How can cooperation emerge in a world of selfish individuals ruled by a Darwinian competition for survival?
This is the question that Martin Nowak, Professor of Mathematics and Biology at Harvard University, discusses in Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed.
Nowak and his collaborators have published a series of articles in major scientific journals that give partial answers to this question. The book provides a gentle overview of the technical results, with frequent comments about the implications for politics and economics. For example, Nowak repeatedly mentions climate change as an example of something requiring cooperation among humans.
The hope is that if we understand, mathematically, how cooperation emerges, we can better design policies and structures to promote cooperation and deter selfishness.
I propose that "natural cooperation" be included as a fundamental principle to bolster those laid down by Darwin. Cooperation can draw living matter upwards to higher levels of organization" Cooperation makes evolution constructive and open-ended.
The book has a few simple mathematical formulas, but the educated layman should be able to understand the gist of the arguments, thanks to generous use of example, analogy and simplification. Indeed, the book's readability benefits from the aid of Roger Highfield, an author of popular science books, who helped Nowak with the writing.
Darwinian evolution is based on competition for survival, for resources, and for mates. Winners reproduce, losers leave few offspring. Due to mutations, individuals vary in their fitness. Over many generations, fitter (configurations of) genes proliferate, while weaker ones disappear.
In fact, fitness is defined in terms of ability to reproduce, so the fact that fitter individuals reproduce is something of a tautology.
Similarly to evolution, in an economy, people often act selfishly, trying to get paid as much as possible for what they sell, whether goods or their services, and trying to pay as little as possible for what they buy.
It would appear that cooperation is difficult to explain in a pure, evolution-based model or in a selfish profit-based economy. You'd expect that selfishness would always win out. But it's clear that cooperation is common, both among non-human animals and among humans.
The basic reason is that, in the long run being nice pays off, for you or for your children, kin, or neighbors.
In the context of this book, cooperation basically means: an individual is willing to sacrifice some short-term benefit in exchange for a longer-term reward, either for itself or for related individuals (e.g., children or kin or members of the same group). In other words, cooperation is a form of reciprocity, or reciprocal altruism. This sense of cooperation isn't as pristine or as self-sacrificing as some religious traditions' ideals of pure selfless love. But even Christianity relies on a promise of reward and punishment in the afterlife to motivate moral behavior.
Albert Einstein once said, "If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed."
Unfortunately, from the point of view of biology, all we seem to have is punishment and reward, where reward means reproductive fitness: produce descendants who survive and who likewise reproduce. (It is not sufficient to have children: if your kids are too weak to survive, or if they don't reproduce, your reproductive fitness isn't really high.)
Yet the bearer of fitness (the entity getting the reward or punishment and that gets to reproduce) isn't necessarily the individual of a species. Richard Dawkins famously suggests that the unit of competition and survival may be the gene: animals exist to promote the interests of their genes, not the other way around. Moreover, genes, as well as gene networks, span individuals and species.
There are also theories which say the unit of the reward is the group: related kin, or cooperating subgroups, or (at a higher level) cooperating species who live in symbiosis with one another.