Exploring the biology of cooperation

Is there something like a biological underpinning of cooperation? We’re used to the idea that there is competition for scarce resources, but what about cooperation? Biology was very much the topic of the first session of our course Toward a Literacy of Cooperation: Introduction to Cooperation Theory, facilitated by Howard Rheingold.

The interesting fact about the course is that while the subject is cooperation, the meta-experience here is about co-learning. How do we cooperate as a community of learners? The process of learning to inquire together, so Howard explained, is more important than the product.

We started out with Lynn Margulis and endosymbiosis. Allow me to quote Wikipedia:

The underlying theme of endosymbiotic theory, as formulated in 1966, was interdependence and cooperative existence of multiple prokaryotic organisms; one organism engulfed another, yet both survived and eventually evolved over millions of years into eukaryotic cells. Her 1970 book, Origin of Eukaryotic Cells, discusses her early work pertaining to this organelle genesis theory in detail. Currently, her endosymbiotic theory is recognized as the key method by which some organelles have arisen (see endosymbiotic theory for a discussion) and is widely accepted by mainstream scientists. The endosymbiotic theory of organogenesis gained strong support in the 1980s, when the genetic material of mitochondria and chloroplasts was found to be different from that of the symbiont’s nuclear DNA.

Margulis had to struggle to challenge the very strong emphasis on competition in biology. Cooperative arrangements are as important and maybe even precede competitive arrangements, so she maintained.
Stuart Kauffman even says that molecules can co-evolve cooperatively, becoming self-sustaining chemical factories of higher levels of complexity in which the product of one reaction is the feedstock or catalyst for another (read also this article at technologyreview).

But then again, as Howard said, we have to be careful about how far we want to extend any metaphor. These studies are providing frameworks and lenses we can use to look at our societies, but I guess this is just the start of an inquiry about human cooperation. Anyway, we discussed plants (mustard seedlings) knowing, and liking, their relatives. In this study, it seemed that siblings did not compete among each other but shared resources.

Or what to think about a symbiotic relationship in which each organism derives a benefit such as the red-billed Oxpecker eating ticks on the impala’s coat. There even is speculation that the mechanism of sexual reproduction may have started as a defense against parasites… The Red Queen’s Hypothesis suggests that co-evolutionary interactions, between host and parasite for example, may select for a sexual reproduction in hosts in order to reduce the risk of infection. Of course, of you look for it, there is mutualism everywhere: not only the birds and the bees but also domestication is an important kind of mutualism.

Leafcutter ants don’t actually eat leaves, they cut up the leaves, bring them to their nests and use them to grow a fungus, like farmers – or one could think they use the fungus as an external gut. In this arrangement bacteria are a third partner.

((While Howard was presenting some of the course materials, we had a text chat running in which participants shared interesting links such as this one about the book When Species Meet by Donna Jeanne Haraway. Yet another one: “Dogs Decoded” reveals the science behind the remarkable bond between humans and their dogs and investigates new discoveries in genetics that are illuminating the origin of dogs—with surprising implications for the evolution of human culture.)).

In Commensalism one organism benefits without affecting the other (fish-eating particles falling out of the mouth of larger fish, organisms that grow from the excretions of other organisms).

Yet another example are superorganisms such as we, humans: we carry twenty times as many living bacteria as human cells. We have 40,000 species of bacteria in the human gut and probably a hundred trillion bacteria in a human – we would not be able to digest without them.

The examples in biology we discussed tended to illustrate the notion that instead of competing for a resource, there is a lot of cooperation going on to multiply the resource. Not only a Californian expert in virtual communities and cooperation such as Howard is using this lens to look at nature, the very business-like The Economist recently ran a story about Me, Myself, Us, “Looking at human beings as ecosystems that contain many collaborating and competing species could change the practice of medicine.”

Rhizobia are yet another classical example of mutualism and show how complex the relationships can become:

The legume–rhizobium symbiosis is a classic example of mutualism—rhizobia supply ammonia or amino acids to the plant and in return receive organic acids (principally as the dicarboxylic acids malate and succinate) as a carbon and energy source—but its evolutionary persistence is actually somewhat surprising. Because several unrelated strains infect each individual plant, any one strain could redirect resources from nitrogen fixation to its own reproduction without killing the host plant upon which they all depend. But this form of cheating should be equally tempting for all strains, a classic tragedy of the commons. There are two competing hypotheses for the mechanism that maintains legume-rhizobium symbiosis (though both may occur in nature). The sanctions hypothesis suggests the plants police cheating rhizobia. Sanctions could take the form of reduced nodule growth, early nodule death, decreased carbon supply to nodules, or reduced oxygen supply to nodules that fix less nitrogen. The partner choice hypothesis proposes that the plant uses prenodulation signals from the rhizobia to decide whether to allow nodulation, and chooses only noncheating rhizobia. There is evidence for sanctions in soybean plants, which reduce rhizobium reproduction (perhaps by limiting oxygen supply) in nodules that fix less nitrogen. Likewise, wild lupine plants allocate fewer resources to nodules containing less-beneficial rhizobia, limiting rhizobial reproduction inside. This is consistent with the definition of sanctions just given, although called “partner choice” by the authors. However, other studies have found no evidence of plant sanctions, and instead support the partner choice hypothesis.

Of course, further on in the course we’ll discuss the commons and the tragedy of the commons (and how societies deal with that) in a human context.

Trees and roots are other important examples/metaphors such as mycorrhizal networks connecting trees.

So ecosystems are complex cooperative arrangements demonstrating mutualism and commensalism at work – typically, if key species are removed, the whole structure collapses – once again, this can be used as a lens for looking at human societies.

This session with Howard and hyper-active co-learners was done in Blackboard Collaborate, using shared screens, text chats, audio and video. This week the discussion continues on the course forums and blogs.

Also have a look at the resources at cooperationcommons.com.

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About rolandlegrand

I'm a digital newsroom manager at Mediafin, the publisher of Belgium's leading business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. I have a special interest in the intersection of immersive media, business and philosophy.
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