Potr Kropotkin described 120 years ago in Mutual Aid how cooperation is ingrained in the fauna of our planet and in all human societies. As a scientist Kropotkin traced and described patterns of mutual aid in a large number of animal species and how these patterns facilitated the survival and flourishing of their contributors. As a revolutionary he traced similar patterns in the history of humankind to support the argument that societies in all times and have had the capacity to self-organize and cooperate without the need for autocratic central authorities. Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid as reaction to the popularization of social Darwinism by Thomas Henry Huxley and Herbert Spence, among others, at the end of the nineteenth century.
Today, generations of researcher have established without much doubt the importance of cooperation for the development of the human species and its culture. In fact, cooperation seems to be at the heart of what makes humans unique, it is the basis of all culture and technology, and it is the reason that our species dominates the planet.
Nichola Raihani gives a spirited account of what we know today about the role of cooperation in groups and societies illustrated vividly by many examples of her own research. Not unlike Kropotkin she also describes fascinating examples of collaborative behavior in various animals such as, ants, bees, vampire bats, babblers, and bluestreak cleaner wrasses. To illustrate and elaborate general principles of cooperation both also use detailed studies from history. While Kropotkin elaborates the principles of self-organization in medieval city states, Raihani uses pirate societies to the same end.
Raihani of course has the advantage that comes with today’s detailed knowledge about fauna and society that has been uncovered by generations of scientists using exceedingly cleaver experiments and scientific methods that continuously increase in sophistication. Still, Raihani basically confirms the main thesis that Kropotkin has put forward 120 years ago and provides a much more detailed and insightful analysis. The arguments that anchor observed patterns of cooperation in evolutionary processes are particularly convincing and revealing.
Loosely speaking, she distinguishes two evolutionary mechanisms that promote cooperation: reciprocity and interdependence
Although flycatchers breed in pairs, they frequently harass predators that appear in the vicinity of a neighbor’s nest. This is a costly endeavor as birds spend time and energy when they help their neighbors, as well as potentially exposing themselves to a predation risk by flying towards an area where a predator has been spotted. Researchers investigated this helping behavior by placing a model owl predator at the nest of one flycatcher pair and then preventing the neighbors from coming to help drive the predator away (by temporarily trapping the birds). They found that the focal birds refused to come to the assistance of their ‘nasty’ neighbors a few days later, when the owl was stationed at the defectors’ nest instead.
group size really does affect individual survival and reproductive success in many ways (by diluting predation risk or increasing success in inter-group conflict, for example) meaning that group-living species are always likely to be interdependent upon one another to some extent. Interdependence can explain why cooperation thrives, even in circumstances where reciprocity does not seem to operate.
It seems that interdependence is the main driving force in evolution that brings about behavioral features that benefit the group as a whole. The evolutionary pressure works on individuals. Thus, for that to work in particular cases the reproductive benefit for individuals must be sufficiently big. Consequently, the indirect advantage for the individual, by benefiting all group members and thus the focus individual itself, must be bigger than the cost for the individual. But this is probably a rather rare situation, in particular because the contributing individuals face a systematic disadvantage against those who do not contribute at all. This would mean they disappear over time from a population.
However, evolution has invented some tricks to overcome this problem. Punishment and reputation assignment are behavioral patterns that change the cost-benefit equation in favor of cooperation. Punishment increases the cost for those deviating from the group benefiting behavior, and reputation assignment increases the benefits for those who contribute to the common good.
But to really test the prediction that male punishment causes the female to change her behavior, I needed a control scenario: where males and females could feed on the same plate but where I could also prevent males from punishing the female partner. To do this I fashioned some transparent plastic barriers that slotted neatly into the cleaner’s aquaria. This barrier confined each fish to their own half of the tank, while allowing them to interact with the same model client. This design meant that the male and female could see one another and co-feed on the same model client but, when the interaction ended, the male could not aggressively chase the female. As we expected, in the trials where males were prevented from punishing the females, the females behaved with impunity: they continued to cheat by eating what they wanted.
Humans in all cultures and at all historic times, as far as we know, have employed punishment behavior as strategy to bring deviators back into line and discourage behavior that brings a benefit to the individual but harms the group. Punishing behavior is most likely a behavioral pattern that has evolved as an instrument to promote cooperation.
This demonstrates a rudimentary concern for reputation; something that is extremely rare in nature. Even humans struggle with reputation management until we hit middle childhood, and there is scant evidence that any of the other great apes know or care about what the others think of them.
Homo sapiens is equipped with a highly sophisticated reputation system, which may be one of the main drivers for cooperating behavior. Good reputation is very important and highly beneficial for individuals in any human society which, however, is also an incentive for cheating. If one manages to appear to work hard for the common good and be useful for the community, without actually working hard, they would reap the benefits of high reputation without paying the costs. Therefore humans have also become highly sophisticated in assessing honesty and very sensitive to cheating. Someone who only tries to build an image for furthering the common good and is than caught in not actually doing so, will not only loose all their reputation, but will often be severely punished. Reputation management and honesty assessment may have been a main driving force in developing a theory of mind, the capacity to understand and simulate what others think and plan, and to analyze other people’s motives.
The book convincingly shows that behavioral patterns that lead to cooperation, are part of our evolutionary inheritance. However, Raihani also demonstrates a curious coexistence of cooperation with competition.
Cooperation is, at heart, a means by which entities improve their own position in the world. In other words, cooperation is favoured if and when it offers a better way to compete. A corollary of this is that cooperation frequently has victims (in fact cooperation without victims is the most difficult to achieve).
Thus, competition, social hierarchies and power fights are similarly part of our genetic composition.
Instead, I think it makes sense to conceive of the distribution of power in human societies as a giant tug of war. On one end of the rope is the individual urge - present in all of us to varying degrees - to predominate over others; to use any talents, skill or abilities, or any fortuitous circumstance, to rise just a little bit higher than the rest. Pulling on the other end of the rope is a force we can sum up as the collective interests of everyone else. As with any tug of war, often one side prevails over the other. The collective-interests team may seem to have greater strength in some societies or to have prevailed in some historical periods, but there are also times where the individual-interests seem to pull harder, with small cliques of elites - tyrannical monarchs, emperors and dictators - managing to subdue and aggressively dominate much larger populations.
This tug-of-war analogy illustrates two important principles. The first is that humans are not intrinsically opposed to seeking or being in power; in fact, most humans care about status and wealth and, in some cases, benefit hugely from the opportunities that social dominance provides. The second principle is that an absence of power within societies is not an omission, or a missed opportunity, or something that only exists because no one thought to take it. Instead, a power vaccum is the outcome of a constant tension, something that is actively maintained through the efforts of the many agains the few.
(AJ December 2021)