Practical benefits of studying the biological evolution of cooperation

Questions that we have been asked to focus on this week in Howard Rheingold’s class – Towards a Literacy of Cooperation are:

1. Are there practical benefits of studying the biological evolution of cooperation?  To what extent does it provide insights that convert into theories and practices that can be used in formal or informal communities and organizations?

2. What other heuristics can we extract from the material and use as simple rules of thumb for extending cooperative interactions in the world?

Howard explains:

I chose these questions because so much of this course is theoretical and there ought to be some juicy practical suggests from a group like this in regard to heuristics for encouraging cooperation.

 Question 1

Are there practical benefits of studying the biological evolution of cooperation?  To what extent does it provide insights that convert into theories and practices that can be used in formal or informal communities and organizations?

In considering the first question it seemed to me that it would be easier to answer from the perspective of a specific context, and the context of a community of practice seemed appropriate, given that you might expect plenty of cooperation in such a community, if not collaboration.

By community of practice, I understand this as defined by Etienne Wenger in his 1998 book – where he defines a CoP as having three clearly identifiable characteristics; a domain, a shared practice and a community of members – who participate in the community through mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire.

In thinking about what we might learn about cooperation from a community of practice, I have considered the scenario of a long-standing and successful CoP coming under the threat of ‘extinction’, i.e. changing circumstances within the community threaten its continued success.

What can we learn from what we know about biological cooperation that might inform the continued success of this community of practice? The existing conditions within this community, which might support its continued success are:

  • a community history, with memories of past encounters with individual community members
  • members can easily find each other within the community online environment
  • the online environment offers members the chance of future encounters with other members
  • members are ‘nice’ –  there is a culture of willingness to cooperate
  • cooperation in the community is voluntary
  • members are not envious of each other
  • members do not try to be ‘clever’ with each other – they are not ‘tricky’ – they do not introduce ‘noise’ into the community
  • reputation builds through ongoing interaction and reciprocity
  • increased reputation increases the chance of long term success of  cooperating members
  • there is direct benefit to members from the mutualistic sharing of resources, particularly between the core group members, but also from members on the boundary

Challenges to the community in terms of the biology of cooperation are:

A consideration of how the community might be competing for survival – competing against other online environments for members’ time, competing against members’ diverse and dispersed interests and motivations, and possibly membership of other communities.

In biological terms, competition as well as cooperation is necessary for survival. Some questions arising from this are:

  • Does this community pay enough attention to the challenges of competition?
  • Is the community group strong enough/big enough to fend off the pull of other groups/communities?
  • Is there enough ‘social grooming’ in the community?
  • Does Robin Dunbar’s number inform the community’s future success?
  • Is there enough ‘gossip/communication/interaction’ to establish reputation, prestige, trust and norms?
  • Is there a common community understanding of value associated with future outcomes?
  • Is there a role for fairness and punishment in the community?
  • Is the community worth saving in terms of what it can pass on to future generations?

Question 2

Are there simple rules of thumb for extending cooperative interactions in the world?

My response to this, given that I would have to know the context, would be

  • learn from examples in biology
  • consider the relationship between competition and cooperation
  • learn from research
  • consider the context
  • consider history
  • consider the future

For me, it is not possible to be more specific than this without knowing the context.

Finally it’s worth noting here Stephen Downes’ thoughts about this (which might be thought of as rules of thumb)

Stephen has written on his OLDaily newsletter

If Darwinian processes favour successful competitors why does cooperation exist? The answers appear in earnest as soon as you begin to think about it:

  • molecules catalyze each other to higher levels of complexity
  • co-operators benefit from each other through mutual relationships
  • a group which was comprised of cooperators reproduced more effectively
  • people can achieve by collective action what they never could do alone
  • primates pick parasites off each other

Note that none of this resembles collaboration (much less competition). It occurs at a midway point, where there is interaction and exchange, but not a melding into a single unity. Cooperation – not collaboration – is where we should trace the future of learning online.

I am thinking about whether I agree with Stephen about collaboration. I need to think more about when melding into a single unity might be beneficial. Are there examples from biology where this is the case (Lynn Margulis’ work on endosymbiosis springs to mind)  and if so, what can we learn from this?

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7 thoughts on “Practical benefits of studying the biological evolution of cooperation

  1. Scott Johnson February 7, 2013 / 5:43 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    Interesting posting. Think you covered benefits pretty well though I’d like to add mutual agreement of subjects that matter. Hard to describe exactly…where I work there are problems that are taken to be unfixable. “The way it is” has become an instant conversation stopper for some issues but because this isn’t a Zen monistary this agreement button doesn’t lead to a higher level of understanding, rather it redirects something that does matter off the table for the moment. Clearly there are things that need work, we all know it yet hide in the safety of keeping some things under the carpet.

    At one time I might have seen this as polite silence to control open conflict. Except some problems keep coming up even though we thought we all understood to keep them hidden and unmentioned. This suggests we acknowledge and hold commen concerns and might be waiting for the right conditions to confront them rather than accept the toxic effects of silence.

    This seems like an odd dimension of cooperation–a kind of mutual waiting for the proper time to work on something.

  2. jennymackness February 9, 2013 / 6:02 pm

    Hi Scott – thanks for your interesting comment – a kind of mutual waiting for the proper time to work on something. I hadn’t thought before that cooperation could result in doing nothing. I’m still thinking about the implications of this.

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