The supporting forces of the cooperation

Lots of biologists consider evolution as a continuous struggle for survival. They think that there are two driving forces of the evolution: mutation (change), and competition. The variants of a species are resulted by mutation. The most competitive variants which can better adapt to the actual circumstances can survive in the struggle and have offspring or at least more offspring than other less successful ones. In this picture there is no place for cooperation. If an individual cooperates that means that does something not only for his own interest but for the others. With this altruistic behaviour the individual takes the risk that the favour will not be returned. This arises the question: what forces do support the cooperation?

The presence of cooperation is evident, therefore such explanations were born like the kin selection theory. It says that cooperation appears in the process of evolution because of relatives, who share the certain amount of their genes. With having more common genes they have more reason for the cooperation, because despite that they are decreasing their chance for survival and for having offspring by the cooperation, on the other hand their genes will survive and reproduce by their relatives. Going into the details we can find that kin selection effect causes cooperation only in some very special case. Cooperation is more general. As Martin A. Novak the co-author of the book “Super cooperators” says:   

“Cooperation is the third driving force of evolution”.

It is often asked that how could cooperation evolve? Such a question can be asked only when one have forgotten that the cooperation is originated from differentiation, specialization and from division of labour. When a kind of organism have to perform at least two tasks, then if two of them share these tasks, it almost always results a win-win situation. At least they win the effort and the time of switching between tasks. More over if the two organism is not totally equal, then they can realize more advantages because they can share the tasks so that their common effectiveness is higher than the sum of their individual effectiveness. The phenomenon is very similar to what economists call the law of comparative advantage. The organisms are rarely identical because the mutation is present, and they have at least two tasks: self-preservation and reproduction: taking care of brood. By specialization they will be more effective together than solitary.

There are such mutations which result that one individual performs better in all tasks than the other. In such a case from the point of view of the “perfect” mutation there is not too much reason for the cooperation. However, the comparative advantages even in this case can work.

On the other hand, there are also such mutations, where the two individuals in different tasks perform better than the other, and these mutations appear with similar chances to others. Two mutations with different traits, which are advantageous for different tasks: this situation is the warm nest of cooperation. During the billions of years of evolution such mutations could happen billions of billion times. This is why the cooperation is so spread on our planet.

Cooperation is much easier than we think

As we see, most of the natural situations are not as difficult as the dilemmas examined by game theorists. There are lots of trivial games which produce win-win situation for cooperators. As they are trivial, they are not so exciting, and therefore they are not investigated. The most common example of it is the cooperation in the bringing-up of off-spring. Some of the adults are defending the common off-springs from predators and other dangers while others are investigating for and collecting food. At specie of homo sapiens we call it “kindergarten”, and “making money”. Both the defenders and the collectors are doing their tasks for the whole family or for the whole community. The cooperation is better than with full belly risking the off-spring to be eaten by a predator or hit by a car. And cooperation is also better than starving while defending the off-spring. If one of the participants defects, the game is over, but there is no real reason to defect. 

So, the question is not “How could cooperation evolve?” The question is that “Where is space left for competition?” Walking in the forest or on savannas, diving in the sea, we meet thousands of multicellular plants and animals. In these organisms we can recognize the communities of billions of cooperating cells. The major part of the animal biomass is embodied in the relatively few species of social insects, which is another example for the success of cooperation. Cooperation also appears between different species, just think about the many kind of bacteria in our intestinal system which help our digestion. Only predators and preys do not cooperate.

Asymmetric interdependency enforces cooperation

An important trait of the situation above is that it is asymmetrical: the participants do different tasks, and every task is important or even essential for the survival and for the continuity of life. So, the cooperators compose an inherent unit, they are interdependent from each other.

The game theory “the study of mathematical models of conflict, and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers”. The modern game theory is originated from investigation of zero-sum games and is developing towards to solve more and more complex problems. Game theorists are keen on investigating difficult situations of decisions. The favorite is the so-called “prisoner’s dilemma” in which game from the point of view one player’s the defection always yields better than the cooperation. If the world were full of prisoners with their dilemma, that could arise the question: if the cooperation is so difficult, and yields worse for the individual, then how could the cooperation evolve on our planet? With some empathy one can achieve the decision of cooperating by rational thinking even in one single game. Game theorists serve us with mathematical proofs that cooperation can triumph even in such bad condition which the prisoner’s dilemma is. The repeated games by giving the chance for reciprocity provide with prosperous environment for emergence of cooperation. It was Robert Axelrod and William D. Hamilton who published first on the topic “The Evolution of Cooperation”. Their conclusion was that „Darwin’s emphasis on individual advantage has been formalized in terms of game theory. This establishes conditions under which cooperation based on reciprocity can evolve.” Axelrod, Robert; Hamilton, William D. (27 March 1981), “The Evolution of Cooperation”

Martin Nowak in his book “Super cooperators” written with Roger Highfield collects five ways which in nature can help the evolution of cooperation. (Canongate, Edinburgh London) The subtitle of the book also speaks for itself (and for the cooperation): “Beyond The Survival of the Fittest, Why Cooperation, not Competition, is the Key to Life”

Nowak collected five ways to solve the dilemma:

  • Direct reciprocity
  • Indirect reciprocity
  • Spatial games
  • Group selection
  • Kin selection


When we realize that how many win-win situations are in our life, then we can define a new target to game theorist: the investigation of the teaching strategies instead of winning strategies. The question is not the winning strategy: by which strategy can one maximize the collected score against different other strategies. The question is that which strategy can have a bigger effect on its’ environment.

Which strategy can turn the other participants to cooperation, and on that way which strategy can maximize the welfare of the society?