Selfishness vs. Co-operation: What drives evolution?


I will not get into a long debate over the merits of evolutionary theory - I simply don’t have the time, and besides, other contributors to Biologos have probably done a better job than I can. I do need to point out a couple of things, however: (1) as early as the 1970’s, Robert Trivers had pointed out that cooperative behavior can evolve by kin selection. Under some circumstances, an organism can maximize its inclusive fitness by enhancing the reproductive success of its close kin, who statistically will share a large portion of its genes; under different circumstances, “selfishness” pays off evolutionarily. If we broadly define “selfishness” as trying to survive and pass on one’s genes, however, life, including human life, could not have evolved without selfishness. When human beings achieved a certain level of self-awareness and moral development, they became aware that selfishness was wrong, at least some of the time, but they also realized that it could only be overcome sporadically and at the cost of great personal effort. That’s when human beings became aware, however dimly at first, that they needed God’s redemptive grace (2) In humans, females tend to be more monogamous than males (David Buss has documented this extensively); as far as primates go, the human species’ degree of sexual dimorphism is typical of moderately polygamous species, intermediate, that is, between bonobos (promiscuous) and gorillas (totally polygamous - only the dominant silverback male gets to mate). I would respectfully discourage you from “cherry-picking” quotes from scientific (or semi-scientific) articles in order to play “gotcha” with evolutionary theory. The theory is solid and has repeatedly demonstrated its explanatory power, even though the details are still being worked out. To finish on a theological note, let me just say that most of the time, God works through secondary (efficient) causes. He brings about the wonderful diversity of life by using an evolutionary process, just like he holds the planets in orbit by using the force of gravity. There is nothing here that represents a threat to our faith.


Thank you for your response. However I am not cherry picking. I am quoting the results of definitive scientific research found in an excellent scientific magazine. If you feel that I am misrepresenting what the articles say, then please show me where I am wrong.

You seem to think that the articles are wrong, but your statements are all based on speculation explaining how cooperation might emerge from competition, rather than how cooperation has given individuals and groups evolutionary advantages, not found in conflict. I prefer my science based on demonstrable facts, rather than speculative possibilities.

On the other hand I am not attacking science by criticizing evolutionary theory. What I am doing is showing that symbiosis which is the basis of science of ecology is much more likely to be also the basis of the science of evolution as well. Both of these sciences study how life on earth changes. It follows that their findings would be similar in nature, rather than in conflict. My view is that ecological symbiosis is more clearly correct than evolutionary conflict.

You are right about God, but evolutionary theory is not above scientific criticism.


I am not speculating that cooperation might arise from competition; I am merely saying that under certain circumstances cooperation may enhance an individual organism’s inclusive fitness. This has been documented in social animals like meerkats and certain species of squirrels, in which “sentinels” will let out alarm calls if a predator approaches while the other members of the group are foraging for food. The “sentinels” are more likely to let out calls (at some personal risk) if the other members of the group are close kin (and therefore share some of their genome). I agree that in the past evolutionary biologists have overstated the “Nature red in tooth and claw” aspect of the evolutionary process, and that the evolutionary importance of mutualistic interactions took longer to be fully appreciated. Having said that, I am not aware of any practicing biologist who would deny that evolutionary selfishness, in some form or other, is the principal engine of evolution.

I would also dispute your statement to the effect that “symbiosis is the basis of the science of ecology” - you can consult any ecology textbook and see for yourself that there are chapters on competition, predation, energy flow, nutrient cycles, etc., as well as chapters on mutualistic interactions (I prefer to say “mutualism” rather than “symbiosis” to describe cooperative interactions). I understand your desire, perhaps motivated by religious sentiment (but I have no way of knowing, of course) to believe that cooperative interactions are the foundation of the evolutionary process, but that is simply not the case. - they may be one of the foundations, but not the foundation. We don’t do our faith any favors by distorting facts to make the faith more superficially “palatable”.

This will be my last post on the subject - you are welcome to have the last word.

I’m just passing through–procrastinating my work because the topics in this forum are very interesting–but I just wondered why you wrote “evolutionary conflict” rather than “evolutionary symbiosis” or some other of the many ways that evolution operates. After all, symbiosis is just one of many types of “cooperative” scenarios evolution brings about.

I’m still publishing but nothing of a technical nature in this field so I must not let myself get too distracted…but a paleontologist friend at Brown (Professor of Vertebrate Anatomy) has addressed this topic a while back and so I’m just a little curious.



Thank you for your interest.

I disagree with your point of view. Darwin based his understanding of Natural Selection on the view that there is an unrelenting struggle for survival among living creatures. This unforgiving struggle for survival of the fittest has been modified by many today to say that living creatures have the choice of different scenarios of cooperation and conflict without thorough scientific investigation.

I do not see conflict or cooperation as scenarios of choice, any more than love and hatred are scenarios of choice. We build our lives around one or the other and this determines who we really are and where we are going. Unrelenting conflict has us going in the wrong direction. I basically agree with the eminent ecologist, Lynn Margulis, and her son, Dorian Sagan.

The biologist Lynn Margulis, famous for her work on endosymbiosis, contends that symbiosis is a major driving force behind evolution. She considers Darwin’s notion of evolution, driven by competition, to be incomplete and claims that evolution is strongly based on co-operation, interaction, and mutual dependence among organisms. According to Margulis and Dorion Sagan, “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.” From the Wikipedia article on Symbiosis. Quote is taken from the book, Our Symbiotic Planet, written by her and her son, Dorion Sagan, the product of her marriage to Carl Sagan.*

I would go farther than what is said here. Evolution does not determine ecology. If anything ecology determines evolution. If the environment of the earth did not change, there would be no evolution. If there were no constantly changing dry land, there would be no evolution.

Symbiosis is the basis of ecology and ecology or symbiosis is the basis of Natural Selection, rather than conflict. Conflict leads to chaos and the destruction of civilization and nature that we find in war, rampant greed, and the pollution of our planet.

We are brain washed into thinking that predation is based on conflict and predation is the basis for our thinking Natural Selection. If Natural Selection is based on competition for scarce resources, then predation is not a part of Natural Selection.

The lion and the zebra are not in completion for food and water. The lion cannot eat grass and the zebra cannot eat flesh. When the zebras flourish, the lions flourish, and when the zebras starve so do the lions. Zebras provide food for the lions, and the lions cull the herd to prevent over-grazing. Nature promotes symbiosis, not unrelenting struggle.

I am interested in other views so please let me know what your friend wrote. Ecology and symbiosis is our only way forward as I have said so we need to include it in all of our thinking.

@Relates, I’m somewhat baffled by your post because you begin by saying you disagree with me but then you went into detail about the importance of symbiosis.

As for Margulis, I’ve always been fascinated by her views…but I have friends within the academy who have explained why and how she failed to successfully support a lot of her ideas. In any case, I don’t have anything at stake with the issue and my academic career as a science professor was relatively short because I refocused my interests and became a Biblical studies professor. But my science background was not in biology and I don’t keep all that current on discoveries and trends in that field.

I find the question “What drives evolution?” almost anthropomorphic sounding. (I do realize that it isn’t really, it’s just the speaking of something “driving” evolution prompts me to think about human “drives” and intentions.)

So, what “drives” evolution? I guess I would say: chemistry and physics. That is, evolution is much like any other biological process: the physics of electron bonds is the ultimate driving mechanism which causes biology to happen. And evolution is just biology at work.

Mr. M.

As you can imagine, BioLogos writers also include God in that process. That’s
the mission of BioLogos.

Though I have no criticism to offer any Christian who thinks God programmed
ALL of evolution to happen purely through chemistry and physics. I think
it would make for an interesting debate . . . BETWEEN two factions that
support Evolutionary theories… and are both believers in God.

It would be a waste of BioLogos time/energy to engage in this debate between two
factions where one believed in God, and the other did not.


So do I.

In fact, I’m startled if someone thinks that explaining evolution in terms of physics and chemistry somehow “leaves out God”. Why would it? Of course, when people do get confused about that, they are failing to grasp *ultimate causation" and “proximate causation”. The former is the focus of theology and the latter is the focus of science. (Of course, when people expect to see God somehow included in scientific explanations, they fail to understand what science is! Many creationist ministries even blame “atheist scientists” for “leaving God out of Science” when it was actually Christian philosophers who helped to define modern science in terms of the scientific method and saw the advantages of not confusing science and theology.

One can explain evolutionary processes in terms of physics and one can also explain them in terms of biology and populations. The fact that we can analyze “systems” in terms of “levels of explanation” doesn’t at all set those various vantage points in opposition to one another. Indeed, that is one of the saddest aspects of the obfuscations one often hears in Christian circles today. Whenever someone says “Science is leaving out God”, I wish they would instead say “Some scientists pretend that good science denies the possibility of God’s involvement as creator.”

Science cannot make theological statements (i.e. statements about God and his ways) because science has no means to investigate anything other than the matter-energy universe. That is not a limitation per se other than the fact that it is a definition. Science is what it is. (Sorry! I’m amusing myself with that reference.)

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I am too. It makes zero sense in the context of an omnipotent, omnipresent God.

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[quote=“Relates, post:5, topic:437”]
Ecology and symbiosis is our only way forward as I have said so we need to include it in all of our thinking.
[/quote]@Professor_Tertius @Mr.Molinist
"And evolution is just biology at work."
The answer to the question: “What drives evolution?” becomes clearer to me if I remember the importance Teilhard de Chardin imputed to the Noosphere. Evolution occurs in both the Biosphere and the Noosphere (the sphere of ideas) with similar but not identical causes and results. In assigning causes for evolution in the biosphere, competition was assigned too much importance early on, and only later cooperation (e.g. symbiosis) was seen important. For evolution in the noosphere, national pride and loyalty was (and still is) a force moving humanity ‘forward’, with nation competing against nation. But cooperation is now seen as assuming crucial importance. Hopefully we will see this in the Paris conference on Climate Change. It is evolution in the Noosphere that gives this generation the hope that the world we leave to our offspring (and to theirs) is a world worth living in. Of course the social interactions on the internet (a product of the noosphere) can be used with evil intent as well as good–witness ISIS–and so it remains to be seen whether the final outcome will be positive or negative in the area of human progress
Al Leo

My difficulty with this thread is that its title does not reflect my understanding of how evolution operates. When I studied evolutionary theory (caveat: I’m academically trained as an immunogeneticist and so my focus was on molecular evolution not speciation), its driver was a species’s ability to adapt to changing enviromental factors. The ability to adapt is understood to be proportional to the genetic variability within the species. Just to make the point, if a species has no variability (i.e., all members contain exactly the same genes), the liklihood of its extinction is high.

My position on the post’s title, therefore, reflects this understanding. Any behavior (e.g., sexual selection, cooperation, self-interest) or event (e.g., a germ-line genetic mutation, recombination) that increases the overall genetic fitness of the individuals within a deme drives evolutionary change.

Put another way, behavior and events certainly move the process along. But, the actual driver is genetic variability giving rise to differential degrees of genetic fitness within a deme.

Blessings to you all,


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There’s no reason to think it is one or the other.

If there wasn’t an ocean … there would be no whales. If there was an ocean, with no genetic changes, then there would still be no whales.


Thank you for your comment.

Certainly I would agree that the ability to adapt to changing environmental factors. Thus it would be true that the broader the genetic heritage of a species, the better would be its chances of adaption to change. Certainly a species that is so well adapted to one set of environmental factors that all of its members had the same genes, would be very vulnerable to extinction if those factors changes.

However selfishness vs cooperation are orientations, not genes. Do species change because they word together like bees or ants to makes the needed changes, or do they try to keep adaptive changes to themselves or their kin, as Dawkins would have it. According to the evidence I have seen cooperation wins the day.

Evolution is an ongoing process it is hard to see how all the members of a species would have the same genes, but living in the same environment for a long period of time with little interaction with those outside that niche could do it.

How exactly do you envision a bee or an ant selfishly “keeping their adaptive changes to themselves”? That doesn’t make any sense. Are you saying species are consciously cooperating, specifically to pass on their beneficial adaptations? Do you really conceive of ants and bees as being consciously unselfish or as working together to change their gene pool? I’m pretty sure most animals are going to mate with whomever is willing, whether they have beneficial adaptations to pass on or not and whether it benefits the species as a whole or not.


It is not I that invented the concept of the selfish gene, but Richard Dawkins. It seems that you have not read his book by that name that made him the dominant spokesperson for neoDarwinism for our times.

Certainly there is sexual selection, but I do not think that he really explained how kinship selection works, if it does, except that it was a meme of some sort… Animals do not have minds that are conscious, but they are guided by instincts or if you follow Dawkins, memes, given to them by genes or God.

Darwin and Dawkins believe that animals are basically selfish. E. O. Wilson has come out with the theory that successful species are primarily social or not selfish. I would agree with Wilson, which makes a big hole in the way Natural Selection and evolution are understood…


Man is this ever fun. I would not have guessed that I would have had so many occasions to revisit genetics from my halcyon days of grad school (during the stone age, I might add). But, now for your comment:

But I do not think that he really explained how kinship selection works

Irrespective of who explained what, my personal view is that kinship selection is reasonably well understood (but perhaps not as widely accepted as its proponents might want us to believe).

Just as an aside and at the risk of derailing this fascinating thread, I suspect a very interesting intersection between sociobiology and moral theology can be found in the study of the evolution of altruistic behavior, a behavior once thought to be an example of kin selection but that has been since been renounced by its principle proponent, E. O. Wilson himself.

So here’s a question for the Evolutionists among us (me being one of them): How does self-sacrificial behavior among unrelated, genetically disparate individuals evolve? Put another way, how is the reproductive fitness of my offspring enhanced by my sacrifice?

Now that’s a question for the great minds.



Don’t we greatly admire people who selflessly and courageously sacrifice themselves for others? In our admiration, we even raise funds for the relatives (e.g. children and widows) of our dead heroes.

Don’t we greatly admire people who selflessly and courageously sacrifice themselves for others? In our admiration, we even raise funds for the relatives (e.g. children and widows) of our dead heroes.

Indeed we do, and rightly so. After all, God, in the person of Jesus, established self-sacrifice as one the greatest virtues.



I agree, but I was attempting an answer to your questions: " How does self-sacrificial behavior among unrelated, genetically disparate individuals evolve? Put another way, how is the reproductive fitness of my offspring enhanced by my sacrifice?"