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Why we help – social support

January 11, 2013

“Far from being a nagging exception to the rule of evolution, cooperation has been one of its primary architects.” (p.20)

“People tend to think of evolution as a strictly dog-eat-dog struggle for survival. In fact, cooperation has been a driving force in evolution.” (p.22)

This article, by Martin A. Novak, caught my eye some time ago. I guess I’m advocating a bioliterary approach, but it really does connect with some of the things that interest me about Young Adult Literature… Martin A. Novak writes:

“For decades biologists have fretted over cooperation, scrambling to make sense of it in light of the dominant view of evolution as ‘red in tooth and claw,’ as Alfred, Lord Tennyson so vividly described it. Charles Darwin, in making his case for evolution by natural selection – wherein individuals with desirable traits reproduce more often than their peers and thus contribute more to the next generation -called this competition the ‘struggle for life most severe.’ Taken to its logical extreme, the argument quickly leads to the conclusion that one should never ever help a rival and that an individual might in fact do well to lie and cheat to get ahead. Winning the game of life – by hook or by crook – is all that matters.
Why, then, is selfless behavior such a pervasive phenomenon?” (p.22)

“My work indicates that instead of opposing competition, cooperation has operated alongside it from the get-go to shape the evolution of life on earth, from the first cells to Homo sapiens. Life is therefore not just a struggle for survival – it is also, one might say, a snuggle for survival. And in no case has the evolutionary influence of cooperation been more profoundly felt than in humans. My findings hint at why this should be the case and underscore that just as helping one another was the key to our success in the past, so, too, is it poised to be vital in the future.” (p.22)

Novak explains his interest in the relation between conflict and cooperation and, drawing on his work with game theory (and especially ‘the Prisoner’s Dilemma’), goes on to explain that “There are five mechanisms by which cooperation may arise in organisms ranging from bacteria to human beings” (p.22):

  • direct reciprocity (i.e., “cooperation among individuals who encounter one another repeatedly” – kind of ‘tit for tat’ – he explains it more fully and clearly… (p.23))
  • spatial selection (i.e., cooperators and defectors are not uniformly distributed in a population…. Neighbors (or friends in a social network) tend to help one another, so in a population with patches of cooperators, these helpful individuals can form clusters that can then grow and thus prevail in competition with defectors.” (p.23))
  • kin selection (i.e., “cooperation among genetically related individuals” (p.23))
  • indirect reciprocity (i.e., “one individual decides to aid another based on the needy individual’s reputation” (p.24))
  • group selection (i.e., “individuals may perform selfless acts for the greater good, as opposed to abetting a single peer.” (p.24))

“The five mechanisms governing the emergence of cooperation apply to all manner of organisms, from amoebas to zebras (and even, in some cases, to genes and other components of cells). This universality suggests that cooperation has been a driving force in the evolution of life on earth from the beginning. Moreover, there is one group in which the effects of cooperation have proved especially profound: humans. …Indeed, humans are the most cooperative species – supercooperators, if you will.
Given that the five mechanisms of cooperation occur throughout nature, the question is: What makes humans, in particular, the most helpful of all? As I see it, humans, more than any other creature, offer assistance based on indirect reciprocity, or reputation. Why? Because only humans have full-blown language – and, by extension, names for one another – which allows us to share information about everyone from our immediate family members to complete strangers on the other side of the globe. We are obsessed with who does what to whom and why – we have to be to best position ourselves in the social network around us. Studies have shown that people decide on everything from which charities to sponsor to which corporate start-ups to fund based in part on reputation.” (p.24)

Ref: Martin A. Novak (2012) Why We Help. Scientific American, July. pp.20-25

suggested readings: Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation. Martin A. Novak in Science, vol.314, pp.1560-1563, Dec 8, 2006    AND    Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. Martin A. Novak, with Roger Highfield. Free Press, 2012


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