Chapter 3. Section 2

In fact, the particular view of evolution adopted by the contributors to Part 1 of KSH2000 (as with most of the participants in the discussion as a whole), is controversial and much criticised. Later I look at some of these criticisms and show that many of the questionable claims arise from reading concepts meant as metaphors literally.

To begin with let us go directly to the source of theorising on evolution and inquire as to what Darwin had to say about cooperation. We might sum up his theory in the following (his) words:

Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man's power of selection. (Darwin, 1988[1859]:46)

Though extensive use is made of the term 'competition' in The Origin of Species from the preceding extract it should be clear that the only arena we can suggest there will be 'competition' is within the "struggle for life", or Darwin's "Struggle for Existence" which we will deal with in Section 2. It is only here where we could possibly interpret some resistance to cooperation.

Having had a brief look at the rudiments of "Darwinism" I would now like to go on the offensive and provide evidence that we should not interpret "Struggle for Existence" as meaning competition, certainly not in its everyday sense of the term. Later, in section 3 we will see why, if we should not think in terms of the everyday sense of competition, that using the term so liberally has lead us to error.

First of all let us look at some evidence that suggests, contrary to lay-notions of the interactions of organisms in the environment, that instead of competition between species it is far more accurate to regard the fundamental principle of Nature as the avoidance of competition. This is known to ecologists as the Exclusion Principle. What it states is that for every niche there will be one, and only one, species. While this may seem a tad vacuous on the surface of things - a species is usually defined using the concept of niche so it is somewhat of a tautology - it does serve to bring into focus the fact that organisms specialise. Quite contrary to Darwin's early claims about similar species competing for the same resources, Nature shows that similar organisms will keep to very defined and delimited ranges and resources in order to avoid competition (Colinvaux, 1980). Colinvaux (1980:130) recounts the following investigation on warblers in eastern Canada and New England, USA:

Five species, in particular, nest in the spruce forests of Maine and Vermont. The five birds are closely related, and the vegetation in which they breed is without obvious variety, just ranks of spruce trees. The beaks of the birds are all the same size, and alike, suggesting they can eat the same food. Investigations of enormous numbers of stomach contents by forestry people (who were looking for enemies of the spruce budworm) have shown that their food is, indeed, roughly the same. ...How can they occupy different niches? How can there be more than one species of them?

Robert MacArthur earned his doctorate answering these (among other) questions and after considerable observation found that:

...it was clear that the warblers worked in substantially different parts of the trees. One species spent nearly all of its time on the pointed spruce tops, another one lower down, a third near the ground, and so on. The spruce budworms, the most abundant food for all the warblers, lived all over the spruce trees, but the warblers hunted in their own special preserves. (ibid)

There is only one interpretation for this situation (Colinvaux gives many other examples of such behaviour in Chapter 13 of the mentioned work) and the prominent ecologist is quite emphatic in his reading:

Peaceful coexistence, not struggle, is the rule in our Darwinian world. A perfectly fashioned individual of a Darwinian species is programmed for a specialised life to be spent for the most part safe from competition with neighbours of other kinds. Natural selection is harsh to the deviant aggressor who seeks to poach on the niche of another. Peaceful coexistence between species, which results from evolution by natural selection, has to be understood as an important fact in the workings of the great ecosystems around us. (Colinvaux, 1980:131:132)

Given the obvious reverence for Darwin, the absence of the concepts like competition, manipulation or conflict is at first glance surprising. It is well known that Darwin was indeed quite Hobbesian in his terminology, often speaking of wars and struggle, but it is patently obvious that the facts are the facts, and both Darwin and Colinvaux are from the same planet - putting those facts into the understandable form of a model are where the differences lie. Colinvaux puts a quite different spin on what goes on in Nature. On the surface it appears that, at least for different species, Colinvaux directly contradicts Darwin. We should understand how appearances can be somewhat deceiving after Section 3.

Further evidence that conflict is avoided in nature comes from Augros and Stanciu (1992:128).

With each species in its own niche doing its own task, fights between animals of different species are exceedingly rare, if they occur at all. Lorenz (1963) after many years of studying fish remarks, "Never have I seen fish of two different species attacking each other, even if both are highly aggressive by nature." Colinvaux (1978) puts it succinctly: "A fit animal is not one that fights well, but one that avoids fighting altogether."

Now that we have seen how organisms of similar species avoid competition it seems legitimate to inquire whether they might "cooperate" or "collaborate", giving rise to further doubt the utility of the theory of "Selfishness". Here we must think a little and ask ourselves which organisms are most likely to be advantaged by the help of another species. Will it be similar species? Will they be quite different? After a moment's reflection it is apparent that it is far more likely to find cooperative endeavours among either members of ones own species, or those of a species with quite different morphologies and abilities. It is, after all, obvious that if one needs something done to one, then either a member of ones own species will be most intimately knowledgeable of the exigencies of the situation and will be most helpful or, if the task is beyond them due to size or mobility or other constraint, then a quite different being will be better suited to aid. I will first look at the situation where the beings are quite different.

In spite of what is predicted by what Hobbes called the "war of all against all", indeed we find many examples of such "helping" or "cooperation" between largely different species.

The phenomenon, more often going under the name of "symbiosis" or "mutual interdependence", is in fact very widespread. By changing our point of view we can understand just how deep this goes. I mention a few examples, all sorted and paraphrased from Augros and Stanciu (1992), and then come to some conclusions as to its importance.

Inouye (1984) talks of the relationship between the aspen sunflower of the Rocky Mountains and a species of ant. The ants are provided with a good deal of their nutritional requirements through extrafloral nectar secretions and in turn the ants provide protection from harmful parasites.

A fantastic number of plants require bees, moths, bats or others in order to cross-pollinate and provide a delicious meal of nectar for their trouble. The purpose of most fleshy fruit is in fact to entice large mobile creatures to consume the seed, take it away and fertilise it. In doing this these creatures are provided with their sustenance. In an even more dependent relationship the olive fruit (among many others), requires the digestive action of certain birds (or a chemical process mimicking this) to soften the shell before the seed can germinate.

Phoresis, or using other animals for transport and dispersal, has a very long history and is widespread. It enables "stationary" creatures, like sea anemones, to obtain food by constantly being taken about on mobile creatures, like on the backs of crabs, and crabs are given a degree of camouflage, which helps in avoiding predators. Many insects and worms hitchhike to more promising habitats.

"Cleaning" behaviour is common on land and sea. "Among the land animals the tickbird cleans the rhinoceros, egrets clean various cattle, and the Egyptian plover enters the mouth of the crocodile to fee on leeches and emerges unharmed. According to marine biologist Conrad Limbaugh (1961), the cleaner-client association "represents one of the primary relationships in the community in the sea." Known cleaners include some forty-two species of fish, six shrimps, and Beebe's crab. Cleaners establish fixed stations that are visited by countless species of fish. The client fish approaches the station and poses, allowing the cleaner to forage within its gills and even enter its mouth without danger. Limbaugh found that the cleaners could prevent the spread of bacterial infections that would normally prove fatal to the client. He concludes, "The extent of cleaning behavior in the ocean emphasizes the role of cooperation in nature as opposed to the tooth-and-claw struggle for existence." (Augros and Stanciu, 1992:129)

The list of examples goes on and on. We haven't even mentioned bacteria in stomachs, mitochondria (see Sagan and Margulis, 1992) or microbes associated with trees! When we consider the bigger picture this leads to the realisation that in fact all animals require all plants - oxygen and carbon dioxide being taken and given respectively. In short, it is impossible to find an organism that doesn't rely for its life on at least one other organism. The earth's entire biosphere forms one big cooperative mass of organisms. This view is often associated with the "Gaia Hypothesis" of biological interconnectedness (Lovelock, 1979).

Having seen how closely some species rely on others we see can now appreciate how Augros and Stanciu (1992:131) can claim "Nature is not a war of one organism against another, but an alliance founded on cooperation."

Yet we are still to drive the point home. It is entirely possible that the "selfish" theorists will acknowledge cooperation (collaboration) in members of different species, it is merely species "exploiting" each other or the like. The key for both Darwin and the neo-Darwinist sociobiologists is not that there will be competition between species but that species internal competition will indeed be dire. Darwin is clear on this point (see below). What we would expect to find then is that members of a species are in constant conflict and competition. Any behaviour that looks as if it doesn't positively harm others (or at least non-kin) is not predicted. We should be clear on this point. If organisms (or even genes) are selfish at base and in competition then the theory predicts that we should find no behaviour or faculties that assist non-kin and we should often find behaviour that directly downgrades or degenerates the fitness (manipulation and deceit fit in here) of other organisms.

This, surprisingly or not, is not what we find in Nature. Examples of assistance of non-kin are legion and only the tip of the iceberg can be treated in an essay of this kind. Here are a few arenas sociobiology must explain using sometimes fantastical (cf. Schwartz, 1986, on sociobiology's claims to "science" status or Sahlins, 1976) means.

Adoption. Adoption is a widespread and common phenomenon given the right circumstances. It is well known that many mammals will adopt the young of other animals: cats, dogs, cows and pigs have been known to adopt rats, pigs, rabbits, cats, and dogs (though not, of course, in all combinations, Burton, 1978:12). Humans have been raised by wolves and apes, among others. Adoption of another mothers progeny (i.e., containers of the enemy's genes, or enemy gene) is known in apes (the famous Kanzi was an adoptee, Savage-Rumbaugh and Lewin, 1994) and cows (Burton, 1978:15) at least, and probably many others, given what is known about midwifery practises (see below).

Adoption is well known in many human societies, including many cultures where infanticide is practised. An horrendous fact to explain for the sociobiologists is a culture where ones own progeny are sometimes killed and the children of ones enemies are taken on as ones own! While sometimes the children are treated as slaves when "adopted" in this fashion, this is certainly not always the case (Schwartz, 1986). Adoption of animals by humans is also a phenomenon we should not forget (useless for all intents and purposes for creatures like cats and certainly for parrots).

Midwifery and post-natal care (from Burton, 1978:chap. 20). The practice of aiding non-kin females in parturition is found in many species of mammal - elephants, rhinoceroses, cows, dolphins, giraffes, mice, rats, marmosets, monkeys among others. As Burton (p177) notes "Looking at the history of our knowledge of the natal and post-natal care among mammals, it seems likely that eventually both will be found to be far more common than is at the moment supposed." The help ranges from protection from predators to resuscitation of young and other immediate needs a mother may not be able to provide (for some reason or other). "Young hippopotamuses within a colony spend much time in the care of one female while their mothers are away feeding" (p181) and penguins are known to leave their offspring in large groups to go and feed and return to collect them later.

Feeding and alarm calls. (Excepting humans for the sake of brevity) many animals show cooperation in feeding. Chimpanzees utter "pant hoots" to others when they find a tree with enough fruit for others (Mitani, 1994). There are a great number of species of mammals and birds that display sentinel behaviour and utter alarm calls. While there may be some evidence, in some species, that alarm calls are preferentially made in the presence of kin (Carroll and Loye,1992), there is little or none that suggests a positive abstention from alarm calling when kin are not present, and, if we are going to be exact, this is what a "selfish" theory predicts. Alarm calling in the sole presence of non-kin is going to be so dis-advantageous as to be impossible in Nature, if all organisms (or genes), at base, desire the destruction of their congeners. Perhaps most startling of all the examples of food sharing or mutual care, however, is that of female vampire bats (Desmodus Rotundus)(see Carroll and Loye, 1992) in tropical American forests. Bats starve to death in as little as three days and about a third of the under-two year old bats and just less than 10% of adult bats fail to feed in any given night. Not feeding on a given night puts a bat in a dangerous state. It was found that bats form bonds (with kin AND non-kin) with others and will regurgitate a meal for unfed bats, usually for another member of this group of "friends". Experiments were carried out and bats were removed from their group. Those who were starved were fed upon rejoining the group and those who were fed were not (Wilkinson, 1984, cited in Carroll and Loye, 1992). Again, this counts strongly against the predictions of the sociobiologists.

Kropotkin (1914[1902]:59) recounts several examples of blind animals being fed by seeing mates (whether kin or not is not mentioned), and Burton (1978:chap. 9) mentions several examples of blind animals being helped in other ways.

On top of all this non-conflictual (helping, cooperative, collaborative, etc.) behaviour we have human cooperation. Unparalleled in its complexity and ubiquity, humans are in many ways best thought of not as individual beings but as integral parts of a group - not having a real existence outside of this group (see the work of Malinowski, for example). What we have seen, however, is that human cooperation/collaboration is not unique. While it may be justifiable to attempt to explain cooperative behaviours in a single species as aberrant, it is somewhat intellectually irresponsible to cling to a theory which needs to make room for so many exceptions.


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