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?

If this topic interests you and there is not enough information in this post to make sense of this, please refer to

The Evolution of Cooperation

Week 2 of Howard Rheingold’s course – Towards a Literacy of Cooperation – focuses on the evolution of cooperation. Here are some notes from Howard’s presentation during the live session last week. For wider reading see the Week 2 reading lists.

And for another set of notes I can also recommend Roland Legrand’s

Why does cooperation exist?

If Darwinian processes favour successful competitors why does cooperation exist?

Margulis and Kauffman found that cooperation preceded human life; molecules catylse each other to higher levels of complexity. Axelrod and Hamilton using evidence from palaeontology and mathematical biology found that co-operators at all levels can thrive in a competitive environment if they can find each other and benefit from each other through mutualistic relationships. Co-operation is not a steady state. Populations, during the course of evolution move from being largely unco-operative to co-operative and then back to unco-operative in a cycle. There is some evidence from a study of DNA, that humans were down to 2000 breeding pairs at one point in our history. My thought: this makes perfect sense when remembering the various cycles that are well known in biological systems, e.g. water, carbon, nitrogen, etc.

But – humans have the power to overcome social dilemmas. Axelrod and Hamilton, using computer simulations and evolutionary games, found the following characteristics to be important for co-operation.

  • Be nice – never be the first to defect My thought: pity about the word nice – a word that was banned from children’s creative writing when I was teaching!
  • Be provocable – don’t be afraid to retaliate appropriately – return defection for defection. My thought: so where did the expression ‘be slow to anger’ come from.
  • Don’t be envious – be fair with your partner
  • Don’t be too clever – or try to be tricky, which enters noise into the system and opens room for misinterpretation, although some noise in system is inevitable

Competing explanations

There are a number of explanations for the evolution of cooperation.

1. Group selection  

When humans were hunter gatherers they moved around in extended family groups.  A group which was comprised of cooperators had an evolutionary advantage.  They reproduced more effectively and these small differences made for a big differences over time.

David Sloan Wilson Cooperation in his book Darwin’s Cathedral discussed religious groups as mechanisms for group selection. Wilson demonstrates how religions have enabled people to achieve by collective action what they never could do alone. My thought: good and bad?

The human capacity to create rituals, norms, and institutions that channel our biological urges is one key capability that makes human civilizations different from other species.

2. Reciprocity

Nowak 2006 talks about different reciprocity mechanisms

  • Direct reciprocity, meaning  if you do something for me I will do something for you. This has been  demonstrated in vampire bats, which refuse to feed bats who have not shared food in the past
  • Indirect reciprocity, meaning doing something for an individual who has not done something for you in the past. I help you and somebody else helps me. The evolution of cooperation by indirect reciprocity leads to reputation building, morality judgement and complex social interactions with ever-increasing cognitive demands. My thought: there is a lot of evidence of this in online networks.
  • Reputation depends on a reliable history and whether cooperators will meet again. Cooperation depends on a reliable history being projected from past to future.  Axelrod calls this ‘the shadow of the future’. If individuals are unlikely to meet again then propensity for cooperation is much lower.
  • Network reciprocity which relies on geographic or social factors and who interacts with whom and how often

If a cooperator pays a cost, c, for each neighbor to receive a benefit, b, and defectors have no costs, and their neighbors receive no benefits, network reciprocity can favor cooperation.

3. Kin selection refers to apparent strategies in evolution that favour the reproductive success of an organism’s relatives, even at a cost to the organism’s own survival and reproduction . If you sacrifice your life for 3 siblings then your genes are going to be passed along to a future generation more than if you sacrificed your life for only one child i.e. in terms of genetic evolution it would be worth jumping into the river for 2 siblings or 8 cousins. Cooperation is about costs and benefits. Reproductive success is the measure of evolutionary success and kin selection may be a part of the overall equation. My thought: Does this mean that it’s not worth jumping into the river if the children are adopted?

4. Social grooming. Primates pick parasites off each other.  Robin Dunbar extrapolated his experiments with primate behaviour to human behaviour and found a correlation between the size of a primate group and the part of the brain that is related to reciprocity and reputation.  Social grooming is a mechanism for practicing cooperation. Dunbar believes that language grew out of social grooming. When group became too large for all to be groomed this was the start of gossip. Gossip is all about reputation, who to trust and who not to trust. This is related to studies on the relationship between perceptions of fairness and cooperation.

5. Primate fairness. Research has shown that monkeys have a very clear understanding of fairness Capuchin monkeys reject unequal pay – monkeys understand fairness. My thought: this very short video clip is perfect for exemplifying this point and is very funny. We need more humour in learning environments.

Are humans born with a sense of fairness?

Research involving pre-verbal infants has shown that the length of time an infant looks at something strongly correlates with whether it violates their expectations. Infants can see fair and unfair distributions and  tend to look longer at unfair demonstrations. The research also showed that infants who pay attention to unfairness are more likely to be altruistic.  My thought: these videos are fascinating. Babies are not ‘blobs’!

There has also been research into the evolution of fairness

Frans de Waal has suggested that primates and infants have three qualities fundamental for cooperation

  • Empathy and consolation – (as shown in the activity of mirror neurones)
  • Prosocial tendencies.  Primates have hierarchies but also have social lives
  • Understanding of reciprocity and fairness

There is a complex relationship between unfairness cooperation and social norms.

Cultural Evolution

Culture is what we learn from each other not what we are born with, but it can evolve in the sense that groups that engage in social learning learn more effectively and so are able to adapt to a changing environment more effectively. Cultural evolution is based on biologically evolved attentional and social capacities.

The evolved capacity for social learning was particularly adaptive during time of radical environmental change

Learning capacities created processes that changed the selection environment in which genes develop. Cultural changes spread faster than biological changes so increasing the propensity to cooperate

There is a reciprocal and evolutionary correlation between our biological capabilities and cultural evolution.

My thought: There are too many questions

Last week I noted that there was a huge diversity of resources and ideas being posted, to the point of distraction. This week there is a huge diversity of questions. The mission for this week is:

1. In the forum topic thread designated for this mission, no later than Monday, Feb 4 Pacific time, post a question that you’d like to see addressed by everybody in regard to the biological and/or cultural evolution of cooperation.

These are the questions that have been posted so far and don’t include the questions that were raised in the live session

  • Can biological models from other species be scientifically applied to human subjects, or are they metaphors for how we might understand human behaviour?
  • I am interested in exploring the notion of “respect” and role it play’s in cooperation among us humans.
  • Another question that interests me is the role/influence of power in co-operation and cultural evolution.
  • Can a culture become self-conscious enough to intentionally evolve itself? Does this change the rules of the game?
  • Is it possible and are we likely to evolve in such ways as to constitute different combinations or recombinations (like DNA) in terms of human nuclear family groups?  A clumsy way to put it, but something like, will there be more 5 to 10 parents to 1 to 4 children type of arrangements?  Will we formalize these?  Seems to me in light of fewer people having children, and the high cost of raising a child, and that fact that we could all benefit by helping, and that the kids would benefit by us all helping, that some new reproducing family units might come about.  Do you agree or disagree?
  • In what circumstances would provocability in the case of an uncalled for defection be the wrong response, in terms of biological and cultural evolution?
  • 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? Can an individual, beginning from a singular position of conviction, turn a whole population (in a geographic or other social entity) from self-interest or sub-group interest, to broad-based cooperation? If so, how?

The next stage of the task is

2. Instructor will choose one of the proposed questions by Monday night and post his selection in the forum topic. Each student will email to the instructor by Thursday, Feb 7, 11 PM Pacific time, a few sentences to a short paragraph addressing the question. Instructor will post all the answers at the same time in the forum on Friday.

Live session questions:

  • What is the role of diversity in regulating stability of cooperative groups and societies?
  • How can we learn from deception strategies in the evolution of cooperation?
  • What do deception strategies have to do with evolution of communication?
  • How can humans override the negatives of social dilemmas?
  • What can we learn from the earliest models of cooperation in evolutionary process?
  • Would network reciprocity among groups of cooperators be more successful? Why or why not?
  • What are the communication mechanisms of initiating reciprocity? Are their ways to predict success or failure of cooperation? or sustaining cooperation?
  • What role can social grooming play (role of language/gossip) – hair stylist – does it still have a role?
  • What is the validity of behavioral genetics? Which elements of behavior are genetically determined?
  • How might the factor of expanding access/decreasing intimacy affect cooperation? How do we build intimacy with tech platforms?
  • Can you design for cooperation? If so, through what tools?
  • Are humans born with a sense of fairness?
  • What are the outside factors that can disrupt cooperation? How do systems protect and resist these forces? (mapped in session)
  • Is evolution necessarily progressive?

For me – this is way too many questions! Can diversity be too much of a good thing in a co-learning environment?

This reminds me of discussions we used to have when designing teaching programmes. Do you start with the big picture (as this course seems to have done) and move towards more personal practice, or do you start with personal practice and move to the big picture? The questions that interest me most are those which relate more closely to my personal practice, which is consistent with my interest in the autoethnography and narrative inquiry forum which has been opened by one participant.

The beauty of endless distractions in discussion forums

Diversity and distraction is what I am experiencing in Howard Rheingold’s Towards a Cooperation of Literacy course. One participant described it as ‘the beauty of endless distractions’.  I think there are 31 participants in this course – its difficult to be sure, since there is no participant list and maybe some are just observing – but those who are there are very active.

In all there are 16 forums in this first week, with 5 of these devoted to the subject matter of the literacy of cooperation and containing 183 posts. Some of the remaining 11 forums also contain posts related to the subject matter; in all there are 349 posts in these eleven forums (probably going up as I write) and we are not yet at the end of the first week.

I have tried to capture some of the ideas from two of the forums to illustrate how wide ranging the discussion is. Discussion is so intense and fast moving that inevitably I will have missed some. I do not have the time nor space here to explain the ideas, but they can all easily be followed up on the web. Nor do I have time to attribute them to individual participants – rather I will say that their range and diversity exemplify cooperative and co-learning in this course.

Forum 1: Philosophize about cooperation — looking at the big picture while examining the details

The following ideas have been mentioned and/or discussed:

  • Dancing as an example of human synergy and cooperation, with particular reference to Chicago Step and Swing
  • Morphic Resonance and the work of Rupert Shelldrake in relation to flocking birds. See (I had to copy and paste the URL into my browser to view the video.
  • Ambiverts as written about by Daniel Pink in his book ‘Drive’. Ambiverts are both extrovert and introvert. The question raised was ‘Do ambiverts best understand their partner’s thinking?’
  • The role of rewards in cooperative activity
  • Risk and failure in collaboration
  • ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ – Daniel Kahneman’s book
  • ‘Why plans fail: Cognitive bias, decision making and your business’. Jim Benson’s book

So in this forum there has been limited discussion about cooperation in biology. Most of the discussion has been about the conditions which enable us as humans to cooperate, what motivates us and how and why we might decide to cooperate.

Forum 2: Cooperative arrangements in ecosystems

There has been extensive discussion in this forum covering wide ranging topics with, again, a tendency to move away from biological cooperation (as in plants and animals) to human cooperation – but as one participant pointed out, we are a product of biology too (not her exact words).

Biological cooperative arrangements

Gaia Hypothesis – if the evolution of life and its environment affect each otherr, is it in our self-interest to cooperate?

Self-interest and collective action – how do we make choices? Stickleback fish exhibit Prisoner’s Dilemma strategies.

Plants know their relatives and like them, but is this in their best interest?

Identity and membership in communities was related to mustard shoots recognizing their genetic partners.

Mapping biological concepts onto human consciousness

  • One participant cautioned ‘Don’t press the metaphor of biological evolution too hard’. Consider the

– noosphere (which emerges through, and is constituted by, the interaction of human minds – net-based consciousness)

– Global Consciousness Project

The same participant thinks ‘there is more going on than science and pragmatism can uncover’.

  • Tielhard de Chardin described evolution as a 3-fold process
  1. diversification
  2. individuation
  3. communion when the diversified and individuated entities begin to cooperate

His thinking was thought to be both pantheistic and teleological.

  • Ervin Laszlo has written in his book ‘Quantum Shift in the Global Brain’ about the brain as a quantum computer, connecting to the mind of God.
  • The Institute of HeartMath researches thinking with the heart and heart intelligence; and a participant quoted Pascal ‘The heart has its reasons which reasons knows nothing of… We know the truth, not only by the reason, but by the heart.’
  • Links between the body and environmental cues have been discussed in relation to Dr Shepard Siegel’s work on performance, emotion and environment
  • David Bohm’s ‘Thought as a System’ was mentioned as was Henry Markram’s work on a unified model of the brain.
  • ‘Evolution’s Arrow: the direction of evolution and the future of humanity’ by John Stewart was another book mentioned and of course  Richard Dawkins’ – ‘The Selfish Gene’

But one participant writes:

‘There are not individuals, just interacting systems at all different levels. And we call some sorts of interaction cooperation and other sorts competition.’

The discussion then moved on to the question of…

Where is technology leading us?

Here are some of the ideas that were thrown into the pot:

  • Self–replicating machines
  • Autopoietic and allopoietic systems
  • Conway’s ‘Game of Life’
  • Eric Drexler’s ‘Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology’
  • George Dyson’s – ‘Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe’
  • Game theory’
  • Cybernetics, information theory, network theory and chaos theory are all thought to be important in attempting to understand cooperation.
  • ‘Evolutionary Ecology of Technology’ (an article)

Finally a question from a participant: ‘What are we talking about – semantic cartography?’

Despite the discussion being all over the place the patterns of interest are emerging.

Towards a Literacy of Cooperation

This is a 6 week course being run by Howard Rheingold in his Social Media Classroom. It is a semi-open course – in the sense that the course materials are open to anyone and everyone  – but access to activities and discussion is only open to fee paying participants.

After some deliberation I decided to attend this course for a number of reasons

  • I have recently realized that I need a balance between the open networked MOOC experience and smaller more closed learning environments which are designed for close encounters, challenge and deep learning. It is not impossible, but harder to get this in a MOOC.
  • Linked to this recognition of needing a balance between large loose learning environments and more intimate communities, is a consideration of the balance between cooperation, collaboration and competition. These are topics we will discuss in depth in Howard’s course.
  • Following my experience of Etienne and Bev Wenger-Trayner’s intense Academic BEtreat last summer, I am keen to compare it with this intense online course, and to compare both these with the MOOC experience, to further explore the affordances and designs of different online learning environments

First impressions

The Reading List

I signed up for Howard’s course 3 weeks before the start and was encouraged to complete all the reading for the 5 weekly topics before the start of the course. I am used to feeling overwhelmed once online discussion gets going, but I do not usually experience this before even starting the course. I have found the reading very demanding. It has been a long time since I have had to read so much in such a short space of time and on reflection I realize that although I am usually reading for most of every day, it is usually short forum posts, blog posts, Twitter feed etc. This on its own is worth reflecting on.

My strategy for dealing with this was to decide not to attempt to read everything but to

  1. Watch all the videos first, required and recommended – and make notes
  2. Read all the short required texts
  3. Read as many of the short recommended texts that I have time for
  4. Read what appear to be the key texts for each week.
  5. Not even pretend to think that I can understand or suddenly become a mathematician or economist within a couple of weeks – so not even attempt to engage with those bits
  6. Relate as much as I can to my own personal context – to try and make sense of it all.
  7. Keep an open mind until after the orientation session. Howard said that we could still withdraw at that stage.

Well I attended the Orientation session and I haven’t thrown in the towel

The Process

It is clear that the process of learning will be as much an experience as the content – which is what I had hoped. Howard is very clear about his expectations for participation, active learning, co-construction of knowledge, discussion in the forums and the development of a learning community.  Blogging is recommended but, unlike participation in the forums, is not a requirement. The intention is that through the use of a variety of media tools and by taking on specific roles (my role is live session note-taker) we will by the end of the course see the world in a different way through having new frameworks and lenses for looking at cooperative behaviours.

The Topics

The topic this week is Cooperation in Biology and we have been introduced to

  • Lynn Margulis and Endosymbiosis. Margulis’ observations on symbiotic arrangements between micro-organisms helped her to ultimately convince the science world of the importance of cooperation in evolution (but not without considerable difficulty)
  • Stuart Kauffman and co-evolution at the molecular level. This idea is still controversial.
  • Parasites, Symbiotes, Co-evolution and Mutualism, between plants and animals, such as in the pollination of flowers by birds and bees.
  • Commensalism – one organism benefits without harming the other, unlike parasitism where one benefits at the expense of the other and mutualism where both benefit.
  • Superorganisms – an organism consisting of many organisms e.g. leaf cutter ant colonies.
  • Rhizobia – nitrogen fixing soil bacteria.
  • Mycorrhizal networks – soil inhabiting fungi in the root systems of forests, which link plants of the same and different species.
  • Imaginal cells – in the development of butterflies from caterpillars (I found this link to be helpful in explaining this).
  • Ecosystems – community of living organisms and non-living components, which interact as a system – through complex synergies.

A Cautionary Word

Howard has warned us that

We have to be careful about extending biology metaphors to humans.

We should look for relationships and analogies between levels, but look at them critically and not adopt them too readily.

Cooperation and competition are two sides of the same coin and seem to be co-drivers of evolution

And I have just been pointed to this article Evolutionary Ecology of Technology –  which further discusses these points – so it’s back to the reading.