What Biology Says About Cooperation


“Superorganism” is a word we use to classify a colony of many organisms that together form a cohesive community. Specialized physical and behavioral profiles within the superorganism fit like organs into a larger body. Together these groupings of specialized citizens work together with a unified purpose of to nourishing the needs of the whole community. Ants, bees, wasps, and termites are examples of superorganisms. These creatures as individuals need each other to survive. An ant with a singular specialized talent such as a worker, drone, or queen cannot survive on their own. Ants need the multitalented cooperative effort of the whole community as surely as they need to breathe in order to exist.

A single human being can be considered a social community of 10 trillion cells. Like the specialized roles in a superorganism, groups of cells have specialized tasks organized in the form of organs. Others, like blood cells, have widely distributed tasks throughout the body, but the common theme is diversification around a unified purpose – the community. In addition to human cells and organs, there are as many as 10 times more bacteria that inhabit the typical human form. Many of these bacteria perform vital functions such as aiding digestion or protecting the skin in return for food and environmental considerations. As a body, we are a vast community built on cooperative mutually beneficial relationships.

This need for cooperation extends beyond the human form. If all photosynthetic life forms such as plants were to disappear, we could not survive. Plants are an organ in the larger body of life. Were this organ not present and performing its nourishing roles we would cease as an organ in the body of life as well. Natural selection seen through a “competition lens” has been popularized as the way we traditionally understand evolution and biological relationships, but this is a false image.[1] As a result of not sufficiently understanding the powerful and vital dependence on cooperative relationships running through biology, we may have falsely shortchanged our understanding of how to achieve real progress in the areas of personal, business, academic and larger social circles such as government.[2]

As earth’s human population has grown, we have also grown in our dependency on cooperative relationships for basic operation as well as continuing sustainability. Given the harsh environmental factors some of us have historically had to overcome, it is understandable some of us would have come to see biology through a competitive-protective lens, but we need to begin to reconsider this as the lens through which we see ourselves and each other. As a global culture, we hold a competitive bias that is out of context with what we need to nourish our highest potential. This distortion affects our social systems from personal and business to community and governmental policies and practices. This competitive lens may have served us in the past as we needed to push outward to survive and thrive, but in our current world it has become a liability. Dominance is no longer the means by which we can achieve survival and sustainability, much less progress. We now have the capacity to kill “the golden goose” on which our social systems depend for nourishment. We need to take care of our biological and social systems to realize our full potential. The fact is, cooperation is the predominant means by which biology operates and the foundation of a satisfied life.[3] No one is both narcissistic to the point of collapsing others under the weight of their own desire and satisfied at the same time. The reason is because it violates our basic biological urges which demand nourishing community.

Cooperation must be seen for what it is; an essential element in the overall relationship dynamic that leads to our survival and nourishes our greatest potential. It is the binder that holds a social community together whether it is an ant colony, a human body, or civilization itself. It is also essential if we are going to cultivate the entire biosphere around sustainability and consequently make the world a more nourishing place. This is not to say behaviors that might be classified as competition are not useful in their proper context, just that they are a small proportional part of a much larger context of relationships that are predominantly cooperative in nature.

The relationships we depend on to both live and continue as a species say a lot about who we are and what fulfills us. We are social creatures by nature and much of this sociality is based on cooperative relationships. Like ants, we depend on cooperation between our cells, our organs, the bacteria and many other species. Depression and other diseases are often outward symptoms of social isolation. If we behave in ways that violate the cooperative mutually nourishing relationship balance on which we depend, not only are we rebelling against our nature, but we are participating in generating a dissatisfying poverty of existence.

To get a fuller flavor for the role cooperation plays on a civilization scale, consider the essay written by Leonard Read called “I, Pencil”. “I, Pencil” is written from the first person perspective of a pencil. The pencil describes in great detail the nature and complexity of its existence. The wood, coating material, graphite, glue and so on, along with all the people with different talents and tasks that are necessary for it to exist are outlined in the essay. Ship makers, sailors, lumberjacks, miners, and chemists are just a few of the many various persons that must work together for the pencil to exist. The point is what we might consider a humble tool like a pencil rides on a massive foundation of cooperative relationships. No one in fact knows the whole process, but working sharing and working together we achieve great things.[4]

[1] This is not an assertion that the traditional view of evolution has been totally viewed solely through a competitive lens, merely that the necessary competitive aspects of biological relationships have been grossly overemphasized in the popular view.

[2] For an example of cooperative aspects of evolutionary biology look up the term “endosymbiotic theory”, “eusocial”

[3] This is not meant to imply that cooperative relationships are the only means by which biology operates, merely that it is the predominant means. particularly in social creatures such as humans.

[4] Another book on the topic of how cooperation relates to social systems is “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley


2 responses to “What Biology Says About Cooperation

  1. I recently saw an updated version of I,Pencil called – I,Smartphone – same idea. However, I think the example of a pencil is more poignant today. – In a world full of smartphones and hybrid cars, the pencil stands out as an object that seemingly lacks complexity – something easy to take it’s existence for granted.
    In I,Pencil Leonard Read also discusses the idea of the Invisible Hand – suggesting that just like cells unknowingly cooperate with other cells to create a complete being, there must be some unknown “hand” that does see and control and have a plan for the end “product.”
    When you break it down and compare human relationships to super organisms – it would stand to reason that we (read: humans) are all – unknowingly – working together to create and exist collectively as something bigger than ourselves.
    If that’s the case, I suppose if we’re making the comparison, just as some cells in a body can can mutate and become cancer and work against the body as whole – there can also be people whose lack of cooperation can negatively effect the direction we should be going in to survive and thrive as our own human “super organism”.
    In short, Nice Post!

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