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b. Competition and Co-operation

Competition & Co-operation

According to ecological theory, the population of a species will grow until it becomes constrained by the available resources. These resources then become insufficient to satisfy the needs of all members of the species, and they will compete for them. This is a natural evolutionary process and applies as much to humanity as it does to any other species.

However, competition is of two types: negative and positive. Negative competition involves preventing a competitor from achieving their aims. In a running race, for example, competitors who engage in negative competition will attempt to trip one another up. Clearly, when taken to extreme, this can lead to conflict. Positive competition, on the other hand, involves each competitor striving to be superior to the other. In the example of a running race, each strives to be first to reach the finish line.

Counter-intuitively, positive competition can lead to co-operation, and thus, to human organisation. This form of competition reveals the most competent individual for a particular task. Other competitors, providing they are not engaging in negative competition, recognise that the task is best carried out by that person. They also recognise that there is benefit in excelling in their own niche and trading its outputs with those who most efficiently occupy others.  For example, whoever is best at hunting will be recognised as the hunter, whoever best at fishing recognised as the fisherman, and the two will trade fish for meat to the advantage of both. Thus, an efficient “division of labour” emerges, with everyone doing what they do best, and each task being done by whoever is most competent to do it. In the absence of negative competition, trust also emerges, and everyone benefits through a process of trade.

Leadership is just one necessary task in human organisation. In general systems theory it is referred to as requisite hierarchy. It involves organizing the tasks carried out by a group of people to achieve a common goal, identifying who is most suited to each task, amicably resolving any disagreements, and discouraging any negative competition. The most competent leader is also revealed by positive competition. Through a process of trust and trade, e.g., fish and meat for leadership effort, the others come to accept him or her. With a leader and a division of labour in place, an organisation can be said to have formed.

Clearly, positive competition is socially beneficial, and negative competition socially harmful. In the running race, positive competition results in it being won in the shortest possible time, i.e., most efficiently. Negative competition, on the other hand, can lead to it never being won at all, if the participants descend to trading blows at the halfway point. Obviously, the benefits of positive competition described above seem rather idealistic. In practice, all human beings continuously balance their immediate interests with their longer-term interests gained from the support of a co-operative group. We all engage in both positive and negative competition to varying degrees. So, there are many ways in which human organisation can fail and I will discuss some of them in future articles.

Historically, humanity has extensively engaged in negative competition. Like many animals, early man competed aggressively for territory and the resources it contained. However, again like many animals, co-operation probably originated in small family groups. Unlike other animals, however, a virtuous circle, or positive feedback loop, developed.  When two organized groups engage in positive competition, they begin to co-operate, and form a yet larger organized group. This, in turn, leads to ever greater skill and efficiency in acquiring resources and, thus, ever greater population. The process scales up. Thus, tribes formed kingdoms, kingdoms formed  nations, and nations formed cultural groups, until we arrived at the world we see today.

Some, who feel that they cannot succeed in positive competition, will resort to negative competition. So, to reduce this within organized groups, norms, i.e., codes of acceptable behaviour, and methods of enforcement were established. In smaller groups, such as tribes, this would have been the word of the leader. However, as the membership of organized groups became ever larger, it became necessary to generalize and formalise these norms as laws, and to delegate their enforcement. In the world today, laws exist in all nations. Enforcement also exists, to a greater or lesser extent, and this has a strong bearing on a nation’s success or failure.

Negative competition has always existed between organized groups, from the tribal to the national scale. Hence the wars that we have seen in the past. It could even be argued that the two go hand in hand, because positive competition would result in tribes and nations merging to form larger organized groups. To a large extent this negative competition still exists today and, although they are becoming rarer, wars continue to take place. Unfortunately, control over negative competition between nations is still in its infancy, and many of the existential threats that humanity faces are global in nature. Suggestions as to how to take this forward are, therefore, given in a future article.

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f. The Influence of Group Level Natural Selection on Humanity Uncategorized

The Influence of Group Level Natural Selection on Humanity

One of the main criticisms of group level natural selection has been that we know relatively few examples in which group behaviour has led to biological evolution. However, among them is one now regarded as being a rare and significant evolutionary transition: the evolution of the human brain. Another objection has been that groups reproduce and die off at a far slower rate than individuals and, thus, biological evolution driven by group behaviour will take place at a similarly slow rate. However, this is contradicted by the relatively rapid evolution of our brain.

The human brain differs from that of our ancestors not only in size but also in attitudes and skills. Examples of the latter include our relative Finally, Wilson, Timmel and Miller, in their study of cognitive co-operation found that groups perform better at problem solving tasks than individuals, and that the gap increases with the difficulty of the task. In other words, groups perform better than individuals when solving complex problems.

Large brains consume a great deal of energy, approximately 20% in humans. Their growth probably began approximately 2.6 million years ago, when our previously vegetarian ancestors shifted to a higher reliance on meat. At the same time, it became more efficient to occupy a campsite and send out hunters than for the entire tribe to hunt. In return, the hunters benefitted from the protection of the campsite in which their young were raised. Family based social groups did exist prior to the shift to meat eating but the changes brought about by meat consumption began a process of increasing co-operation between families, initiating a shift to less kin-reliant groups.

An important factor in whether a group forms is its ability to benefit its members. Unlike kin selection, each member requires reassurance that the others have a similar outlook and takes their reciprocal support as evidence. Co-operation requires the individual to have an understanding of other group members and their motives together with considerable negotiating skills. It also requires an ability to recognise exploitation of the group by individual members; this necessitates moral systems, and processes for dealing with intransigence. It is important to mention that competition between individual group members and families is not extinguished but merely suppressed.

Within groups a culture develops comprising several memes, i.e., agreed values, norms, beliefs, and symbols. Values are those things that we hold “good”, norms are forms of behaviour expected from group members, beliefs those things that we hold true, and symbols are ceremonies, ornamentation, etc., which identify us as being members of the group. Memes are subject to a process like that of gene selection. They will survive and propagate if they are fit for their environment or fall into disuse if they are not. It is not necessary, however, for a group to become extinct for a culture to expire. Nor is a culture necessarily linked to an ethnic group as multi-ethnic cultures are also possible.

Culture propagates from generation to generation but, unlike biological inheritance, it can also propagate from group to group through social learning. If a culture is successful, it can be transferred by imitataion or by coercion. Thus, cultural evolution takes place through the exchange of ideas and practices, with the most successful cultures surviving and propagating whilst the less successful ones expire. This process is far more rapid and adaptive to changing circumstances than biological evolution. Significant changes can occur within a few generations or less. This has, for example, allowed us to populate different environmental niches, from the arctic to the desert.

The evolution of our large brains has been very rapid and is thought to have been brought about by a process of positive feedback between cultural evolution and biological evolution with the former taking the lead. As groups became more complex and effective, they needed the greater skills and pro-social tendencies provided by larger brains. These, in turn, enabled groups to become yet more complex and effective. Because groups that co-operated well were more successful than those that did not, the individuals with the brains, skills, and attitudes needed to facilitate this were subject to natural selection and, thus, came to predominate. Although this process is speculative, mathematical modelling by Luke Rendell et al., of the University of St. Andrews, has shown it to be capable of producing strong selection pressures and the rapid evolution of biological traits.

Successful group co-operation relies on individuals knowing one another and limits on an organism’s ability to do so mean that there is a maximum group size which varies from species to species. In the 1990s, the anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar, found a correlation, in primates, between brain size and social group size. From this he proposed a maximum social group size for humans of about 150.

In the last 5000 years, human society has become more complex. It now comprises numerous inter-dependent groups, each with its own specific purpose. They are not necessarily kin groups and are often based entirely on mutual co-operation. Some even prohibit nepotism. Most of us now occupy cities whose populations can be in the tens of millions. Cities are co-operative groups on a very large scale. We even describe them as organisms, using phrases such as “the beating heart” or “the veins and arteries”. There is no doubt that urbanisation, and the greater specialisation and co-operation that it brings, have resulted in an explosion in our population. Although this is probably a result of cultural evolution, in time, biological adaptations may follow.

Most of the changes arising from group behaviour that we can observe This raises many questions about our future, of course, such as “Is the process accelerating?” and “Where will it ultimately lead?”.

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b. Basic Theory of Evolution

The Basic Theory of Evolution

Mankind is a consequence of evolution through a combination of random mutation and natural selection. Charles Darwin first postulated this process in 1858 and published it in his 1859 book “On the Origin of Species”. At the time, DNA and its role had not been discovered and Darwin referred to a more general principle of inheritance. DNA was first discovered in the 1860s by the Swiss chemist Johann Friedrich Miescher but its central role in the evolutionary process was not understood for almost a century thereafter. In the early 1950s Rosalind Franklin produced an Xray photograph of DNA which, in 1953, enabled James Watson and Francis Crick to discover its double helix structure. This in turn enabled them to explain how it carries and replicates genetic information. Since that time, a substantial amount of scientific evidence has accumulated in support of Darwin’s theory.

An organism’s genes are sequences in its DNA which either directly or indirectly enable the manufacture of molecules whose function determines the organism’s characteristics. These characteristics, in turn, determine the organism’s ability to survive and reproduce within its environment.

Random mutations are changes in the DNA sequence and, thus, in the organism’s genes.  They are an example of the impact of entropy on life. They can be caused by errors in DNA replication, by exposure to damaging chemicals, by exposure to radiation or by the insertion or deletion of segments by mobile genetic elements such as viruses. Mutations are entirely random and are not in any way pre-determined to benefit the organism. Most mutations (about 70%) are, in fact, harmful and the remainder either neutral or weakly beneficial.

Natural selection means that organisms with hereditary characteristics most suited to their environment, i.e., the fittest, are most likely to survive and reproduce. Organisms which are poorly adapted to their environment are less likely to do so. Thus, the genes of the fittest organisms are those most likely to be passed on to offspring, to propagate through the population and, thus, predominate. It is through this selection process that life resists entropy.

It is important to note that mutations are not a consequence of changes in the environment. Rather, they pre-exist within a species’ variable genome and cause diversity in its population. When, the environment changes, most of a population may find itself unfit and die off. However, a small proportion carrying certain mutations may find itself to be fitter in the new circumstances and may, therefore, survive and propagate more successfully than it had in the past.

Most evolutionary biologists agree that, for the majority of species, natural selection operates at the level of the individual organism, i.e., inherited characteristics will cause the organism to behave in a way which maximises its own, and only its own, chances of survival and reproduction. However, there are a small number of species in which individuals display what has been referred to as “altruism”. That is, they will suffer a degree of disadvantage to their own survival and ability to reproduce to improve that of other members of their species. This has given rise to a number of competing theories of natural selection that I will discuss in my next post. However, before moving on to that topic, I would like to mention three important points.

Firstly, there is a difference between the meanings of “altruism” and “co-operation”. When an individual behaves altruistically, it acts in a manner which benefits the survival and reproductive chances of some other individual or individuals. This may disadvantage the former and there is not necessarily a payback. However, when an individual behaves co-operatively there is a payback. This is a subtle difference but of great significance in evolutionary theory. Do the small number of species referred to above behave altruistically or do they behave co-operatively? If the latter, then what is the payback?

Secondly, human beings differ from other species in several important ways. We have large brains with highly advanced cognitive skills which, among other benefits, enable us to identify opportunities and risks and to predict outcomes. We are also social animals and form groups. These groups have diverse cultures, i.e., ways of organising themselves, and we pass aspects of our cultures from one generation to another and from one group to another through social learning.

Finally, as systems grow ever more complex, they display emergent properties, i.e., properties of the system which are not held by its individual parts. Life is a collection of systems of increasing complexity, e.g., cells, multi-cellular organisms, groups of organisms, species, and eco-systems. As the level of complexity increases it can be expected that system properties will emerge. Thus, it is not necessarily the case that a property governing natural election at the cellular level will be the only property governing it at more complex levels. Other, emergent properties may come into play.

Natural selection, particularly in the case of human beings, is not a straightforward process therefore as will be discussed in my next post.