What Competition in the Animal Kingdom Teaches Us About Human Cooperation
Evolution penalizes greedy individualists
Animals cooperate as well. Their mutually beneficial behaviors are not an exception to natural selection, but the rule.
Darwin observed how wild cattle could tolerate only a brief separation from their herd, and slavishly followed their leaders. “Individualists” who challenged the leader’s authority or wandered away from the group were picked off by hungry lions. Darwin generalized that social bonding was a “product of selection.” In other words, teamwork was a better strategy for everyone’s survival than competition.
Darwin saw what he believed were the origins of human moral capabilities in the cooperative behavior of animals. He marveled at how species from pelicans to wolves have learned to hunt in groups and share the bounty, and how baboons expose insect nests by cooperating to lift heavy rocks.
Even when they are competing, many animals employ social strategies to avoid life-threatening conflicts over food or territory. Like break-dancers challenging one another in a ritualized battle, the combatants assume threatening poses or inflate their chests. They calculate their relative probability of winning an all-out conflict and then choose a winner without actually fighting.
The virtual combat benefits not just the one who would be killed, but also the victor, who could still be injured. The loser is free to go look for something else to eat, rather than wasting time or losing limbs in a futile fight.