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.