11 October 2010

Cooperation for Survival

If asked whether nature is fundamentally competitive or cooperative, I think most people would say competitive. The "struggle for survival" or "survival of the fittest" are often used as one-line phrases to sum up a view that fierce competition is the best way to advance in evolution, and that every organism's highest goal is to reproduce as much as possible. A classic example of this might be a male lion battling a rival for domination of a pride, another might be the finches on the Galapagos islands that Darwin studied.

This idea of struggle and rightful domination is an ideology that carries over into economics and politics. The view of modern capitalism can be summed in one of two ways, the first says that the individual pursuit of self-interest is good for the whole, and the other invokes the struggle for existence seen in nature and shows no sympathy for those unable to support themselves. Both approaches were like intellectual candy for the rich and wealthy of the 20th century and proved irresistible. They justify selfishness by attributing some kind of overall good to it. The struggle for survival made its way into social policies that tried to model the natural forces of animal and plant communities in a kind of social evolution in which weaker peoples would be eliminated by stronger ones.

There is a problem with all that: nature is fundamentally cooperative. The original competitive ideology was formed from a very narrow view of nature that ignores much more important concepts. While watching two lions fight to dominate a pride, one can also see that they take great steps to avoid fighting in the first place, that the internal organs of each animal are working in perfect cooperation, bacteria in the lion's stomach is used for digestion, female lions hunt for the group, prey animals have a birth rate that balanced out against predation, plants are pollinated by bees, plants provide sweet fruits in exchange for moving seed around, fungus live in a mycorrhizal association with tree roots, rhizobia fix nitrogen for legumes, algae and fungus have an association in lichen, and on a microscopic level the composition and evolution of all eukaryotes are a result of a symbiosis between cells, causing all of the above to exist in the first place. Even the relationship between prey and predators is cooperative in a sense, if the lions killed the prey too efficiently they would be without food and would perish.

Darwin relied on analysis of individual parts and saw that everything was trying to reproduce itself as much as possible and consume resources. With this analysis of a part, he concluded that nature is ruled by conflict. Now a new kind of biology is being studied, biology of whole living systems. This blog post documents some of the findings, among them that "nature uses extraordinarily ingenious techniques to avoid conflict and competition, and that cooperation is extraordinarily widespread throughout all of nature." Another author spent seven years reviewing more than 400 research studies dealing with competition and cooperation in human relationships, and wrote, "The ideal amount of competition . . . in any environment, the classroom, the workplace, the family, the playing field, is none . . . . [Competition] is always destructive."

So what does that say about our model of economics and politics?

What does `Abdu'l-Baha say about competition and cooperation in nature? I found this excerpt from a letter quite moving,

"Observe that the primary principle adhered to by every individual of the human species is to attract benefit to himself and to avoid injury. His aim is to secure his own tranquility and happiness. This is his sole desire in life, and he strives to distinguish himself from all others through the ease, wealth, and fame he has obtained. This is the goal of every individual of the human species. But, in truth, this is a base, dangerous, and inferior notion. If man advances a little in his thinking and his aspirations become nobler, he will realize that he should strive to benefit his whole family and to protect it from harm, for he perceives that by bringing comfort and affluence to the whole family, his own felicity and prosperity will increase. Should his thinking expand even more and his aspirations grow in depth, he will realize that he should endeavor to bring blessings to the children of his country and nation and to guard them from injury. Although this aspiration and thought are for his own sake and that of his family, all the children of the nation will benefit therefrom. But this aspiration will become the cause of injury to other nations, for he then exerts the utmost effort to bring all the advantages of the human world to his own nation and the blessings of the earth to his own family, singling them out for the universal felicity of humankind. He imagines that the more other nations and neighboring countries decline, the more his own country and nation will advance, until by this means it surpasses and dominates the other nations in power, wealth, and influence."
"However, a divine human being and a heavenly individual is sanctified from these limitations, and the expansion of his mind and the loftiness of his aspirations are in the utmost degree of perfection. The compass of his thinking is so vast that he recognizes in the gain of all mankind the basis of the prosperity of every individual member of his species. He considers the injury of any nation or state to be the same as injury to his own nation and state, indeed, the same as injury to his own family and to his own self. Therefore, he strives with heart and soul as much as possible to bring prosperity and blessings to the entire human race and to protect all nations from harm. He endeavors to promote the exaltation, illumination, and felicity of all peoples, and makes no distinctions among them, for he regards humanity as a single family and considers all nations to be the members of that family. Indeed, he sees the entire human social body as one individual and perceives each one of the nations to be one of the organs of that body. Man must raise his aspiration to this degree so that he may serve the cause of establishing universal virtues and become the cause of the glory of humankind."
"At present the state of the world is the opposite of this. All the nations are thinking of how to advance their own interests while working against the best interests of other nations. They desire their own personal advantage while seeking to undermine affairs in other countries. They call this the "struggle for survival" (tanázu'-i baqá), and assert that it is innate to human nature. But this is a grievous error; nay, there is no error greater than this. Gracious God! Even in the animal kingdom cooperation and mutual assistance for survival are observed among some species, especially in the case of danger to the whole group. One day I was beside a small stream and noticed some young grasshoppers which had not yet developed wings seeking to cross to the other side in order to obtain food. To accomplish their goal, these wingless grasshoppers rushed forward into the water and vied with each other to form a bridge across the stream while the remaining grasshoppers crossed over on top of them. The grasshoppers were able to pass from one side of the stream to the other, but those insects which had formed the bridge in the water perished. Reflect how this incident illustrates co-operation for survival, not struggle for survival. Insofar as animals display such noble sentiments, how much more should man, who is the noblest of creatures; and how much more fitting it is in particular that, in view of the divine teachings and heavenly ordinances, man should be obliged to attain this excellence."
"In the estimation of God, distinctions of race, divisions of borders, favoring one people over another, and all individual limitations are unworthy and rejected. All the prophets of God were sent down and all the sacred books were revealed for the purpose of assisting man to achieve this heavenly grace and this divine virtue. All the divine teachings can be summarized as this: that these thoughts singling out advantages to one group may be banished from our midst, that human character may be improved, that equality and fellowship may be established amongst all mankind, until every individual is ready to sacrifice himself for the sake of his fellowman. This is the divine foundation. This is the law come down from heaven."


  1. Bryan,

    I agree with the overriding theme of your post, but I think you overstate the claim that nature is fundamentally cooperative. I don't think we can or should characterize "nature" in those terms. We can study how elements of nature compete or cooperate, but to ascribe the whole thing a single meta-organizing concept such as that I think is over-simplifying it.

    On a somewhat related note, I am reading an interesting book right now by Elinor Ostrom, noble prize winner of economics last year, called "understanding institutional diversity" in which she develops the "Institutional Analysis and Development" (IAD) framework. It acknowledges the historical and practical role that rational choice theory (aka the idea that humans are rational egoists with perfect information with the sole concern of profit maximization) can play, but it puts it in its (limited) place. She explains that while this model of human behavior can predict some social and economic phenomenon, for example the establishment of equilibrium prices in some competitive market settings, it utterly fails in many others settings. For example in the analysis of joint-pool resource management, a collection of "rational egoists" would soon deplete the resource and everybody would lose out. Only when there is a pattern of cooperation and trust can every individual, and the group as a whole, benefit the most. The last 20 years has seen a wealth of experimental results that minimize, but do not replace, the rational choice framework. I don't know if this framework is synonymous with the idea of competition, but to say that it plays no role anywhere seems kind of extreme.

  2. Good point Jason. I didn't mean to say that there is no competition, since there obviously is and it adds efficiency. I also believe free market capitalism has a place in society, and there are references to Abdu'l-Baha saying that we must reward certain people over others based on how much service is provided.

  3. I very much enjoy your posts. They are quite insightful and get me into a meditative mode. Thank you for inspiring my mind, heart, and soul.

  4. The passage about the grasshoppers is amazing, particularly that they "vied with one another" to sacrifice their lives. Reminds me of an observed encounter between a large snake and two mice in the wild. The snake snapped up one of the mice, but the other mouse jumped into its mouth and held it open, allowing both of the mice to escape.

  5. btw, the above story can be found in Guy Murchie's book "The Seven Mysteries of Life."

  6. Interesting and well written. Recently a person close to me went travel teaching the Faith. I was hoping to be invited but it never materialized which was strange. On their return, the individual's father boasted that the teacher's efforts had been noticed nationally, even by the Counsellor, that they were now known and loved throughout the whole country, that indeed every Bahai in the country know knew the teacher, and that they were gaining much publicity in the national newsletters, and were being sent by the Counsellor to more regions.

    I think your post somewhat clarified that the Bahai approach is more about empowering others and cooperating, rather than empowering only ourselves and making others feel less able or unneeded.