Thursday, December 27, 2012

Competition and Cooperation pt. 1

It seems to me that one of the most fundamental driving concepts driving the world today is competition. Economic theory is based on it. Our personal lives are shaped by it. The most predominant view of nature is colored by it. We are drawn to sports that feature competition and rarely cooperation. We idolize individuals not for their ideas and generosity but for their mastery and strength. I believe this is the result of genetic predisposition and not an actual reflection of the world around us.

It is easy to imagine the natural world in the "red in tooth and claw" variety, because that is as close to our own evolutionary track as it gets. Life for higher mammals, including our ancestors, is very competitive. We competed for: food, mates, social status and sometimes even for our very lives. The current model of economics is very much in this same vein. Individuals compete for jobs, businesses compete for markets, countries compete for resources. 

But this is not the end of the story. Lost in all of this competition is cooperation. We forget that we are as much apart of the world, if not more, then we are in competition with factions of it. Now before you start in thinking I have been spending too much time around hippies, let me explain. I have written about the ecosystem services in the past. I have already made the point that it takes countless interactions between several dozens (if not hundreds) of species just to serve one meal. Some of those interactions are mutually beneficial, some are deleterious, some are a push. 

The bigger point is, we are completely wrapped up in the caveman competition model of the world, and will expend great amounts of energy just to eek slightly ahead of some competitor. Some of these battles we have won handedly, for instance when was the last time you had to fight off a cougar while picking up a steak at the grocery. Some we have only gained a slight and fleeting advantage over, mosquitoes and biting flies for instance. Some of these we will never stand a real chance at, like multiple antibiotic resistance staff infections. 

True, human nature is competitive, but when we really started to take off was after we evolved cooperation. Less innately intelligent animals are adept at "red claw" type competition, most snakes and birds for example. But very few animals have adapted true cooperation, wolves who hunt in packs, or whales who trap fish. Humanity truly surpasses them all. It is our ability to coordinate, communicate, and ultimately cooperate that has lead us to the technology and comfort we enjoy today. If we were still constantly mired in competition, selfishness and avarice would have stifled scientific progress more than it has.

We even have the rarer ability to cooperate in between species. We have domesticated plants and trees that provide us with staggering varieties of foods. There are other animals that we can ride or herd live stock with, some even started out by keeping vermin from our grain stores with-out consuming our grain. It is time to take this time honored and successful methodology and apply it to more and more systems. 

Competition while sometimes healthy between two competitors on a level playing field, quickly becomes pointless when one competitor irresistibly takes advantage of some power unavailable to the other. Further more, competition leads to waste as two complete and competent, yet mutually exclusive systems must be generated. Uneven power distribution and wasteful redundancy, are the result of unchecked competition.  

Over the next few posts leading into the new year, I will take a closer look at the nature of systems like economics and politics through the lens of cooperative vs. competitive systems. Please feel free to comment and critique, I will not edit or omit anything.  

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