How Nature Avoids Competition and Chooses Cooperation

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Excerpted from


Ronald Logan:

"A century has passed since Kropotkin challenged the British evolutionists. How has a hundred years of accumulated scientific knowledge influenced the debate over fierce competition versus mutual cooperation as the primary mechanism of species survival? Relevant evidence comes mainly from two sources: biology (particularly ecology) and social psychology.

A good analysis of the biological evidence is presented in the book, The New Biology, by Robert Augros and George Stanciu, summarized in their paper, "The Biology of Aggression and Cooperation" (Noetic Sciences Review, Winter 1989). Augros and Stanciu begin their analysis by observing that Darwin relied on eighteenth-century reductionist methodology, which tries to understand the whole through analysis of its parts. "He split nature into all its separate parts, individual plants and animals, and saw that everything was trying to reproduce itself as much as it could . . . Then when he put all those isolated organisms back together, he thought it was clear that such reproduction would lead to a shortage of space, of food, and other necessities of life. There was going to be severe competition, and therefore all of nature was going to be at war." The inevitable conclusion of reductionist methodology is that nature must be ruled by conflict.

The reductionist premise is a core assumption of the Western intellectual paradigm. But this premise has come under sustained attack by a diversity of scientific disciplines, including biology (increasingly influenced by ecology, which focuses on the interactive processes in living systems). Biologists dissatisfied with reductionism are attempting to articulate a new biology, one which looks at wholes, at systems, and at synergisms (as well as at the functioning of parts). From this new biology we find, as Augros and Stanciu report, that "nature uses extraordinarily ingenious techniques to avoid conflict and competition, and that cooperation is extraordinarily widespread throughout all of nature."

Nature avoids competition in various ways: by separating species geographically into differing habitats; by sorting species into unique niches within habits; by spatial division according to gradations of environmental factors, such as oxygen content at different levels of a body of water; by territorial demarcations, as when cats mark out with their scent the space which is theirs; and by establishing dominance hierarchies within social groupings of animals.

Cooperation is fostered through a wide array of symbiotic arrangements. Many plants produce tasty fruits, which animals eat, later depositing the undigested seeds. The intestinal bacteria of grazing animals makes possible the breakdown of cellulose fibers into digestible fatty acids. Egyptian plovers get their food by cleaning parasites off the bodies of rhinoceroses. And clown fish are given protection by anemone, while serving as bait for the fish that the anemone eat. These are only examples of inter- species cooperation--intra-species cooperation is even more commonplace.

At the time Kropotkin challenged British Darwinism, the scientific study of human behavior was in its infancy: Wilhelm Wundt had just begun the first psychology laboratory in Leipzig. In the debate as to whether competition or cooperation is more characteristic of human nature, the young field of psychology was mute. Today, however, there is a vast body of social psychology literature on this question.

Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition, spent seven years reviewing more than 400 research studies dealing with competition and cooperation. Prior to his investigation, he believed that "competition can be natural and appropriate and healthy." After reviewing research findings, he radically revised this opinion, concluding that, "The ideal amount of competition . . . in any environment, the classroom, the workplace, the family, the playing field, is none . . . . [Competition] is always destructive" (Noetic Sciences Review, Spring 1990).

According to Kohn, there are three principle consequences of competition. First, it has a negative effect on productivity and excellence. This is due to increased anxiety, inefficiency (as compared to cooperative sharing of resources and knowledge), and the undermining of inner motivation. Competition shifts the focus to victory over others, and away from intrinsic motivators such as curiosity, interest, excellence, and social interaction. Studies show that cooperative behaviour, by contrast, consistantly predicts good performance--a finding which holds true under a wide range of subject variables. Interestingly, the positive benefits of cooperation become more significant as tasks become more complex, or where greater creativity and problem-solving ability is required.

The second effect of competition is that it lowers self-esteem and hampers the development of sound, self-directed individuals. A strong sense of self is difficult to attain when self-evaluation is dependent on seeing how we measure up to others. On the other hand, those whose identity is formed in relation to how they contribute to group efforts generally possess greater self- confidence and higher self-esteem.

Finally, competition undermines human relationships. Humans are social beings; we best express our humanness in interaction with others. By creating winners and losers, competition is destructive to human unity and prevents close social feeling. In the competitive mode, people work at cross purposes, or for personal gain. Some come out ahead, some behind; some win, some lose. It becomes impossible for people to move together, as is necessary for a harmonious human society.

Biology and social psychology are not the only disciplines which support cooperation as the natural basis for human interaction. Ethnological studies indicate that virtually all indigenous cultures operate on the basis of highly cooperative relationships. Anthropologist Nancy Tanner has presented evidence to show that the predominant force driving early human evolution was cooperative social interaction, leading to the capacity of hominids to develop culture. And industrial psychology now promotes "worker participation" and team functioning because it is decisively more productive than hierarchical management." (