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Cooperation versus Competition

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Charles Darwin put forth a theory of evolution driven by competition and natural selection, where the individual best suited for the environment will succeed while those less suited for the environment will fail. Using empirical examples from the field of evolutionary biology, I will show that species who work in groups will suppress this competition in favor of cooperation. By utilizing cooperation, the individuals will be promoting the average success of each individual, and the overall success of the group. This view, while not fully going against Darwin’s beliefs, frames the relationships between individuals and groups in a way more closely related to the beliefs held by Native American individuals.

I have come to see two contrasting opinions on the relationships between individuals. One viewpoint put forth by Charles Darwin in his journal titled The Origin of Species, is that life is driven by competition. Darwin described his travels to the Galapagos Islands where he discovered a range of new species that exist nowhere else in the world. One of the examples which Darwin utilized was his observation that there were many different species of finches on the island. Each of these species of finches had adapted unique beaks depending on their food source. He believed the finches developed their unique beaks with small changes over thousands of years. This, Darwin believed, was fueled by the competition amongst the finches to get the most food and survive.

The contrasting viewpoint, a belief held by many Native Americans, is that life is cooperative. They believe that you must live with reciprocity. In other words, never take more than you need, and if you take always give back to ensure there remains a balance in nature. The reasoning behind this is that if all you do is take then at a certain point all of the resources you need for survival will run out. For example, when a fungus sweeps through a forest, sucking the life from and killing all the trees, not only will it eventually kill all the trees, but it will also die out because it will no longer have a host to live off of. Instead, if there is a give and take relationship where both parties are benefitting, it will ensure the survival of everyone/thing involved.

I believe that, in the right circumstances, competition may drive cooperation with certain species. This would occur if it is in the best interest of the individual to be associated with a larger group. This group can consist of individuals of the same species (wolves, lions), individuals of different species (badgers and coyotes), or even a couple species working together (dolphins and birds.) For the examples I gave above, it is more beneficial for the individuals to work in a group than by themselves. By reducing the internal competition in the group, they increase the efficiency of the group and the average success of the individuals in the group.

To show the benefit of cooperation over the competition we can examine the relationship between a badger and a coyote when they hunt ground squirrels. Each individual possesses a unique trait not held by the other. The coyote, who is adept at hunting on the surface, can efficiently pounce on any ground squirrels that pop their heads up. However, the ground squirrels just have to scurry into their underground tunnels to avoid this looming threat. On the other hand, the badger is a master at digging and navigating underground which allows him to push the ground squirrels up towards the surface. By working together and utilizing their respective talents they can get more ground squirrels then they would have by hunting alone.

However, this cooperation does not remove the competition from the equation. Even though the badger and coyote are working together they are still competing against the ground squirrels. So the competition is just changed from individual competition to a “team” competition. On top of the competition with the ground squirrels, there is also continued pressure for individuals to compete with one another in their group. This internal competition is especially true when there is a social hierarchy in the group and the presence of an “alpha”. In organized groups to prevent this competition from getting out of hand, the competitive individuals are often kept in check by “policing,” which is the suppression of competition by selected individuals in the group (Frank.)

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Steven Frank, who is a professor of biology at the University of California Irvine, put forth the mathematical model: r < 1 - c, where r is the relatedness of the competitive individual to the group and c is the cost to the individual who is policing. This model represents Steven Frank’s claims that “as relatedness declines, selfishness tends to increase, causing a drop in group efficiency and the average success of each group member.” (Frank.) As a result of this decline, policing is increased because it promotes the wellbeing of the group and the policing individual. While this model is a highly simplified version of the actual relation, it does show a good surface-level view of the amount of policing occurring in a group.

Even though this phenomenon of cooperation in and between different species is interesting, it is still imperative that we study whether or not it holds for humans? Determining intrinsic human nature has been a focal point for countless philosophers throughout history and, in recent times, even scientists. While there are many different complex aspects of human nature (thinking, feeling, acting, etc.), the topic becomes simpler when you only focus on one: in our case competitive versus cooperative nature. The overwhelming consensus is that humans are cooperative beings. However, according to Robert Boyd, an American anthropologist who has focused his research on evolutionary psychology, this was not always the case. Boyd believes that we started much like other social primates, but then over the last million years, we adapted to work together and to pass on information. This gradual change arose from natural selection in favor of more sociable and cooperative individuals.

Boyd’s beliefs can also be applied to different civilizations that have been built over the years. Due to the minimal interactions between these developing societies, they each developed differently with unique cultures and ethics. These cultural differences have been the center of countless wars throughout history, with each war resulting in the victor imposing their own cultures on the loser. We can easily see this today when we compare two different countries like the United States and Japan for example. In this situation, the technologically advanced United States forced open trade in Japan which allowed the American culture to quickly invade Japanese society. These conflicts perfectly illustrate the competitive versus cooperative battles occurring internally inside each of us and even reinforces Frank’s theory which I discussed earlier. These conflicts show that we are more inclined to cooperate with others if they share a culture/history or if they share a common goal. Alternatively, if we have little or nothing in common, we instead compete with each other for land, resources or power.

If we are naturally competitive, what is it that we have developed over the million years of natural selection? To examine this development we must take a closer look at the situations from which cooperation was initially formed. In the earliest stages of human development, we lived in small groups of between 50 or 150 people. (Loch) A side effect of these groups being so small is that if there was an uncooperative individual it would not only put the individual but the entire group at risk. However, this reasoning is not sufficient to justify all human behaviors. So, to supplement this reasoning, Loch asserts that the development of human emotion was critical in developing the complex social structures that we have today. This belief is backed by an abundance of empirical data derived from the odd psychopaths that pop up in society. These psychopaths lack the emotional feelings held by your typical person, and, in many cases, these psychopaths threaten our societal structures.

The development of emotions, like anger, disgust, fear, sadness, and happiness to name a few, not only allow us to develop more intimate relationships with our peers and loved ones, but they also guide our decisions when a new situation is encountered. These emotions also cause us to feel empathy for other individuals. They are the reason why bystanders oftentimes intervene if they see someone in need of help, even in possibly dangerous situations, and why society overwhelmingly rejects those who go against the status quo.

In conclusion, while competition drives the development of individuals who survive on their own, those individuals who instead live in groups suppress this competition in favor of cooperation. This cooperation allows not only for the betterment of the group but also allows for a higher level of average success for the individuals in the group. In humans, this cooperation was developed alongside the development of emotions to ensure cohesive societal relationships. It is through this cooperation, that humans were able to form larger and larger groups: first establishing tribes, then civilizations, then countries. Maybe one day we may even establish a unified planet, but, despite all of our developments, we still have a long way to go.

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Cooperation versus Competition. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from
“Cooperation versus Competition.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
Cooperation versus Competition. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Sept. 2023].
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