What Competition in the Animal Kingdom Teaches Us About Human Cooperation

Evolution penalizes greedy individualists

Douglas Rushkoff
Nov 13 · 2 min read
Photo: Viesinsh/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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.


This is section 9 of the book Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff (W.W. Norton, 2019), which is being serialized weekly on Medium.

From Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff. Copyright © 2019 by Douglas Rushkoff. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Team Human

Douglas Rushkoff

Written by

Author of Team Human, Present Shock, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://medium.com/team-human

Team Human

Team Human is a manifesto — a fiery distillation of preeminent digital theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s most urgent thoughts on civilization and human nature.

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