Life as Cooperation?

Let’s imagine that you are in charge of creating a new animal species.

Ground rules: you must play by the basic laws of life, remembering that about four-fifths of your own genetic makeup is the same as mice.1 In other words, you can be imaginative, but not too imaginative! Your experimental creature must be a plausible inhabitant on Earth, so it needs to follow the same processes that apply to all living things we know. Three-part DNA nucleotide codes must signify the same amino acid proteins — just as they do in you, me, guppies, bacteria, and trees.

In order to survive, your creature must internally cooperate with itself: the genes in their genomes, the cells in their tissues — and all the innumerable subprocesses must work in conjunction with one another.

Here is another question: how will your new animal interact socially? How will it treat members of its own species? Will your species have a hierarchical society or exist in virtual isolation? Will it live in herds and packs, or solitarily, only interacting for the purpose of procreation? You must exercise a rigorous cost/benefit analysis here: in a collective herd, the ability of your species to notice (and thus escape) predators increases significantly, but living in a herd will also increase the competition for food within your species. Also, a highly cooperative clan of animals might have a lower breeding rate in order to reciprocally help nurture their young infants — but this comes at the expense of not otherwise producing more offspring.2

As in the human species, the consequence of cooperating at the collective level is often greater competition at the individual level. Whether in the microscopic, cellular domain or at the scale of behavioural interaction, cooperation and coopetition are usually causations of each other. Barely can one exist without necessitating and precipitating the other. When two animals fight over the right to mate, their vicious competition results in improving the strength of the herd. Conversely, when the employees of a business firm effectively cooperate with one another, they tend to out-perform their competition. A highly competitive sports team is marked by high levels of teamwork and cooperation. Cooperation and competition are inseparable: they make each other happen.

Whether it was the formation of your own genetic identity at conception, or the capacity of one business to rise above another company, or even the survival rate of your imaginative species, one remarkable observation bears noting: the better we tend to be at cooperating, the better we tend to be at competing, and vice versa.

As individuals, we seem disposed to emphasize (and moralize) one above the other. On the left, in praise of interdependency, we deem that cooperation is superior to competition. On the right, in praise of fairness, we deem that competition is superior to cooperation. From a systems perspective, the two tend to merge in praxis.

  1. Church, Deanna., Goodstadt, Leo., Hillier, LaDeana., Zody, Michael., Goldstein, Steve., et al. (2009) Lineage-Specific Biology Revealed by a Finished Genome Assembly of the Mouse. PLoS Biol 7(5). 

  2. Rubenstein, Dustin. & Kealey, James. (2012) Cooperation, Conflict, and the Evolution of Complex Animal Societies. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):78 

Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Life as Cooperation?' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on October 28, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink:
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