Co-operation & Community








Co-operation did not evolve, co-operation is


Kevin Loughran



Co-operation is a problem, when seen within a process of Darwinian evolution.  Robert Axelrod put the problem simply when he asked: under what conditions would co-operation emerge in a world of egoists?1  Surely those who co-operate would lose out in the individual struggle for existence.  Yet Robert Axelrod acknowledged that co-operation was common in nature, between members of the same species and between different species.


How can the reality of co-operation be reconciled with the individual struggle for existence?  The standard explanation is that co-operation has emerged over time: it has evolved, in nature and among human beings.  And co-operation has evolved (so the explanation goes) because various life forms from the most elementary to the most complex – to human beings – discover in time that helping others can be in their individual interests.


This explanation implies that co-operation has evolved where previously behaviour and forms of association were not co-operative.  It has evolved from a state of individual existence and the material of individual self-interest.  Matt Ridley recognised this implication when he declared that the first life on earth had been atomistic and individual, but that increasingly forms of life came together and life became “a team game.”2


The problem with the standard explanation is that it doesn’t work, when examined closely.  It is not justified by the evidence which is available, or at least the evidence which is presented.  Certainly evidence can be presented to demonstrate that particular modes of co-operation have evolved.  But evidence to support the belief that co-operation in general has evolved where previously behaviour and forms of association were not co-operative is much less certain.


Take for example co-operation among human beings.  Carel Van Schaik argued that the solitary life was the ‘ancestral state’ for all mammals.3  But when did human beings lead solitary lives?  John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmary observed that social intelligence is a common characteristic of primates.4  They concluded that the process of natural selection, working in favour of social intelligence, was a major cause of the increase in brain size of monkeys, apes and humans.  Perhaps the first human beings were distinguished from other primates by even greater social intelligence and an even greater capacity for co-operation.


And can we say with certainly who the first human beings were?  There is uncertainty over dates (when did human beings emerge?), but there is uncertainty also over definition (when can a species or group be considered to have become truly human?).  Various hominid species have been identified since the emergence of ‘Australopithecus’ over four million years ago.  They might be considered to be our ancestors – or simply as species of great ape with some human-like characteristics, from which in time human beings evolved.  Perhaps the emergence of ‘homo sapiens’ 200,000 years ago could be taken as the beginning of humanity as we know it.  Or perhaps the explosion of innovation in tool-making, in art, in trading, in culture in general that has been identified around 40,000 years ago should be considered as the true beginning.  Do we know enough to be able to say with any certainty?  Perhaps the ‘symbolic revolution’ – the use of symbols to share information and represent ideas – marks the emergence of modern humans.  Genevieve von Petzinger speculated that the symbolic revolution may have occurred before the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe.5  Kate Wong considered arguments and evidence that our Neanderthal cousins engaged in personal ornamentation and symbolic engravings.6  Neanderthals may have thought symbolically and may have had language.


But perhaps co-operation emerged at a much earlier stage of life and human beings – whenever recognisable human beings emerged – simply inherited a capacity for co-operation from earlier forms of life.  So what statements can be made about the beginnings of life?


One view is that all forms of life can be traced back to a single form – the last universal common ancestor or LUCA.  Another view has emerged that life began in a pool of genes shared among many primitive beings working through the process known as horizontal gene transfer.  Eventually cells became more complex and specialised and so less interchangeable.7


Carl Woese suggested that Darwinian evolution (the process of evolution as conceived and described by Charles Darwin) may not have been the original form of evolution.  There may have been an earlier phase of evolution dominated by horizontal gene transfer; and it would have been in this phase that the universal genetic code arose.8   Indeed, Carl Woese has proposed that the three fundamental types of cells – eubacteria, archaea and eukaryotes – evolved independently of each other and not in a line from a common ancestor.9


But Peter Antonelli and Solange Rutz (2004) used mathematical equations to describe the world which may have existed with a last universal community in which horizontal gene transfer was common or universal, and they concluded that it would have been mathematically unstable.  It would have fallen apart.  It was not, in their judgement, a realistic idea.10


In New Scientist (2012) Michael Le Page quoted the DNA sequence that is present in all the cells of our bodies: indeed, wherever life is found on Earth.  He wrote that this sequence is so widespread because it evolved "in the common ancestor of all life."11   Furthermore, Douglas L. Theobald has developed a formal test which, it is claimed, provides statistical evidence for the unity of all known life.  The claim is that all known life has at least one common ancestor (LUCA), although this may not have been the first organism on Earth.12   


So there is a wide range of opinion and argument as to when life emerged, in what form and by what process.  There is even speculation that life on this planet may have had origins beyond this planet.  So is it reasonable to maintain that the first life on earth was atomistic and individual, as Matt Ridley did, if there is no agreement as to how life began?


And is it reasonable to maintain, as Robert Axelrod did, that co-operation emerged in a world of egoists if it cannot be agreed when co-operation evolved?  Perhaps co-operation emerged first among our primitive ancestors.  Perhaps co-operation between human beings emerged first during the Pleistocene Period, as Robert Trivers suggested in Social Evolution.13  Perhaps co-operation evolved recurrently, as John Maynard Smith proposed.14.  And perhaps co-operation emerged first among primitive life forms.  Evidence has been found both for co-operative behaviour and competitive behaviour between bacteria.15, 16.  And communication and co-operation has been identified between viruses (phages) seeking to infect bacteria.17, 18


The closer we try to get to the origins of co-operation, the more we try to explore the problem of co-operation and the standard explanation for it, then the more problematic the standard explanation becomes.  Why then do we continue to assume that co-operation is the outcome of a process of evolution?


Seeing a world full of egoists, or deciding that the first life on earth was atomistic and individual, or that the solitary life was the ancestral state of all mammals – these are as much assertions of belief as conclusions drawn directly from systematic observations and analysis.  They represent a way of imagining the world.  It is a way which is shaped by and dependent on Charles Darwin’s idea of the individual struggle for existence.  Life evolves through the workings of natural selection and natural selection acts by competition between individual organisms.


The significance in this context of the individual struggle for existence is that it is not presented simply as a common or pervasive principle of life but as a universal principle.  It offers a complete explanation of the way things are.  If the individual struggle for existence is accepted as a universal principle in the development of life then of course co-operation – which is undoubtedly a reality – has evolved.


But to regard the individual struggle for existence as a universal principle means that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution ceases to be a powerful tool which explained much then and explains much now.  It becomes articles of faith.  In this sense it resembles Karl Marx’s assertion at the beginning of the Communist Manifesto that the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.  Both ideas – of the individual struggle for existence and of the history of class struggle – seem to reflect a belief that it is possible to have a complete explanation of the way things are.


The standard explanation, that co-operation is the outcome of a process of evolution, simply doesn’t work as a complete explanation of the way things are.  It doesn’t explain the reality of co-operation properly, although it can help to explain the emergence of particular modes of co-operation.


I would propose an alternative to the standard explanation.  Co-operation as a general or common state of existence did not evolve.  If from the beginning there were forms of life which were distinct from each other, which had some degree of existence apart from each other but could also interact with each other: then from the beginning there was a capacity for co-operation as well as a capacity for competition.  Co-operative behaviour and competitive behaviour are recurrent and parallel themes of existence from the earliest and most primitive life forms to human beings and human societies.  There is some evidence to support this argument.  Is there any evidence to contradict it?


Co-operation did not evolve.  Co-operation is.




Kevin Loughran


2011 (revised, 2015 & 2019)



1  The Evolution of Cooperation.  New York: Basic Books, 1984.  p. 3


2  The Origins of Virtue.  Penguin / Viking, 1996.  p.152.


3  Among Orangutans.  Harvard University Press, 2004.  p. 171


4  The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language.  Oxford: OUP, 1999.


5  See: Kate Ravillous.  ‘Messages from the Stone Age’.     New Scientist, No. 2748,  17 Feb. 2010.  pp. 30-34


6  'Neandertal minds', Scientific American, February 2015.  pp. 36-43


7  'Origins of life: born in a watery commune'.  Nature, Vol. 427, 19th February 2004.  pp. 674-676 


8  See: Mark Buchanan. ‘Horizontal and vertical: The evolution of evolution’.  New Scientist, No. 2744, 23 January 2010. pp. 34-37


9  See: ‘On the Evolution of Cells’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 99, No. 13, June 2002.  pp. 8742-8747


10  'Origins of life: born in a watery commune' (see above)


11  'A brief history of the human genome', New Scientist, No. 2882, 17th September 2012.  pp. 30-35


12  'A formal test of the theory of universal common ancestry'.  Nature, Vol. 465, May 2010.  pp. 219-222.


13   Social Evolution.  Benjamin-Cummings, 1985


14  Quoted in 'A tale of two selves'.  Science,  3rd November 2000.  pp. 949-950

    See: John Maynard Smith, with Eors Szathmary.  The Major Transitions in Evolution.  OUP, 1998.


15  Dale Kaiser and Richard Losick.  'How bacteria communicate'.  Scientific American, February 1997.  pp. 52-57


16  Lee Kroos, Richard Lenski, Gregory Velicer.  'Developmental cheating in the social bacteria MX'.  Nature, 6 April 2000.  pp. 598-600


17  Alan B. Davidson.  'Phages make a group decision'.  Nature, 26 January 2017.  pp. 466-67


18  Aud Bernheim, Rotem Sorek.  'Viruses cooperate to defeat bacteria'.  Nature, 26 July 2018.  482.84

















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