Transforming OurSpace Using Thinker's Thoughts
March 2008 - Shel Rovin



Nature competes within a framework of cooperation, organizations compete

Every living creature acts in its own self interest; the living world works through cooperation.  So what gives?

Creatures are self interested, but not self destructive. Extreme selfish behavior has real costs:  when one species as part of a “stable” ecosystem with hundreds of other species acts only in its self-interest, the entire ecosystem is altered and the offending species itself crashes. This is actually rare because ecosystems tend to limit this type of occurrence. Parasites kill their hosts and have no place to go.  Organizations that take over others generally lose market share.

Cooperation evolved. When parasitic bacteria invade a larger host, after many generations they exploit but do not destroy their host, they begin to share metabolized products.  After many more generations they need each other for survival. (as Lewis Thomas wrote: ”Nice guys last longer”) This progressive cooperation  (co-evolution) set the stage for all higher life forms.

Evolution means adapting  to meet ones needs. Co-evolution means adapting to meet both one’s own needs and those of the other.   “The evolution of the species and the evolution of its environment are tightly coupled together as an inseparable process.”  (James Lovelock - The Gaia Hypothesis)  This amounts to a growing dependence on ones enemies.   Two examples are the Monarch butterfly and Milkwood plant, and  wolves and deer. Over time, the Milkwood plant and the caterpillar stage of the Monarch butterfly changed from an antagonistic relationship (the caterpillar eating the plant and the plant developing resistance that excluded all other predators), to a relationship of co-dependency.  The predator – prey relationship of wolves and deer is the gold standard example of codependency.  Both need each other to prevent overpopulation and elimination of weakened or sick deer; wolves generally prey on weak or sick animals. It’s simply against the survival interests of both predator and prey to eliminate the enemy.

The same phenomena exert their influence on human behavior as well. For example, trench warfare in World War I “evolved” into some cooperation between the two sides.  When the troops of both sides found themselves in prolonged combat, over weeks and months the firing often died down to a symbolic amount even in the face of direct orders from the generals.  (Robert Axelrod - The Evolution of Cooperation)

On a social level, competition, to a point, has value. An athlete, for example, doesn’t ordinarily want to compete against someone with far less ability.  In such a circumstance the superior athlete won’t improve and learn how to play against one at or close to her level.  Even fiercely competitive businesses learn from one another, though it may not be admitted.

Conflict isn’t all bad. It helps sort things out. Moreover, disagreement is essential for learning. Working together to achieve goals doesn’t require loving one another -- it involves creating working conditions and relationships that satisfy or come close to satisfying the different self-interests or finding common ground.

What do you think?