Sunday, December 26, 2010

Cooperation and Competition: Mother and Child

It increasingly seems to me that competition can only occur within the context of cooperation. I imagine this is already obvious to many, if only intuitively.

My new favourite magazine, “Sein”, has dedicated its latest issue (No. 185, Jan 2011) to cooperation, or, “The Evolution of Unity”. Some bullet-points from the magazine’s first article “Cooperation with Evolution” (as usual translated by me):

Biologists are discovering cooperation and symbiosis in bacteria, plants, trees, between animals of different species, among humans and in biological and social systems.
Core physics research recognizes that we can only correctly apprehend the structure of reality, if we include the environment of the observed phenomena in our research.
Game Theory is discovering that nature everywhere prefers cooperative solutions.
Modern research into living biological and social systems is discovering circular flows, interdependencies, feedback loops, self-organization, diversity, and adaptability as the ground rules of cooperation.
Educational science and research into creativity recognize the value of teamwork and cross-discipline cooperation.
The political sciences are dedicating themselves to possibilities of international cooperation. The social sciences increasingly assert that cooperation between human and nature, between social systems, between States, classes, social groups and individuals is a primary requisite for humanity’s survival.
And even the globalized economy has been experimenting for years with new combinations of cooperation and competition to cope with today’s challenges.

Of course I am not quoting ‘proofs’ here, yet I am confident that anyone checking up on the veracity of these assertions would not have to look far to find supporting evidence. Here’s an example of the kind of thing listed above which I found a while back: “The “selfish gene” concept as presented by reductionists of all stripes is arrant nonsense.” (Miranda Wrongs.) And I urge everyone to buy and read "The Spirit Level: why greater equality makes societies stronger" by Wilkinson and Pickett.

Back to the Sein article and the main point I’m making here, “It is being discovered everywhere that competition only makes sense, only exists, within the broader framework of cooperation. Cooperation is the higher order principle of life and evolution.” This is a dramatic statement, fully in opposition to the prevailing views readily found and promoted, relentlessly, gullibly, in the mainstream. Not that the idea is new, far from it. Peter Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid” was written over a hundred years ago, an erudite and expressive work laying out in considerable detail and with sound logic how fundamental to nature cooperation is. Buckminster Fuller (and many others) were pro cooperation and sharing over their entire working lives. I’m sure that no matter how far back we go, we’ll find great thinkers propounding the role of cooperation in nature. And at the mundane level, though we recognize the importance and value of striving to achieve, of competing with others to discover more of our own abilities, don’t we daily promote sharing and cooperation as virtues? Don’t we consider selfishness unworthy of praise? Don’t we chastise our young when they behave selfishly? Why do we behave in this way locally while culturally asserting that only competition and selfishness deliver the ‘efficiencies’ modern society needs?

In the anachronism we call economics competition is still widely perceived as the mode which delivers the best results. Communism is held up as the only possible alternative to aggressive competition; ‘look what happened to Russia/East Germany/Romania!’ Here’s an example from another German magazine, Focus (October 2010), in which Patrick Pelata boasts about Renault’s secret battery technology as a game winner in the race to mass-produce economically viable electric cars:

When VW stated that the technology would first be ready for the mass-market in 2030, they obviously had less information than we did.

So why not share the best technology known to man in the interests of environmental health and improving living standards everywhere? Open it up! End intellectual copyright law! Develop a different and more inclusive idea of what victory is. In what big-picture way is it good to ‘beat’ the competition if such holds back the cross-fertilization of ideas the whole human race now so desperately needs? When one facet of society ‘wins’ at the cost of the rest, how beneficial is this ‘victory’ even to the ‘winner?’ We could (because many can) culturally perceive the whole planet as the system that is affected by our efforts, instead of the Us against Them, competitive, fear- and scarcity-based stance we are currently imprisoned and suffocated by. We are all aware of how development in alternative fuel forms has been retarded for economic reasons.

To branch out into ecology, Paul Hawken, in “The Ecology of Commerce”, describes ecosystem breakdown on St. Matthew Island over a twenty year period during which imported reindeer had ‘the upper hand’ against the indigenous vegetation, and ‘won:’

A haunting case of such an overshoot took place St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea in 1944 when 29 reindeer were imported. Specialists had calculated that the island could support 13 to 18 reindeer per square mile, or a total population of between 1,600 and 2,300 animals. By 1957, the population was 1,350; but by 1963, with no natural controls or predators, the population had exploded to 6,000. The original calculations had been correct; this number vastly exceeded carrying capacity and was soon decimated by disease and starvation. [ ... ] By 1966 there were only 42 reindeer alive on St. Matthew Island.

Likewise, if the wolves of an ecosystem ‘won’ against the deer such that they ate the last of them, the wolves would die of starvation. Outright ‘victory’ can only be pyrrhic. Competition has to occur within the context of a dynamic and cooperative balance, otherwise the system tips into collapse, and recovery can be so slow as to be impossible from the point of view of the ‘victor.’

Of course there are nuances and complexities a small blog-post such as this one must leave to one side, for example the absence of competition from natural predators in the story quoted above, but the point relating to balance is valid generally.

To conclude I’d like to turn to Gregory Bateson’s criteria for viable and sustainable living: 1) Health, the ability to exist within the environment; 2) Competence, the ability to feed needs from the resources of the environment; and 3) Adaptability, the ability to change with the changes in the environment.

Change is the only constant. Jared Diamond lists inability to adapt to changing circumstances as one of the main causes of civilizational collapse. He claims that status quos typically find it impossible to change, a problem Bob Geldof termed “Institutionitis.” Our institutions grew up out of a belief in elitism, competition, scarcity, perpetual growth, greed, selfishness, and so on, beliefs which were ‘effective’ in a particular direction. They have driven us to a globalized, but deeply fractious society struggling to deal with the forces urging it on, failing to recognize the consequences of its successes, riven with corruption, and bleeding all manner of poisons into all manner of blood streams, physical and spiritual, this beautiful planet hosts.

If we care about our lives, if we care about how to carry on sustainably, we must be flexible and embrace the full gamut of connotations brought to our cultural attention by new research into the fascinating relationships between competition and cooperation. In my view capitalism itself has been exposed as 'out of date,' and profoundly so. Only post-scarcity or resource-based economics offer the breadth and depth of thinking required to define a new path forward to a new way of being. Only by being open in this area of our thinking can we be adaptive enough to survive.


Greg said...

Another enjoyable post on a subject near and dear to me.

I think part of the problem with critiques of the "selfish gene" reductionists lies in a flawed definition of selfish. Or at least in a flawed definition of how that selfishness is achieved.

I dont think Dawkins ever saw the selfishness of the gene as pure self preservation at the expense of other genes. He was using a metaphor of selfishness to explain that a genes only "goal" is to produce a protein. The success of the protein depends on how it interacts (cooperates) with the proteins that are coded for on neighboring genes. The "human" is a collection of proteins that emerges from the cooperation of millions of selfish genes. The human is then capable of perpetuating those genes even further.

The "genius" of the selfishness of genes is that it requires a high, maybe the highest, form of cooperation to pull off.

Selfish, as Dawkins uses it, is not a bad word. It is a bad word as it is usually expressed in too many homoeconomicus'.

Realizing that the only way to be successfully selfish is to be unapologetically cooperative is the most ingenious trick of nature I think.

Toby said...

Cool stuff Greg, thanks for laying that out so clearly.

I still feel though that "selfish" was a very unfortunate choice of word. Why not something like 'impotent' or 'blind?' Bruce Lipton's theory goes in that direction, away from 'gene as central controller' to 'gene as reactionary,' and thus renders the 'selfish' angle utterly redundant, meaningless even. We would not think to call a badly timed (from our point of view) storm 'selfish,' any more than a falling piece of masonry, so why then a double-helix producing protein under orders from environmental stimuli?

The other element of this that I haven't touched on is the phenotype, which is supposed to be competitive/selfish regardless of how much cooperation its constituent genes and proteins are practicing. Dawkins might say that the 'selfishness' of the gene finds its voice in the selfish behaviours of the phenotype. But I feel it is precisely at the phenotype level, at least in sufficiently complex animals, where 'moral' cooperation begins to emerge, which is in fact the type of cooperation that ought to be of interest to economists. Here Kropotkin is especially interesting, since he wrote before the gene had been identified.

Anyway, whatever the errors of that choice of word, what is increasingly clear is, as you point out, the genius of nature's dynamic balance, and how competition and cooperation relate to one another, need one another even.

Greg said...

I agree that our vocabulary and language leave much to be exploited by those with a bent to do so. It also leaves much to be taken advantage of by those with purer motives.

I've been thinking that a possible way to demonstrate the advantage of looking out for others rather than leaving every man for himself might be a simple mathematical relationship; Ask the question "Would you feel more secure in an environment where one person is looking out for you or where 100 people are looking out for you? Looking out only for yourself leaves you with only one person looking out for you. Do the math"

Being selfish turns out to be way more expensive and ineffective.

Toby said...

I thought about your analogy over night and can't see an effective counter-argument. It's one of those arguments that's so simple, you wonder if it's missing something really obvious. I like it. I think it's effective.

The thing people react to when they hear arguments they've been conditioned to interpret as 'socialist,' is the imagined giving up of individual sovereignty, as if each of us is a lord of his or her destiny, a lone warrior fighting his or her heroic battle to be free from all tyranny. The truth is far from that romantic, liberal myth, but we have millions, if not billions, addicted to it. Shaking them from it will most likely take total systemic collapse.

But make that argument where you can, since all such efforts are seeds for the future.

Greg said...

It seems that security is what most people are seeking, in one form or another. There just seems to be different solutions to the security problem.

Even the most ardent individualist, when it comes down to it, will seek others like him in an attempt to increase his personal security. Only the truly insane will insist on being a true lone wolf.

We all seem to have a circle of influence which we protect. Its the size of the circle that seems to be variable. I hope for one day the circle is global. Others simply see their circle as "The McCoys" or maybe "Alabama" and eventually "The USA" How do we get the circle to expand?

Toby said...

How do we get that circle to expand. With empathy, the human ability which has been expanding that circle since forever. See this:

Greg said...

Totally agree about empathy. It does seem at times though that we have an empathy shortage (at least here in USA).

I think empathy is a developed response. Mirror neurons appear to be at the heart of empathy and we all are born with the capacity to develop our mirror neurons (except for certain levels of autism) but they DO need to be developed. Maybe exercised is a better term.

Nurturing at a young age can set our empathic development on the right or wrong path it seems.

Capitalism is not great at developing empathy it seems. The winners seem to become more and more entrenched and protective of "theirs"

Greg said...

I wrote my response before watching the video. What a great video. You've posted some other stuff by that guy I think. Thanks

Toby said...

"Capitalism is not great at developing empathy it seems."

I'll drink to that! If capitalism encourages anything, it's sociopathy. It is itself sociopathic, since it prioritizes money/profit above all else. Nice guys finish last. Empathy is for losers.

Cool that you picked out the mirror neurons before checking out the vid!

Greg said...

"Cool that you picked out the mirror neurons before checking out the vid!"

Well a lot of people have talked about mirror neurons for a while. I saw something about that at least a year ago. I think Frans deWall from Emory ( a primatologist) has talked about them and their link with empathy in primates. Really cool stuff.

I cant remember where I saw someone talk about autism and its possible relationship to mirror neurons.

About expanding our circle of empathy and religions role in facilitating/hindering, have you read Robert Wrights book "The Evolution of God"?

He talks about how we can explain the holy texts' wildly divergent views of god as mirroring the societies views of their "enemies". As they grow more empathic of their enemies you see the texts preaching love and tolerance, as they encounter an enemy that they view as being in a zero sum relationship with you see the texts which sound more militant and intolerant. Fascinating read.

Toby said...

Hadn't heard of that book. It sounds really fascinating, I shall check it out.

I first read of mirror neurons in "The Spirit Level", I book I recommend often. In an essay I wrote on crime I quoted a passage:

“For a species which thrives on friendship and enjoys co-operation and trust, which has a strong sense of fairness, which is equipped with mirror neurons allowing us to learn our way of life through a process of identification, it is clear that social structures which create relationships based on inequality, inferiority and social exclusion must inflict a great deal of social pain.”