The emergence of Cooperation

Fascinating article here on solving the evolutionary emergence of cooperation through the application of thermodynamics, particle physics, and game theory:

Also, another cautionary tale regarding the dangers of God-of-the-gapsism.


You have got to be kidding. There are so many things wrong about this articles that I do not know where to start.

First of all, emergence theory seems to be to unbelievers what conspiracy theory is to Trump. You want to prove something so you put together a serie4s of facts that seem like they could be true, then proclaim that they are true. There is no proof that they are true, but if something you want to be true, seems like it might be true, that is evidence enough.

Evolution is not a thermodynamic process, nor is it like a thermodynamic The only process this seems to resemble is the creation of entropy, or heat death where there is no work performed because the temperature is uniform .

Cooperation is not uniformity. It unity in diversity.

God has created a program which can and has created unity in diversity, and it is called ecology. It does require any silly game theory and wild speculation. It is based strictly on observation and study of how a big hot rock became a wonderful planed and world. .

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Thanks for your thoughts, Roger. Not really sure i follow you to be honest. Especially your bit about ecology.

I don’t think the modelling in anyway disproves the role of ecology in evolution. Could you give an example of how it would?

I also don’t follow how ecology (the relationships between organisms) can bring about the relationships between organisms (eg. cooperation in hymenoptera). That sounds a bit circular to me. I would have thought that a particular mechanism would need to be deployed within a set of ecological relationships to bring about the change from organisms acting individually to cooperatively? (Eg. Solitary wasps to eusocial wasps). Seems to me it is the mechanism that the study was trying to work out through its modelling.

But hey, this is out of my wheel house as they say so I’m happy to learn and be corrected.

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I think these are fascinating and insightful concepts, Liam - thanks for sharing that.

The concept of punishment is so deeply ingrained into our psyche that we will literally make substantial sacrifice to our own well being rather than see a cheater go unpunished. I think it helps explain a lot of conservative reaction against things like any government programs - which some will inevitably take advantage of. Or the fear of voter fraud which drives our society to put measures in place that severely punish all of us in order to eliminate the possibility that somebody somewhere is gaming the system. And it isn’t just conservatives - liberals too can’t stand the thought of a system being “gamed” either; it’s just different sets of cheaters that get our respective ires up. I see a lot of echoes of Haidt’s research in your article too. It makes good evolutionary sense, and (as Haidt points out) cannot be validly taken as a universal knock against religion, though there are some recent forms of religious understanding that are threatened by such explorations.


Thanks for sharing the article. The model seems to be very simplified, treating individuals as identical particles (atoms) with only one or two differing features, within a homogenous world. Does not capture the diversity of the real life - devil is often in the details - but may anyhow end up pointing to the correct direction.

As far as I know, cooperation is assumed to be the basic strategy when meeting an unknown individual for the first time, followed by a switch to a negative reaction (willingness to punish) if the other individual cheats in the expected tit-for-tat game.


Hello Liam,

Thanks for sending this. You wrote:

It sounds agreeable that cooperation arises & emerges, meaning at some point in history there wasn’t any (between certain actors/actants), then later there was. Maybe the meaning of “evolution” involving cooperation some people wish to keep as only a “biological” topic, but not other levels, e.g. education, politics, religion. Is that your position? The author of the linked article brings in people, not just biology.

Recommend you take care to distinguish human cooperation (moral dimension) from non-human “cooperation” that is not willful. Lack of cooperation by people does not require defection as an either/or, though that be named a convenient opposite. It also raises a cautionary tale regarding agent-of-the-gapsism, which shows natural science’s limitations. Without an agent in the model, the humanity can get easily pushed out or marginalized & the speaker starts sounding like an objectivist.

Mutual aid: a factor of evolution published 1903 focused on the cooperation that Darwin, Wallace & Malthus largely left out. Their Victorian version of natural history was of a struggle for life or survival of the fittest, using analogies with human breeding & highly individualistic political philosophy. Much of this, though not all of it, seems outdated now.

Robert Axelrod (mathematics, political studies) wrote “The Evolution of Cooperation” in 1984 (revised ed. 2006). Novak & Coakley (eds.) published “Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation” in 2013. The article linked above speaks of “enormous implications”, but has the philosophical coherence of the proposal suggesting cooperation “evolves”, rather than accepting other possible explanations for its historical existence, improved since then? At least to me, saying “cooperation evolves” sounds too loose, unintentional and without goal or aim, at least compared with what we mean when speaking about human cooperation. How do others see it?

Efforts at human cooperation as a developmental (much shorter time scale than evolution) theme seem already to be at work in many places, for example, in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that have been held around the world.


It is a fascinating article. I think the subtitle that the paper “solves” the question of cooperation is an overstatement, but it’s a novel approach. @DarrelFalk is interested in the topic. He may have something to add if he has the time.

This is one of my problems with it. I’ve seen more than one theorist use a concept in the physical world as a direct correlation to something unrelated. For example, I had a philosophy professor at the Univ. of Texas who was trying to use Einstein’s physics of relativity as a way to demonstrate the relativity of morals. A full professor making a category error. The second example is Dawkins’ idea of “memetics,” which theorized that ideas were transmitted from one mind to another like genes. Again, a classic category error. Certain physical (relativity, thermodynamics) and biological (evolutionary) processes may share certain resemblances to cultural processes, but the comparisons are metaphors, not exact replicas. Analogy and metaphor give us mental frameworks to understand complex concepts, but the one is never exactly like the other in every detail.

Yes, but we had to start somewhere. Other primates (if not all territorial creatures) that meet an unknown individual of the same species encroaching on their territory react with a display of aggression, if not physical violence. As well, female primates are the only ones to hold and nurse infants, for fear of kidnapping by other females or cannibalism by males. How we transitioned from those social conditions to one of cooperation is the question that must be answered. I’m not sure thermodynamics provides a complete, let alone final, reply.

Yes. The concept of “free loaders” is a question that has dogged the field for years. Morality ceases to exist if there is no punishment for violations. But now we’re starting to infringe on MacDonald and universalism … :wink:

You raise great points. I believe God was involved with evolution in all respects, not just human cooperation. The telos was stated in Gen. 1:26 – Let us create adam (humanity) in our image. The goal was creatures able to think and speak and represent God in all his goodness, mercy, and justice.

There are several competing theories of the evolution of human sociality and theory of mind. I recently ran across a paper that also used game theory and computer modeling to investigate the subject. (Negotiating with other minds) To save time, here’s how I explained it in a recent post (A Primer on Culture):

Theory of mind is the ability to make inferences about another individual’s beliefs, goals, and intentions. Without theory of mind, an individual can observe behavior, but inferring a motive is beyond reach. One could observe that “Mary is looking in the drawer,” but that’s the end of it. Let’s call that “zero-order” theory of mind. In contrast, first-order theory of mind allows an individual to supply a motive: “Mary is looking in the drawer … because she wants a piece of chocolate.”

Both young children and chimpanzees have first-order theory of mind, but by about 6, human children start to acquire second-order theory of mind, which allows them to understand a statement such as, “Alice believes that Bob knows that Carol is throwing him a surprise party.” Second-order theory of mind virtually requires recursive syntax and embedding (e.g. modern language).

Since theory of mind falls under the rubric of “social cognition,” researchers have offered several possible evolutionary explanations for its appearance. The Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis says higher-order theory of mind bestows a competitive advantage by allowing an individual to deceive and manipulate others more effectively. Deception, by its very nature, requires theory of mind. One actor is intentionally causing another actor to believe something false. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Vygotskian hypothesis counters that theory of mind can best be explained through social cooperation, not competition.

A third hypothesis suggests higher order theory of mind may be required for mixed-motive interactions involving both cooperative and competitive elements, such as a negotiation. Consider the task of sharing a pie. Individuals can cooperate to make the overall pie larger, yet they also compete to obtain the biggest possible slice for themselves. When a recent study modeled just such a task, agents with zero-order theory of mind focused solely on competition, and negotiations broke down. Eventually, there was no pie left to share. Agents with first-order theory of mind performed slightly better. They could reason about the goals of their trading partners and thus keep negotiations alive, but they rarely came out ahead when dealing with zero-order agents. Apparently, a small slice of pie is preferable to no pie at all.

The results changed dramatically when second-order agents were introduced. When negotiating with a partner also capable of theory of mind, the size of the pie always was maxed out, and the second-order agent typically received the larger share. The authors explained that “second-order theory of mind provides agents with a strategy that balances cooperative and competitive goals…. (They) behave cooperatively, not because they have an innate sense of fairness … but because they believe that it will result in a better outcome for themselves.”

As always, everything human comes with mixed motives, both good and evil.


Can you elaborate on this infringement? Being an avid Macdonald fan myself, you’ve got my full attention.

Mervin is jolted from his slumber! haha. Try Google Scholar on reciprocity and freeloaders. I’ll try to summarize. Evolution classically conceived is entirely selfish. An organism acts for its own survival. But cooperation and altruism involve a cost to the sharer’s welfare. If everyone cooperates, the system works for all. But if there’s no penalty for violating the group dynamic (custom) of sharing and cooperating, then freeloaders can act selfishly and still reap the benefit of the group. Unless punishment exists, freeloaders take over the system and cooperation cannot evolve. Human cooperation and, eventually, morality depend on the concept of punishment to function. Without justice, there is no morality.

Speaking personally, I’ve seen too much evil to relinquish the concept of punishment. It may be annihilation rather than “eternal conscious torment,” but there is no God if there is no final justice, in my opinion. Or maybe I’m just old and grouchy. You decide!

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Yeah I’ve read around enough to be familiar with cooperation and gaming … prisoners’ dilemma and all that great stuff.


Yeah … here … rubber, meet road!

Macdonald does come down on all that like a ton of bricks (such gentle and loving bricks, though!), but maybe here isn’t the place to get into that. This might be worth some private messaging exchange. I might learn something, anyway - you old grouch you!

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I’m not sure how much of the behavior of primates is nature vs. nurture. An originally naive young may adopt the behavior of the parents/society. I read that old Romans used the same word for strangers and enemies (hostis). If parents/society gives the message that an unknown individual is a potential enemy, the behavior of a naive individual changes.

Naturally, there are differences between species - for example, chimpanzee vs. bonobo. I don’t know if our ancestors behaved like territorial animals.

I did not quite understand your claim ‘As well, female primates are the only ones to hold and nurse infants, for fear of kidnapping by other females or cannibalism by males’.
Many species take care of their young. Also, infanticide happens in many species and females adjust their behavior to the risk of infanticide. What is unique in the behavior of female primates?

[quote=“Jay313, post:7, topic:43092”]
. (They) behave cooperatively, not because they have an innate sense of fairness … but because they believe that it will result in a better outcome for themselves.”
[/quote] From an articles that @Jay313 quoted.

Let me be clear from the beginning. “Cooperation” did not evolve. lichens were created from the beginni8ng by cooperation or symbiosis It did not emerge. Social insects cooperate even more than humans and they did not need game theory to figure it out.

The problem of cooperation was invented by Darwin when he postulated that evolution was based on Survival of the Fittest based on population theories by Thomas Malthus, which have been largely discredited. The theories are wrong, so how can the conclusions be right? How can something good be created by something evil such as war as Darwin said?

How can something that is good such as evolution be powered the Selfish Gene? It can’t and it is not. It is powered by symbiosis. As long as the Theory of Evolution is based on an UNTRUTH, then it will create confusion in this world.

Jesus told us to Love our neighbor AS ourselves, not more, not less than we care about ourselves. Dawkins and others try to tell us that cooperation means that we must care about others and not about ourselves, so that a life of cooperation is not possible. It is the way of “suckers.” If that that is not a terrible lie, I don’t know what is.

The way of life is love, not war. Yes, at times we humans have lost sight of this, but take the Word of God, the Selfish Cheat is not the way of nature, nor is the Sucker or the Grudger.

I’m still not tracking with you, friend, it seems to like you have just pushed the question further back. What caused this cooperative symbiosis that brought about lichens in the first place?

And yet insects have far less reason to act cooperatively than humans. Stating the obvious, insects have no ability for moral reasoning, compassion, empathy, or trust. In fact, eusociality is a bit of oddity in the insect world. Social hymenopterans like bees and wasps are greatly outnumbered by their solitary and parasitic cousins. Ants are the only family within Hymenoptera which is exclusively eusocial and yet the number of record species of ant (~9000) pails in comparison to the overwhelming number of non-social insects (~350,000 in the order Coleoptera alone).

Here again I find myself circling back to the same question (sorry!), what caused the dramatic shift from solitary individualised life-cycle to a cooperative collectives life-cycle? Or to use your terms, how did this dramatic shift to a intra-species symbiosis in the Hymenoptera occur?

Also, I’m not entirely sure I’ve understood your objections to game theory. It sounds like you are saying that the study implies that organisms need to ‘play’ the prisoner dilemma. Have I misunderstood you here?

Interesting, I’d be really interested to read where Darwin said this. I freely admit I know next to nothing about the man. I do however have copies of Origin of Species and Voyages (though never read them). Perhaps, you would be kind enough to to provide me some references to Where Darwin talks about this in these (or other) works so I can do some further reading?

I feel like here you argument shifts from the science to theology and ethics. The Golden Rule only applies to humans who are made in the image of God and therefore responsible to God. Forgive me, I don’t understand how that relates to the our discussion of the emergence of eusociality in Hymenopterans?

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So it seems to me that cooperation is simply the first step of ecology? As some species work together really well, those that work together better for whatever reason ends up being the ones more likely to reproduce resulting in coevolution throughout time? Or am I missing something?

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Take mutualism. What’s the difference between mutualism ( like burrowing tarantulas and frogs ) vs cooperation?

Me too! @Jay313 and @Mervin_Bitikofer, as a MacDonald enthusiast I would find this a stimulating conversation if you would include me. :slight_smile:

I’m not sure myself, but I suspect it’s mostly learned. There are lots of studies of chimp territorial behavior, which involves patrols and deadly raids against neighboring groups.
Bonobos are also territorial, and about a third of their encounters with members of other groups involve physical aggression (and 87% involve aggressive displays). But they don’t patrol their borders or kill “strangers” like chimps, probably because bonobos face less competition for mating and food. Here’s an interesting article on the subject:

Sorry for my shorthand. The behavior of female primates isn’t unique. But it puts the onus for providing for the infant solely on the mother, which limits birth intervals among chimps, for example, to around four years.

One explanation of human social evolution involves the transition to cooperative breeding, or “alloparenting.” Sarah Hrdy develops the concept in Mothers and Others. Essentially, as hominin brains grew larger, juveniles required more calories and took longer to develop and mature. The adaptive response was sexual division of labor and, more importantly, greater social cooperation in the feeding and care of infants, which resulted in earlier weaning, shorter birth intervals, and higher overall fertility rates. Cooperation in feeding and caring for infants laid the groundwork for later advances in human prosociality and cooperation.

Ecology is the science that investigates how plants and animals relates to each other and their physical environments. What a careful study reveals is that species are successful when they are able to adapt to their environments which includes other species when they can fill environmental niches that support one another.

This is the basis of symbiosis which means that life is interdependent. If you check out symbiosis on the wiki you will see that it has many forms. Predation is a form of symbiosis in that Nature or God organized life so so some creatures eat plant life and other creatures eat animal life. Humans and some many others consume both. This is all a form of adaption and symbiosis.

As I expect you know E. O. Wilson, a great expert in ants wrote an important book, The Social Conquest of Earth, in 2012 where he broke with Dawkins over the Selfish Gene. If you want to get receive a detailed answer to your question, I suggest this book. The short answer is individuals and species who work with others do better than those who do not. This is how ecology and natural selection create Symbiosis. This could well be why YHWH told the Hebrews to “Honor your father and mother that you might live long and prosper in the land YHWH gave them.”

I think that the prisoner’s dilemma is bogus. What is much more important is the fact that Life is NOT a Zero Sum Game. That means when people are driven by selfishness and fear that there will not be enough for everyone, because they think that life is a zero sum game, which is the basis of Darwinian natural selection, there will indeed not be enough for everyone, that is, it is a self fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand when people act out of faith, cooperate, and share there is usually enough for all, we see today.

Look at 6the end of the very end of the Origin, the last paragraph which is a recapitulation and conclusion of the book.

What we are talking about is the basic nature of life and reality. Is the Creation based on the Logos/Jesus Christ or a unrelenting struggle for survival? That is an ethical/ philosophical/scientific question. Dawkins on page 1 of the Selfish Gene claims that the efforts to understand the purpose of human life before Darwin are worthless. Wilson’s book is basically about humanity.

Our understanding of our world is basically about understanding ourselves To ignore this is not helpful. That is why the beginning of John is so important, “In the Beginning was the Word.” It is right there in the BioLogos name. PLease look and listen to what God is saying to us here.

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Mutualism is a positive interaction between species. Cooperation is working or acting together for common benefit.

These are simple definitions but it has been common in ecology that terms are used subjectively, depending on the background of the person. Mutualism, symbiosis, facilitation, cooperation, all have been used as synonyms although there are differences in the meaning of the words.

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I’m not sure what is the first step of ecology but yes, if you gain benefits by living or acting together, that is a significant advantage.

It happens also within ‘individuals’. Humans are not an exception. It can be claimed that we are holobionts rather than individuals. Holobiont = a unit formed by an assemblage of a host and the many other species living in or around it.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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