Cooperation as a cornerstone of evolution

By Vic Arcus 16/10/2009 3


In their book, The Major Transitions in Evolution, John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary describe 8 great evolutionary leaps which take us from individual molecules in a primordial soup, to human societies. John Maynard Smith gave an inspirational lecture at The Royal Institute on the Origins of Life shortly before his death, which you can see here. The 8 evolutionary transitions each involve “things” coming together in a cooperative way. This is not cooperation as we would intuitively think about it – groups of people getting together to achieve a certain goals (modern government is a good example in this case). The nature of the cooperation in evolution is more fundamental. As an example, the evolutionary leap to get from genes to chromosomes involves genes becoming spliced together so that groups of genes behave as a unit with coordinated expression. A second example is the evolution of eukaryotes (we humans are made of eukaryotic cells) where, it is thought, two bacteria became fused and started acting symbiotically.

So the 8 great evolutionary transitions each represent a coming together of individual “things” which then behave cooperatively: From individual genes to coordinated collections of genes (chromosomes); From DNA chromosomes coordinating with ribosomal machinery to produce proteins and enzymes; Prokaryotes fusing to become eukaryotes; From asexual reproduction to sexual reproduction (first invented by single celled organisms); Single celled organisms cooperating giving rise to multicellular organisms; Individual multicellular organisms working together to behave as colonies (ants are a good example of this); And finally, the rise of societies where groups act together for the common good. Now, where-ever you look in nature, you will find cooperation – a biofilm of different species of bacteria, a colony of ants, a hive of bees, schools of fish, a pride of lions, a small village, a large city.

This is perhaps contradictory to our conception of evolution as survival of the fittest where we might assume that each individual organism behaves in a selfish way to maximise the transmission of their genes to the next generation. An excellent essay by Elizabeth Pennisi, appeared in a recent issue of the magazine Science (with a group of ants on the cover), where she puts the vexing question of evolution and cooperation thus… “If natural selection among individuals favors the survival of the fittest, why would one individual help another at a cost to itself?… So pervasive is cooperation that Martin Nowak of Harvard University ranks it as the third pillar of evolution, alongside of mutation and natural selection”.

One could argue that cooperation is implicit in any evolutionary step which involves a more complex organism arising from simpler ancestors. Cooperation and complexity go hand in hand. Maynard Smith, Robert Alexrod and William Hamilton (amongst many others) developed “game theory” to try to explain the connections between evolution and cooperation. They asked the question… Given a collection of individuals, be they bacteria or people, will those that cooperate, out-compete those that behave purely selfishly? And they discovered that under many circumstances cooperation wins out over purely self-serving behaviour. This is certainly evident in the natural world where cooperation abounds.

Thus, evolution and cooperation are inextricably linked and cooperation amongst individuals, be they genes, bacteria, ants or people, is a cornerstone of evolutionary processes.


3 Responses to “Cooperation as a cornerstone of evolution”

  • Those of you who would like a lighter—and cheaper!—presentation of the same ground as The Major Transitions in Evolution covers might like to look at The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language by the same authors.

    I haven’t read either book, but I wonder how many of things could equally well be viewed as regulation as opposed to co-operation? Perhaps more accurately co-regulation, rather than regulation. Essentially are co-regulation and co-operation two sides of the same coin…? The reason I bring this up is that a view I like is that opportunities for regulation, or modification of existing regulation, are (the) variables that evolution exploits. If co-regulation is simply the other side of the coin of co-operation, as it were, perhaps this is a more natural way of looking at “co-operation”—?

    • I agree with you, that changes in regulation are an important part of the evolutionary process and that small changes to biological regulation can have large implications for phenotype (I’m thinking of red leaves on a tree, which can result from simple upregulation of one transcription factor). However, I’m not sure that I agree with you about cooperation and co-regulation being synonyms (in the evolutionary context). I can think of cases where things are co-regulated that are not cooperating – for example, microbes which compete for the same nutrient source are co-regulated by nutrient levels, but are not interacting. Whereas, organisms which are cooperating are certainly co-regulated. Perhaps this implies some hierarchy in the terms? Cooperation implies co-regulation but not visa versa.

  • Your description of the book (I haven’t read it, blush) reminds me of another on the same theme: Nick Lane’s Life ascending, Except that he has 10 key events rather than 8. Lovely writing that pulls ideas from all over into a coherent whole. Nick also wrote Power, sex & suicide, about mitochondria, which was absolutely fascinating & also a very accessible account of how aerobic respiration operates (as a small-ish section of the book).