Cooperation and Altruism
Cooperation and Altruism
People have always been fascinated by cooperation and altruism in animals, in part to shed light on our own propensity or reluctance to help others. Darwin’s theory added a certain urgency to the subject because the principle of “nature red in tooth and claw” superficially seems to deny the possibility of altruism and cooperation altogether. Some evolutionary biologists have accepted and even reveled in this vision of nature, giving rise to statements such as “the economy of nature is competitive from beginning to end … scratch an ‘altruist’ and watch a hypocrite bleed”. Others have gone so far in the opposite direction as to proclaim the entire earth a unit that cooperatively regulates its own atmosphere (Lovelock 1979). The truth is somewhere between these two extremes; cooperation and altruism can evolve but only if special conditions are met. As might be expected from the polarized views outlined above, achieving this middle ground has been a difficult process. Science is often portrayed as a heroic march to the truth, but in this case, it is more like the Three Stooges trying to move a piano. I don’t mean to underestimate the progress that been made—the piano has been moved—but we need to appreciate the twists, turns, and reversals in addition to the final location. To see why cooperation and altruism pose a problem for evolutionary theory, consider the evolution of a nonsocial adaptation, such as cryptic coloration. Imagine a population of moths that vary in the degree to which they match their background. Every generation, the most conspicuous moths are detected and eaten by predators while the most cryptic moths survive and reproduce. If offspring resemble their parents, then the average moth will become more cryptic with every generation. Anyone who has beheld a moth that looks exactly like a leaf, right down to the veins and simulated herbivore damage, cannot fail to be impressed by the power of natural selection to evolve breathtaking adaptations at the individual level. Now consider the same process for a social adaptation, such as members of a group warning each other about approaching predators.
Oxford Scholarship Online requires a subscription or purchase to access the full text of books within the service. Public users can however freely search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter.
If you think you should have access to this title, please contact your librarian.