The evolution of cooperation

A blackboard in a Japanese classrom

I lived in Japan for three years as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme (despite the spelling, Yanks outnumbered Brits by a big, big number in JET). My job while I was there was to teach in ten different schools. In one junior high school, I taught all the time. In another, I never taught—I literally sat in my chair all day, practicing Japanese kanji or reading novels.

At the first school—we’ll call it the Best Teaching Job in the Universe—teachers met with me regularly before classes to complete lesson plans, they asked my advice, encouraged me to make and execute my own lesson plans (many of which involved singing Beatles’ songs and playing map games). I regularly spoke to teachers outside of my discipline, and ended up going to classes outside of English, and cleaning the school with the students after the last bell rang. I felt like a vital part of a very real, respectful community filled with people I never would have met if I hadn’t gone to Japan. I felt great every day I taught there.

At the school where I wasn’t allowed to teach—which we’ll call The Somewhat Less Fun Junior High School—I studied Japanese at my desk, at least that’s what I did in my first year there. I diligently opened my kanji notebook each morning at 9 a.m. and shut it every day at 3:30 p.m.

Then, in my second year, I read novels (in situations of relatively extreme isolation—can you say ‘relatively extreme’ like that?—I don’t recommend reading what I read, things like 1984, The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka, The Bell Jar, Alive, etc.).

In my third year, I got to work when I was supposed to—at 8:15—but if no one spoke to me by noon (which was most days) on a given day, then I just left at lunchtime. I didn’t say anything, just packed my bag, walked outside, hopped on my bike and headed home.

I had a contract with the city government of Kanezawa (not the real name; not sure why I’m protecting it) to be at school from first to last bell, but I happily broke it at the Less Fun School. In my mind, a more important contract had been broken—not a legal contract, but a social one—and in light of that breach, I had the to right to do pretty much whatever the hell I wanted.

No “I” in “Evolved”

Humans don’t generally make huge sacrifices for each other or for the communities that they belong to. We might label people who do do those things as heroic. Think Mother Teresa. Think Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

But we do make smaller sacrifices of time and effort. We shovel the walkway for the old lady who lives across the street. We run after the guy who left his wallet on the automatic checkout machine. We proofread friends’ papers, their stories, we give them feedback on blog posts and photographs and movies. We try, often, in small ways, to make the lives of people near us better.

The question is, why would we do that?

Partly, it’s because groups that cooperate do better than groups full of selfish jerks. That’s what multilevel selection theory says, and that’s the explanation that Brian Boyd makes in On the Origin of Stories to explain how cooperation must have evolved. There has to be some advantages to helping each other in order for us to evolve as animals that help each other.

But cooperation is sort of a long-term advantage. In the short term, selfishness improves our access to resources and mating opportunities. This creates a sort of evolutionary catch-22. What pressures could create a situation where any kind of long-term advantage ever outweighed a short-term one enough to even appear?

We Got to Prey/Just to Make It Today

So, there are two elements of cooperation, and they have slightly different origin stories.

The first kind is called mutualism. Mutualism refers to evolutionary advantages that benefit everyone in a group at the same time. If one member of the group spots a predator, for example, the entire group benefits from knowing that the predator is there (assuming the spotter squawks, barks, blows a horn, etc.). Things that help one member of a community—acknowledging a predator, to continue with the example—benefit everyone at the same time.

The second kind of cooperation is active cooperation. In active cooperation one animal sacrifices her time, effort, or resources to help someone else.

This kind of sacrifice is most easily explained in situations where kin selection is at play, meaning that a person is helping someone else who shares part of their genetic makeup—a child, parent, cousin, aunt. Helping them helps guarantee the success of your own genes. Case closed [claps hands together in a that-takes-care-of-that gesture].

What is less easily explained is the kind of massive, global, reciprocal altruism that humans display. This is explained with a kind of altered or amended golden rule: Do good unto others, and they or someone else from your community will do good unto you.

Humans participate in a web of social obligations and, to benefit from the social obligations of others, we are required to hold up our end of the bargain by being polite, kind, generous, thoughtful, etc.

The only way for this to work, though, is if there’s a penalty for not doing it.

The Reign of the Golden Rule

In his chapter on the evolution of cooperation, Boyd gives an example of a game theory computer tournament where different researchers tried out different behavior strategies to see which was the most effective.

Boyd writes:

“Surprisingly, the simplest strategy, Tit for Tat, won the first such tournament: cooperate on the first move, then copy your partner’s last move. If the partner cooperates, cooperate; if it defects, defect. In a second tournament even strategies designed specifically to counter Tit for Tat’s success could not do so, although variations on this basic design (like Contrite Tit for Tat, Generous Tit for Tat, Suspicious Tit for Tat) have since been shown to fare even better under some conditions…”

It’s, again, an altered or informed “Do unto others” rule. Start with kindness, then reciprocate.

That reciprocation impulse can escalate to include what Boyd refers to as “self-destructive revenge.”

Boyd explains how it works using Capuchin monkeys:

“The same sort of ‘irrationality’ exists for the same reasons in creatures with much smaller brains than ours. Capuchin monkeys are known to be good cooperators. Experimenters gave each monkey a token, then, with hand outstretched, palm up, solicited the token in return for a slice of cucumber. The monkeys happily exchanged a token each time for cucumber, although it is not their favorite food. But then unfairness was introduced. In sight of one monkey, another was given for its token not a slice of cucumber but a much more appealing juicy big grape. When the other was then offered a slice of cucumber for its token, it reacted angrily in 40 percent of trials. When one monkey received a grape without even needing to pay a token, the other, four times out of five, refused to hand over its token or to take the proffered cucumber unless to toss it away in disgust.”

But this reciprocation impulse doesn’t just extend to situations where the outcome is an absence of new benefits. In outcomes too numerous and sad, too Hatfield-and-McCoy to enumerate here, plenty of humans choose devastation over inaction in the face of injustice.

(“Injustice” being hecka subjective, of course.)

Which brings us, round and roundabout, back to storytelling.

Laws, Boyd seems to be saying, are the way in which we enforce whatever community-wide statutes that we all value.

Storytelling, Boyd seems to be saying, is one way in which those community-wide values are established, maintained, reinforced, and challenged.

Boyd sort of queues it up at the end of the chapter, tossing the ball forward to the next section, which is about evolution and art. But Boyd sets it up without making quite clear what the connections are between the uniquely human prerequisites for storytelling—intelligence and cooperation—and storytelling itself.

Stay tuned, true believers!