them milk through mammary glands. The child offers a way to pass on the mother's DNA and the mother offers milk. Cooperation, care, maternal love.

                  • 140 mya-- Which came first? Dinosaurs or flowering plants? It blows my mind that the correct answer is dinosaurs. For hundreds of millions of years there were forests without any flowers or vivid color, just seas of mostly green. Flowering plants evolved using insects as pollinators and animals as seed distributors. They now out number ferns and conifers 20 to 1. Cooperation works. There are 300,000 species of plants and the newcomers, flowering plants, number 250,000. If there were no flowering plants there'd be none of our normal fruit, butterflies, honey bees, cotton, roses, orchids, or us since our ancestors were fruit eaters, frugivores.
                    These are native to Florida - passion flower!

                      • 6 mya - 2 mya -- Alloparenting, gives Homo sapiens the ability to provide food for large brained, feeble offspring. "It takes a village to raise a child" really is true for humans. As our brains got bigger, our bodies got smaller (since there were selective forces that were keeper our hips small, like needing to run fast) and our babies started to need so much care that one woman couldn't do it alone, nor could one couple. A whole village was needed - someone to get carbs, like digging up tubers, several men to hunt meat collectively, another to gather fruits and nuts, another to bring water home, etc, etc. Contrast this with wildebeests that have to stand within minutes and join the herds migration or become dinner. Our babies can even raise their head, roll over or walk for a considerable time - often a year before walking!

                          Yes, there will always be parasites and heterotrophs using short term strategies that take advantage of other organisms, but there must, necessarily, obligatorily be more cooperation than all out competition otherwise the ecosystem will collapse.

                          Long term, cooperation out competes competition.

                          Nature is nice.

                            Images from here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here.


                            1. Ok I have to ask the question. So i understand and have appreciated learning about the biological evolution of niceness and cooperation. I would be interested in your perspective with the flipside of this. Because I am driven by emotion i really want to be careful not be driven soley by that but intentional about including facts, logic and science. but what does science and biology have to say about evil and hate? not just in killing in order to survive, but our emotional destructive behavior within relationships. For example, if one were to speak from a religous perspective and use adam and eve and their choice resulting in the fall of man to explain the evolution of our poor choices in relationship, what would biology say about this? or are there just things that biology can't explain? and this is just one of them?

                            2. Excellent. So, evolution kind of works in three ways:

                              1) An adaptation we see could have been caused by *sexual selection*. As in, it gave previous generations a reproductive advantage. In the case of your question, being evil might have given people a reproductive advantage. Rapists, manipulators, liars, cheats, etc. could have possibly gotten more mates by being evil. Or, perhaps being shrewd and cunning was sexy.

                              2) Secondly, it might have arisen through *natural selection*, meaning it gave a survival advantage. Possibly, if you behaved evilly, you could steal more food, use less energy, avoid dangerous situations, mistrust of 'outsiders', aggression in war, etc.

                              3) It's also important in biology to not pretend to understand things more than we do. It's possible that any adaptation, evil included, isn't an adaptation at all, but something sometimes referred to as a *spandrel*. In architecture a spandrel is basically space that doesn't do anything, but is the result of other essential structures being there (better explanation here: So, it's conceivable that what we refer to as evil, or some types of evil are just accidents. Perhaps, certain times of intelligence were selected for like being really calculating, fastidious, inventive, etc. and because we're so smart now we can also be evil. Just one example that comes to mind is revenge. Being vindictive wasn't likely selected for, but having a strong sense of fairness was. One thing comes from another.

                              4) I know I said there'd be three, but there really is a fourth category - we're incomplete. Maybe the evil you're referring to is the result of evolution's inbetweenness. There is no perfect organism. Evolution will always and forever simply be a flow towards greater levels of survival and fit with the environment. Maybe some of what you're referring to as evil is incomplete goodness.

                              One of the things about evolution that I love is that it can give us great patience with others. When with coworkers and friends, I often think about how their ancestors survival/reproduction resulted in who they are. Without excusing evil it's important to remember that every perpetrator of evil is also a victim themselves - of their ancestors, of evolution, of upbringing, of environment and that can give great patience to coexist.

                            3. "one thing comes from another".. absolutely.
                              i think of hurt people, hurt people.

                              incomplete goodness. i love that!


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