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Survival of the Fittest: Competition and Cooperation

by Steppenwolf Literary Manager Aaron Carter

Four men are locked in combat for resources and a mate. From the perspective of evolution, this is the most fundamental of competitions: surviving long enough to pass your genes to the next generation. As the suitors Dunne and Quinn observe: DUNNE: Even after all this time the competition. QUINN: What else is there? DUNNE: You’re right. QUINN There’s nothing else! The remaining four suitors have outlasted one hundred men, surviving for years on their ferocity and cunning, sustained only by the thought of winning Penelope’s hand. It comes as something of a surprise then, when Quinn suggests that they work together. One suspects that Quinn has ulterior motives in his proposal. The evolutionary scientist, however, would not see Quinn’s self-interest as necessarily opposed to the interests of the group. Cooperation, s/he might argue, is the twin of competition. Humans are social creatures. Our ability to cooperate for mutual survival increases the likelihood of fulfilling our biological imperative—and as a result our capacity for social behavior is reinforced by evolution as surely as the protective armor of the armadillo or the camouflage ability of the chameleon. Scientists have constructed experiments demonstrating that cooperating in social groups is a deep-seated instinct. In the famous Robbers Cave experiment, scientists took two groups of boys aged 11 and 12 to a state park. Posing as camp counselors, the scientists kept the two groups separate and unaware of each other while each individual “tribe” developed its own internal order. Leaders emerged, and accepted practices were established. After one child hurt his foot but didn’t complain, for example, it was expected that no one should complain about being injured. With the social groups firmly established, the scientists allowed the boys to become aware of the existence of the other group. Predictably, the presence of “outsiders” strengthened the social order of the group. More disturbing—though perhaps equally predictable—sports competition between the groups quickly escalated into violence. When one group stole the flag of the other, for example, a counter raid was planned. In preparation, the boys armed themselves with rocks. Fearing a Lord of the Flies outcome, the scientists intervened. The experiment illustrates how cooperation can be an extension of competition: in this case, defending against an outside threat. In Penelope, when the suitors band together in the face of Odysseus’ return, they express the same instinct. And yet, people have been known to do more than merely cooperate. We sometimes give to others expecting nothing in return. Occasionally, people go so far as to sacrifice their own lives. After a small plane crashed in the freezing Potomac River in January 1982, six survivors of the crash clung to the slowly sinking wreckage while rescue workers attempted to pull them from the deadly waters. When a rescue helicopter was finally able to approach the craft, the first person to receive the life ring passed it to the nearest person who was then lifted to safety. The same man refused the life ring three times before slipping into the water to his own death. It was later discovered that the man was Arland Williams, Jr., a perfectly ordinary banker whose heroism saved the lives of three strangers, even as he left behind his own family. If cooperation is based on mutual self interest, how does evolution explain such acts of altruism? Wouldn’t the propensity for self-sacrifice be a trait that would fade away over successive generations? One argument for the evolutionary basis of altruism is the concept of “kin selection.” In the 1960s, biologist W.D. Hamilton argued that in addition to reproduction, an organism could also pass on some of its genes by helping a relative. Kin selection suggests that the indirect benefit of helping relatives survive accounts for the persistence of altruism. Kin selection, however, doesn’t appear to explain why people like Arland Williams, Jr. help those they aren’t related to. In a 2010 paper, scientists E.O. Wilson,Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita described how social order might develop without a preference for helping relatives. If, for example, organisms gather at a feeding site, evolution might favor those who have traits that allow them to work as a group to build nests that can be defended. This observation is also reflected in a 2006 paper in which economist Samuel Bowles demonstrated that altruism protected early hunter-gatherer groups from the costs of war. A group that exhibited altruism, in other words, waged better war. These ideas suggest that larger social structures such as colonies and tribes aren’t built from the family unit out. Instead, close family ties might be a consequence, rather than a cause, of the development of social structures. First a more general cooperative trait emerges, and then smaller family units develop as a result of those traits. Consider then that altruism might also be a result of more general social behaviors. Instead of being a trait that evolution has specifically reinforced, self-sacrifice might be an unintended consequence of a set of traits that otherwise ensure the survival of the species: a kind of noise in the genetic code. While the idea that some of our most valued traits are accidents of evolution could be seen as bleak, there’s also the possibility for a kind of poetry in disconnecting altruism from genetic determinism. If science is an act of discovering meaning, then art is an act of making meaning. Where science falters in finding cause and effect, art steps in to help us create meaning and context. In this light, Penelope can be seen as an investigation into the deep contradictions of human nature, journeying where science cannot follow. And perhaps it is an invitation to reconsider what “survival of the fittest” truly means.