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A Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe
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VI. Earth Life Emergence: A Development of Body, Brain, Selves and Societies

6. Cooperative Societies

As multicellular animals evolved in somatic and cerebral intricacy, they ever increasingly gathered into social assemblies. A major revision of evolutionary theory over the past few years has been the realization that Darwinian competitive survival of the fittest is mediated by and in fact secondary to an inherent proclivity for mutual cooperation. This effect is variously known as quorum sensing or reciprocal altruism, and is founded on a salutary complementarity of individual and community. As a result, these metabolic and cognitive groupings, with rudimentary properties of an organism, are then perceived as a new level of selection. A tacit, albeit precarious, balance of conflict and accord, often along gender lines, is now seen to distinguish and enhance animal societies, especially within the primate phylum. This natural attribute of competitive coherence, creative union, mutual aid, and so on is further seen as a universal principle that serves evolving life from microbes to ecovillages.

The Gathering Swarms. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/the-gathering-swarms-the-gathering-swarms/8840. A 2014 PBS Nature hour about the propensity of animal life from social insects to penguin pods and wildebeest herds to form vast populations for reproductive, foraging, and migratory reasons. The salient theme is the formation of a modicum of group intelligence arising from myriad simpler members. One wonders if our seven billion sapient personsphere might be attaining its own salutary knowledge, which we desperately need.

A look at some of the planet’s great gatherings, creatures that come together in inconceivable numbers – sometimes in millions, billions, and even trillions. Included are bats and bees, locust and ants, monarch butterflies in Mexico, 17-year cicada hatches, grunion in the Sea of Cortez and carp in the Mississippi River, sardine runs off the coast of South Africa, super flocks of parakeets in the Australian Outback, mayflies on the 4th of July, and even penguins and wildebeest. Some gather to breed or to migrate, some for protection, some simply to keep warm in the cold. But in the process, a kind of super-organism is created in which individual intelligence is superseded by a collective consciousness that shares information and moves with a single purpose for the benefit of all. Check out swarm intelligence, essentially a living embodiment of social media in the natural world.

Abaid, Nicole, et al. Dynamics of Animal Systems. European Physical Journal Special Topics. 224/17-18, 2015. An introduction to this large issue about how all manner of creaturely groupings and activities can now be modeled by statistical mechanics. Its main sections cover the physics of locomotion and of social interactions. Among the 21 papers are Flagella, Flexibility and Flow: Physical Processes in Microbial Ecology; Velocity Correlations in Laboratory Insect Swarms; and Dynamics of Biosonar Systems in Horseshoe Bats. And if to take a natural philosophy view, here is further evidence of an independent mathematical source which serves to inform, guide and constrain a universal self-organization from paramecia to peoples.

Apicella, Coren, et al. Social Networks and Cooperation in Hunter-Gatherers. Nature. 481/497, 2012. With coauthors Frank Marlowe, James Fowler, and Nicholas Christakis, Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, and Cambridge University anthropologists draw upon the complex network advances of Christakis and Fowler, (search) and colleagues to study the Hadza people, indigenous hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. Since “social networks show striking structural regularities” they ought to similarly facilitate such development of cooperative groupings in earlier human populations. Indeed, as if drawing on a universal, independent propensity, this African tribe maintains a communal viability by virtue of constant interpersonal reciprocities.

In summary, Hadza networks are structured in a way that is consistent with the evolution of cooperative behaviour. Cooperators tend to be connected to cooperators at both the dyadic and network level, conditions necessary to sustain cooperation. This phenomenon cannot be explained by camp-level differences in the contextual environment because it persists in a model that controls for camp-level fixed effects. However, it might be explained by two alternative hypotheses. One is that cooperators tend to form ties preferentially with other cooperators, leaving defectors no choice but to form ties to the remaining noncooperators. Another is that people may influence the cooperative behaviour of their networks, as demonstrated in experimental studies30. But regardless of the causal mechanism, homophily on cooperation and selective formation of network ties create conditions that would make it easier for cooperative behaviour to evolve. This suggests that social networks may have co-evolved with the widespread cooperation in humans that we observe today. (500)

Aplin, Lucy, et al. Individual-Level Personality Influences Social Foraging and Collective Behaviour in Wild Birds. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 281/20141016, 2014. While studying these iconic animal dynamics, Oxford University and Uppsala University mathematical ornithologists describe how the presence of autonomous liberties can indeed coexist and serve to foster group form and viability.

There is increasing evidence that animal groups can maintain coordinated behaviour and make collective decisions based on simple interaction rules. Effective collective action may be further facilitated by individual variation within groups, particularly through leader–follower polymorphisms. Recent studies have suggested that individual-level personality traits influence the degree to which individuals use social information, are attracted to conspecifics, or act as leaders/followers. A predictive model of collective decision-making replicates patterns well, suggesting simple interaction rules are sufficient to explain the observed social behaviour. Within groups, individuals with more reactive personalities behave more collectively, moving to within-flock areas of higher density. By contrast, proactive individuals tend to move to and feed at spatial periphery of flocks. Finally, comparing alternative simulations of flocking with empirical data, we demonstrate that variation in personality promotes within-patch movement while maintaining group cohesion. Our results illustrate the importance of incorporating individual variability in models of social behaviour. (Abstract excerpts)

Auer, Sabine, et al. The Dynamics of Coalition Formation on Complex Networks. Nature Scientific Reports. 5/13386, 2015. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact researchers including Jurgen Kurths apply statistical physics methods, which are lately serving conceptual explanations across natural and social domains, to social group dynamics.

Complex networks describe the structure of many socio-economic systems. However, in studies of decision-making processes the evolution of the underlying social relations are disregarded. In this report, we aim to understand the formation of self-organizing domains of cooperation (“coalitions”) on an acquaintance network. We include both the network’s influence on the formation of coalitions and vice versa how the network adapts to the current coalition structure, thus forming a social feedback loop. We increase complexity from simple opinion adaptation processes studied in earlier research to more complex decision-making determined by costs and benefits, and from bilateral to multilateral cooperation. We show how phase transitions emerge from such coevolutionary dynamics, which can be interpreted as processes of great transformations. If the network adaptation rate is high, the social dynamics prevent the formation of a grand coalition and therefore full cooperation. (Abstract)

Axelrod, Robert. The Complexity of Cooperation: Agent-Based Models of Competition and Collaboration. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. A pioneer theoretician of cooperative behavior and reciprocal altruism explains why helping one another brings benefits to everyone involved.

Bahar, Sonja. The Essential Tension: Cooperation and Competition in Biological Evolution. Switzerland: Springer Frontiers, 2017. A University of Missouri professor of biophysics and neurodynamics carefully retraces historic intuitions and current proofs that life’s evolutionary emergence is most distinguished and advanced via a constant, reciprocal symbiosis of individual members and an overall group for optimum cohesion and survival.

The Essential Tension explores how agents that naturally compete come to act together as a group. The idea of one collective unit emerging from the cooperative interactions of its constituent (and mutually competitive) parts has its roots in the ancient world. Part I explores the historical development of the idea of a collectivity in biological to the mid-twentieth century debates over the role of group selection in evolution. Part II investigates the balance between competition and cooperation in a range of contemporary biological problems, from flocking and swarming to experimental evolution and the evolution of multicellularity. Part III addresses experimental studies of cooperation and competition, as well as controversial ideas such as the evolution of evolvability. Finally, the author arrives at a provocative new proposition: as a result of the essential tension between competition and cooperation, multiple levels may be essential in order for evolutionary processes to occur at all. (Summary edits)

Boehm, Christopher. Hierarchy in the Forest. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. An anthropologist explores nepotism vs. altruism in primate and human groups and finds a real trend or bias toward egalitarian behavior as evident in democratic societies. In a defense of group-level selection, this position is seen to move beyond a social science paradigm that claims competitive struggle as the norm.

Bonabeau, Eric, et al. Scaling in Animal Group-Size Distributions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 96/4472, 1999. A mathematical theory of power-law scale invariance is found to hold for diverse assemblies of tuna, sardinella, and buffalo.

Bourke, Andrew F. G. Principles of Social Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. A University of East Anglia behavioral zoologist integrates the study of animal assemblies across many phyla into the major evolutionary transitions scale to gain a vital perspective. Life’s evident, sequential propensity to form cooperative groupings is then braced by factoring in inclusive fitness, (kin selection) theory. An expanded sense of recurrent communities from prokaryote microbes to homo sapiens can then be described. Bourke goes on to affirm the earlier work of Leo Buss (1987) who perceives a consistent “evolution of individuality” at each stage. With Brett Calcott (2011), Selin Kesebir (2012) and others, another confirmation of this major episodic model is stated, a latter, temporal “scala naturae.” Self-organization forces are acknowledged, but not yet given primacy. And the author seems compelled to say, in homage to selection alone, that even with this effective understanding of life’s stratified progression, a 21st century synthesis is still “not inevitable,” nor does any “directional bias” exist. (See a good review by Stuart West in Science (331/1519, 2011).)

An altogether different view of life’s history overcomes these deficiencies by focusing on the hierarchical organization of the units of life. Genes occur in cells and cells fuse to form other cells. Cells may occur within multicellular organisms, and multicellular organisms occur, at least in some cases, in societies. Since units at each level also occur independently, and each level requires the presence of the lower ones, it follows that in the history of life there were distinct events in which genes grouped into cells, cells grouped to become a different type of cell, cells further grouped into multicellular organisms, and multicellular organisms grouped into societies. Fundamentally, the history of life has been the history of the grouping of biological units into higher-level units and the subsequent consolidation of the new higher-level units into integrated collectives, with this process, once started, having been repeated several times to generate the biological hierarchy we observe today. (2)

The working hypothesis of this book is that, as proposed by previous authors, common principles of social evolution apply at each step in the evolution of individuality, regardless of the taxa involved and regardless of the level within the hierarchy of organization. This is an important and grand vision that conceptually unifies an immense range of superficially different phenomena in diverse taxa under the banner of social evolution. (5)

To give another example of an important topic that deserves mention but that this book does not fully cover, the social complexity that occurs at each new major transition might often involve an element of self-organization. Self-organization refers to the surprisingly large degree of higher-level order that arises when many subunits interact together while obeying a few, relatively simple local rules. There is ample evidence that self-organization plays a major part in both the development of multicellular organisms and the organization of behavior within animal societies. Self-organization must interact with natural selection through the local rules that each subunit follows being subject ot genetic variation, so allowing selection to pick between adaptive and non-adaptive patterns of higher-level order. (25)

Synthesis and Conclusions: Over evolutionary time, individuals have repeatedly undergone major transitions in which they have grouped into larger units that evolve to reassemble individuals in their own right. The expanded view of social evolution advocated in this book holds that each major transition arises from the operation of shared principles of social evolution. With this background, I sought to address two key unresolved issues. The first concerned the extent to which common principles operate at each stage of a major transition across all levels in the biological hierarchy, and the strength of the empirical evidence for their operation. The conclusion is, resoundingly, that common principles operate to a very large extent. Each stage in a major transition to individuality (social group formation, maintenance and transformation) frequently involves the same social evolutionary acting in analogous ways at the different hierarchical levels. In addition, as earlier chapters have explored in detail, the empirical evidence for the operation of these principles is very considerable. (198)

Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. A Cooperative Species. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. In a collaboration that joins parallel research paths, Santa Fe Institute behavioral economists bolster the realization that creaturely organisms from microbes to mammals are in their groupings not beset by “red in tooth and claw” competition. Rather as recent studies confirm (search herein), a mutual reciprocity among members for survival and welfare of both self and society is life’s actual, preferred norm. Bowles and Gintis then apply dynamic, agent-based, nonlinear modeling approaches, along with evolutionary game theory, to quantify and reinforce this point. Primates, and especially human beings, are at best deeply altruistic and supportive in parochial clans, while, as we also know, male rivalry and out-groups may tend to conflict and carnage otherwise.

Apropos, I recently visited an exhibit of Impressionist paintings by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Museum in Williamstown, MA. I found that he belonged to the “Anarchist” movement in France in the later 19th century, which inspired his work, against awful privations inflicted on workers and common folk by capitalism and clergy. Figures such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin, (Mutual Aid) and others wrote tracts, which Pissarro and a large extended family tried to fulfill by living in pastoral, collective settings. While albeit opposed to exploitive individualism, in retrospect their alternative seems a polar communism, a mode similarly driven to cruel extremes and hardships. Might we at last intentionally create in this worldwide 21st century, an ecovillage complementarity of me and we, as nature knows best? But some 120 years on, “Occupy Wall Street” protests show how little has changed, or we have learned, which persist sans any practical, viable solution.

Why do humans, uniquely among animals, cooperate in large numbers to advance projects for the common good? Contrary to the conventional wisdom in biology and economics, this generous and civic-minded behavior is widespread and cannot be explained simply by far-sighted self-interest or a desire to help close genealogical kin. In A Cooperative Species, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis--pioneers in the new experimental and evolutionary science of human behavior--show that the central issue is not why selfish people act generously, but instead how genetic and cultural evolution has produced a species in which substantial numbers make sacrifices to uphold ethical norms and to help even total strangers.

The authors describe how, for thousands of generations, cooperation with fellow group members has been essential to survival. Groups that created institutions to protect the civic-minded from exploitation by the selfish flourished and prevailed in conflicts with less cooperative groups. Key to this process was the evolution of social emotions such as shame and guilt, and our capacity to internalize social norms so that acting ethically became a personal goal rather than simply a prudent way to avoid punishment. Using experimental, archaeological, genetic, and ethnographic data to calibrate models of the coevolution of genes and culture as well as prehistoric warfare and other forms of group competition, A Cooperative Species provides a compelling and novel account of how humans came to be moral and cooperative. (Publisher)

Brigatti, Edgardo and A. Hernandez. Exploring the Onset of Collective Intelligence in Self-Organized Trails of Social Organisms. arXiv:1705.04182. Federal University of Rio de Janeiro physicists finesse life’s insistent movement in active groupings toward this salutary state of common knowledge. See also Optimal Incentives for Collective Intelligence by Richard Mann and Dirk Helbing in PNAS (online May 2017) about ways that human groupings can facilitate this benefit.

We investigate the emergence of self-organised trails in collective motion of social organisms by means of an agent-based model. We present numerical evidences that an increase in the efficiency of navigation between the target areas, in dependence of the colony size, exists. Moreover, the shift, from the maladaptive to the adaptive behaviour, can be quantitative characterised, identifying and measuring a well defined crossover point. This point corresponds to the minimal number of individuals necessary for the onset of collective intelligence. Its scaling behaviour, as a function of the environment size, is clearly described. (Abstract)

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