Love Thy Enemy: The Selfish Power of Cooperation

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of The Tower_, the official newspaper of The Bishop’s School._

It is a fact of life here in America that we are all intrinsically competitive. But we are also taught that helping others is morally right. How can we reconcile altruistic actions like community service with a society that professes individual advancement over all else?

Evolutionary game theorists have proposed a solution to this conundrum. If we accept that we are selfish people by nature, they claim, then we are morally — and instinctually — inclined to help others because we really want to help ourselves.

Imagine that you are traveling overseas and find yourself in a remote part of some foreign land. Few, if any, people are around, but you stumble across one native swimming — no, wait: drowning — in a freezing lake. The fated question: should you jump in and save him?

First, let’s think about this situation analytically. If you don’t jump in, nothing happens to you, and the swimmer probably dies. (For the sake of this example, let’s pretend that his death doesn’t affect you – later, we’ll see why it might.)

But if you do jump in, then you risk your life. After all, your chances of dying that day are much higher if you spend your time trying to swim in icy water. And it seems that you get no benefit from helping the drowning stranger. For one, you’re overseas, so your social reputation back home doesn’t improve. Next, the principles of evolution tell us that humans and animals aim to promote their own genes. Leaving the stranger to die gives your genes an advantage — albeit slight — towards proliferating through the human race! And finally, remember that morality doesn’t affect you, so you don’t feel any better for being a hero.

Jumping in is a bad move, analytically speaking. Nevertheless, instinct tells us to do so! Something’s wrong with this picture: if it truly were a bad decision, then humans with the instinctual response to jump in would die more often that those without it. This means that over time, the global population would have evolved to only have humans without this instinctual response. But that’s not what we see.

We forgot something crucial: reciprocity.

In the early 1970s, an evolutionary biologist by the name of Robert Trivers proposed a r-evolution-ary idea. He called it reciprocal altruism. According to this theory, it is advantageous for one animal to aid those who help them. If groups of animals begin reciprocating each other’s cooperation, whether that means working together to solve a problem or making small sacrifices to help each other, then over time, an altruistic society will evolve.

Direct reciprocity is the name of immediate mutual cooperation. For instance, cleaner fish and their hosts engage in direct reciprocity: in exchange for cleaning the host, the cleaner is protected from potential predators. Since this is beneficial for both parties involved, over time hosts become more generous — that’s why it’s rare to find a potential host fish nowadays that would eat a cleaner fish. In fact, host fish can be observed to protect their cleaners if a predator shows up!

But cooperation can also happen across long periods of time — or with completely different people! Indirect reciprocity explains the concept of “paying it forward”: if someone helps you out, and then you continue the trend and help someone else, this scenario is good for all parties involved. Evolutionarily speaking, this trend will then survive, so you can expect help when you need it.

That intuition powers the decision to risk your life to save a drowning swimmer. If you help the stranger out, you continue a societal trend that encourages people to take small personal risks in order to assist others. As a result, you know that when you are in a bad situation, someone will come to your aid. This is why it is smart to follow your instinct and choose to take that risk — if you don’t, the social trend of altruism becomes vulnerable to extinction.

When people in our culture attempt to do away with altruism in favor of a free for all, they fail to realize that every individual is better off if cooperation survives.

To see the power of this intuition, let’s consider another example: five different species of birds live on a single tree. Each species is better off when birds of other species die, because their genes are more populous and thus have higher access to the scarce resources necessary for survival.

Now, let’s imagine that one bird spots an incoming predator. Should the bird call out and warn the other birds to flee, in the process revealing its own position to the predator?

There is certainly less risk for the bird if it chooses the antagonistic behavior of not warning anyone else. But if the bird does call out, then it promotes a trend of taking a risk to help others. Indirect reciprocity tells us that it is better to continue this trend: by taking a risk now, the caller bird attempts to ensure that it will be warned of future incoming predators by other birds. Birds who follow this trend survive more often than those who do not, and thus the trait of paying back a debt of survival, or even paying it forward, is evolutionary selected for.

Now, both these examples concern situations where moral values are negligible. But in real life this is not the case — the decisions we make are shaped the culture nurtured into us.

Let’s examine the origins of morality. We will find that the surrounding culture rests upon instinctual tenets that follow the principles of indirect reciprocity. Our distant ancestors made decisions without consulting codes formed by society — simply because there was no society to speak of: civilization had not yet evolved. Back then, the only driving force behind actions was raw instinct.

Over time, the humans with a biological instinct to help others, in expectation of being helped in the future, fared better than uncooperative humans, so that genetic line dominated the population. By the time society popped up, cooperators were the main, if not the only, group in town. They were the ones who wrote the first moral codes — the harsh codes of corresponding conduct that punish — severely — those who do not follow the rules, and on a more fundamental level, who don’t cooperate, who steal from others. The punishments enforced by our own society stem back even to the reciprocal principles of Hammurabi’s Code — an eye for an eye.

It’s no surprise that the morality of today contains these same fundamental instinctual traits: care for others, altruism, cooperation, and risk-taking for the sake of other people. As these values permeate our culture and are taught to children, moral sustenance and clever selfishness work hand-in-hand to leave you and your allies better off.

But troves of laymen believe that helping others undermines our individual advancement. Isolationists, for example, argue that it is in the national interest to help America exclusively; assisting other nations instead would divert precious resources at a pressing time. We need to watch out for such greed in our society — it could very well wipe out indirect reciprocity altogether. And if this trend disappears, then humanity will be worse off as a whole, because cooperation will slowly fade from our behaviors, our morals, and eventually even from our instincts. This means that we must realize how intertwined altruism and individual advancement really are — or else we risk losing the foundation of what makes us human.