Category Archives: Biology

Mutual Aid in Natural Selection: Implications for Humans

Zoologist Desmond Morris, in discussing the progressive evolution of the human species as it moved into farming and food production, notes the following:

Luckily the long hunting apprenticeship had developed ingenuity and a mutual-aid system. The human hunters, it is true, were still innately competitive and self-assertive, like their monkey ancestors, but their competitiveness had become forcibly tempered by an increasingly basic urge to co-operate. It had been their only hope of succeeding in their rivalry with the long-established, sharp-clawed, professional killers of the carnivore world, such as the big cats. The human hunters had evolved their co-operativeness alongside their intelligence and their exploratory nature, and the combination had proved effective and deadly (14 & 15).

This powerful testament to the cooperation of the human species as it progressed into what would become its place of planetary dominance is extremely insightful. Had our ancestors not banded together in these pivotal moments, we would not even be carrying on this conversation right now. As Kropotkin noted earlier, animals have enough to face in struggling against an inclement nature. Things such as climate change and catastrophe lurk everywhere. What sense would there be, at the early stages of humanity, in creating yet another adversary within our midst? There is no practical advantage. This would amount to a tremendous loss of energy and less productive endeavors overall. As Morris concludes, luckily we made the wiser decision of the two. It is on this foundation of cooperation that we can even afford to be competitive with other members of our species.

To conclude, we see that from multiple perspectives the arguments in favor of mutual aid or cooperation as the main factor of evolution have only gotten stronger through time. While many different scientists and researchers continue to label their object of study differently, it is encouraging to see efforts like those of West, Griffin, and Gardner to bring them all together into a conglomeration of research. We need more of these; we need more popular literature on the subject as well. It is perhaps even more encouraging that, despite all of this overlap in the study of mutual aid, so many researchers are coming to similar conclusions, or, like Fletcher and Zwick, are even improving upon strands of the research available.  Unfortunately, the research outlined here has not yet found a home in the public consciousness. Once it does, however, I would be willing to guess that we will begin to see even more efforts to band together in mutual benefit and accomplish great things. We must do this within our own species, and across species lines as well, if we aim to thrive.

Sources

  • Darwin, Charles. (1859). On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the

Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray.

  • Fletcher, J. A. and Zwick, M. (2006). “Unifying the Theories of Inclusive Fitness and Reciprocal

Altruism”. The American Naturalist, 168:2.

  • Kropotkin, Petr. (1914). Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers.
  • Leakey, Richard and Lewin, Roger. (1995). The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future

of Humankind. New York: Doubleday.

  • Morris, Desmond. (1969). The Human Zoo. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishers.
  • Pollan, Michael. (2010). The Botany of Desire (documentary film).
  • Wesson, Robert. (1991).  Beyond Natural Selection. Boston: MIT Press.
  • West, S. A., Griffin, A. S., and Gardener, A. (2007). “Social semantics: altruism, cooperation,

mutualism, strong reciprocity and group selection”. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 20:2.

  • Wilson, E. O. (1975). Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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Mutual Aid in Natural Selection: An Extension of Inclusive Fitness

Jeffrey Fletcher and Martin Zwick reinforce all of the above by further unifying the theories of reciprocal altruism and inclusive fitness. These two naturalists do this by utilizing Queller’s more general interpretation of Hamilton’s inclusive fitness theory: “Queller (1985) further generalized Hamilton’s r term [relatedness] by explicitly including the consequences of the phenotype (behaviors) of actors and others on selection for a genetic trait rather than focusing on the effect of genotypes directly” (254).

Using a game theoretical perspective (via a prisoner’s dilemma), Fletcher and Zwick show that based upon Hamilton’s more limited definition of inclusive fitness as direct genotype relatedness, an evolutionary beneficial situation is not established. They show that the beneficial situation for our species, in terms of progressive evolution only begins to occur once Queller’s more general notion of inclusive fitness is the reality. It is through this cooperation within the species that we better situate ourselves to deal with what nature throws at us. Fletcher and Zwick extend this argument across species lines as well, thus ending up with, not only fitness evidence in favor of reciprocal altruism or cooperation within the human species, but an argument for mutualism or symbiosis among species as well.

Robert Wesson adds to the debate with a discussion of how social behavior develops and the benefits to be had for all types of life. He says, “Cooperation lies as much in the nature of life and evolution as does competition, and there seem to be tendencies toward sociality beyond environmental conditions and adaptation” (135). So in essence, Wesson is describing sociality as a dynamic force that operates independent of environmental adaptation, though undoubtedly the lines blur somewhere.

Wesson continues: “In forming a community, animals become in effect more intelligent and more capable. They do this primarily by specialization – by taking on different functions, which are somehow allocated to different individuals. This is the case most clearly with multicellular animals…”  (135). Cooperation by specialization is certainly the case in human animals and we see it throughout nature in almost limitless manifestations. One might even suggest that modern notions of competition are founded on assumptions of cooperation in many other facets of life.

Sources

  • Darwin, Charles. (1859). On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the

Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray.

  • Fletcher, J. A. and Zwick, M. (2006). “Unifying the Theories of Inclusive Fitness and Reciprocal

Altruism”. The American Naturalist, 168:2.

  • Kropotkin, Petr. (1914). Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers.
  • Leakey, Richard and Lewin, Roger. (1995). The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future

of Humankind. New York: Doubleday.

  • Morris, Desmond. (1969). The Human Zoo. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishers.
  • Pollan, Michael. (2010). The Botany of Desire (documentary film).
  • Wesson, Robert. (1991).  Beyond Natural Selection. Boston: MIT Press.
  • West, S. A., Griffin, A. S., and Gardener, A. (2007). “Social semantics: altruism, cooperation,

mutualism, strong reciprocity and group selection”. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 20:2.

  • Wilson, E. O. (1975). Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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