Created to… Cooperate?

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Evolutionary biology is often understood to say that we are created to compete, to survive, and to pass our genes on to subsequent generations. You know the phrases – “survival of the fittest,” first coined by Herbert Spencer, those “selfish genes” from Richard Dawkins,” and that line from Tennyson’s poem, “nature, red in tooth and claw.”

These terms stir up images of large predators hunting on the African savannah or in the ocean deeps. We see the chase, the struggle, the teeth and/or claws, and then the red of suffering and death. Life, we are told, is all struggle, and much of it is not the direct result of sinful humans. Competition appears to be built into the natural process.

Rightly so, this makes evolution an affront to our sense of a good and loving God. How do we reconcile a good God with the gruesome competition we see all around in the natural world?

We will attend to this question over the next few weeks. But today, before we take on natural evil and theodicy, an important reminder: We are created not only to compete and survive and pass on our genes. Biologists also tell us we are created to cooperate.

Evolution and Cooperation

Harvard biologist Martin Nowak has argued that “cooperation and competition are forever entwined in a tight embrace,” and that cooperation is as central to evolution as mutation and selection. A Catholic who uses mathematics to study biological systems, Nowak has been a leader arguing for the import of cooperation in evolution.

It is not hard to see how cooperation is beneficial to highly social species like humans . . . or insects. Think about a well-run church or an ant colony. But the roots of cooperation go even deeper. Frans de Waal, an expert in primate and animal behavior, says, “Most animals cannot survive without cooperation. If competition is stronger as an instinct than cooperation, it would all fall apart.”

It also goes beyond the animal kingdom. Think of microbiomes—especially the ones that inhabit ourselves. Trillions of microbes live in and on us. They help us digest food, support our immune systems, and may even regulate brain function and help us develop as infants. These simple organisms cooperate with us.

Cooperation may go all the way back to the beginning of life. It is part of cellular evolution, and may even be key to the origin of life.  Nowak wrote in an article (no longer available online) that “cooperation is in the fabric of the universe.”

That fabric eventually led to us humans, whom Nowak called “super-cooperators” in his 2012 book that describes how we have taken cooperation further than any other species. Cooperation exists throughout the tree of life, but there is something about humans that brings it to a different level. Perhaps it is language? Or the ability to imitate and the capacity to learn? Or the development of culture with morals and religion to bind us together? Whatever the cause, cooperation has allowed our species to do extraordinary things.

At the same time, we have also done some atrocious things, competing with our own species, with other species, and threatening the very survival of our planet. Which brings us back to the notion of evolution as a mix of cooperation and competition.

Both / And

All too often science and faith are posited as an either/or—a competition where we must choose a side. Reality, however, is complex. It is a bit of both/and that also often requires some nuance. The challenge is to get the right balance in order for us to truly understand reality.

We don’t yet know the actual balance between cooperation and competition in biology. It may be that is it is more the latter. But to know that cooperation has a role, and likely a significant one, should cool some of the heat in the either evolution-or-faith conversation.

Moreover, as much as I argue for cooperation between science and faith, I’m sure I miss the right level of balance between cooperation and competition. It’s clearly at least a bit of both, especially when we consider more narrow aspects of both science and faith.

One such specific area where competition seems inescapable is on the question of animal suffering and natural evil—where life does compete and struggle to survive.

How do we reconcile belief in a good God with the gruesome competition we see in the natural world? This is a real point of tension between faith and science. It is one of the reasons theodicy remains a perennial challenge to belief in God. We won’t offer any simple answers, but this is where we will turn our attention in the coming weeks.


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