Cooperation, not competition 13 Jun 2005

26 comments Latest by harry

One of my favorite talks at Reboot 7 this year was from Thomas Harttung, an organic farmer. It was a great change of pace from the tech heavy talks and also made a great point: The strongest species aren’t necessarily the ones that are the strongest competitors, but rather the strongest cooperators. It’s the ones that learn to live symbiotically with their environment — giving, taking, and helping others survive — that do the best. When another species needs you, and you need them, you have a more complete reason to live and are a more important part in the chain in life. The more important you are in the chain, the more energy others put in to making sure you survive because without you, they die too. Cool insight.

26 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Martin 13 Jun 05

I also found his talk inspiring and very different than the usual techno babble. For me it was the notion of biocommunication between insects and plants. The idea of all things being connected in complex patterns brings on a deeper meaning to life and matter all around us. Very nice talk indeed.

Mark 13 Jun 05

The Great American Think-Off was held this weekend in New York Mills, MN. The topic? “Competition or Cooperation: Which benefits society more?” The winner argued that cooperation benefitted more.

Brad 13 Jun 05

You don’t have to look far to find this sort of interspecific symbiosis: the human body contains 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells. That’s right, on the basis of a pure cell count, we’re mostly bacteria. We can’t live without them and they can’t live without us. (Check out the book Microbial Inhabitants of Humans: Their Ecology and Role in Health and Disease, by Michael Wilson, Cambridge University Press).

I wasn’t at Reboot so don’t know exactly what Harttung said, but some of it sounds a bit like looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Natural selection is about the survival of the fittest, but the term “fittest” has a particular definition in this case: it means “the individuals that leave behind the greatest number of surviving offspring.” In some cases, individuals leave behind more surviving offspring when they out-compete their competitors. In other cases, it’s because they’ve successfully avoided competition (which diverts energy away from more productive activities). Next time you’re at the beach, look at the beaks of all the shorebirds. They’re different lengths. That allows different species to coexist without spending so much energy on competition: the ones with the longer beaks can probe deeper into the sand than those with short beaks.

Brad 13 Jun 05

One more thought: there’s another interesting tidbit from the world of evolutionary biology that may be particularly applicable to the idea of companies “staying small” and growing within their niche:

There are two basic types of natural selection: directional selection and stabilizing selection. Directional selection leads to evolution: it occurs when conditions are changing or when a species is still not fully adapted to its environment. Stabilizing selection tends to keep things the way they are: the cockroach and the silverfish look and act pretty much the same today as they did millions of years ago…their evolution effectively ended long ago and they are perfectly adapted to their environment. There’s no natural selective pressure for them to change.

This might be a good analogy to use in the business world as well. We have this notion that companies always have to “grow” or “expand” or “evolve,” but if you’ve found a niche for yourself that looks sustainable, you might as well dig in and adapt yourself to it…you may very well outlast everyone else. Cockroaches are still around, but I haven’t seen many dinosaurs or wooly mammoths lately.

Agustin 13 Jun 05

Be very careful when applying theories of one field to another. For example, it is tempting to apply Darwin’s theory of evolution to businesses, but it doesn’t fit. Darwin was talking about species’ survival, not of one organism’s. Businesses don’t have the life cycle that living things do (birth, reproduction, death), which is crucial to the “survival of the fittest” theory. As mentioned in an earlier comment, species survive if its members give birth to offspring that can reproduce before they die. If a company were to give birth to another and then die, would you consider that survival?

Chris McGrath 13 Jun 05

This was indeed a fascinating talk, one of many to give me plenty to think about.

Guy Dickinson 13 Jun 05

in response to Agustin; I think you could describe companies as having offspring - employees. As company’s grow in age, they often produce more employees/children and old ones ‘die off’ (well, they often retire before they die :-).

And to respond to Brad; nice point, but I’d argue companies often have “natural selective pressure for them to change” - shareholders/financial markets. A lot of companies react to this environmental pressure, and their survival instincts end up as business behaviour - agression (hiring, price undercutting), retreat (lay-offs) and defence (mergers).

My personal feelings are that these pressures undermine the more social and co-operative potential that *could* be the output of large groups of people that make up the typical company, instead of the incessant desire to screw the rest of humanity in the singular pursuit of profit.

Nick Dominguez 13 Jun 05

“When another species needs you, and you need them, you have a more complete reason to live and are a more important part in the chain in life”

Wonderfully stated.

ek 13 Jun 05

So, are humans proof of observation or a humongous exception?

In the West and increasingly in the East we’ve been doing a lot more taking than giving, particularly with regards to the environment. And it at least seems that the societies/cultures that have taken the most have seen the most success, a stark example being the European settlers to the Americas vs. Native Americans.

If Harttung’s observation were true, shouldn’t indigenous cultures (i.e. Native Americans, Aborigines, etc.), who truly lived symbiotically with their environments, be the “strongest?”

A look at the business world would also seem to negate this observation as it appears that the most competitive corporations, both internally and externally (think Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Nike, GE, et al) tend to be the most successful — no?

I’m not saying that this is good, just that I’m not sure his observation actually holds water.

Randy 13 Jun 05

EK, those things are very short term when compared to nature. The most successful creatures on earth are the most cooperative.

ek 13 Jun 05

I don’t mean to sound overly contrarian, but even on the epochal time scales of the natural world I don’t quite see how this holds true.

As Brad touched on above, it seems to ignore evolution, which is largely driven by competition amongst organisms for finite resources (whether it’s food, shelter, or suitable mates).

I think my biggest problem with this observation, though, is that it overly anthrompomorphizes the dynamics on which it’s based. The use of the word “cooporate” implies that the organisms/species involved are making the conscious decision to act together towards a given end.

I could be wrong, but I highly doubt that the bacteria in my body has any idea that what it does over the course of its existence benefits me. And though we know that these things live within us and are essential for our survival, I don’t think very many people consciously seek to “cooperate” with their resident bacteria.

My overall point is that observations like these are simplistic to the point of being useless and potentially harmful in that they can lead people to think in a binary, black-and-white way.

Look at the “Great American Think-Off” that Mark linked to above — the question posed was “Competition or Cooperation” (does anyone else find humor in, one, such a question being posed within the context of a competition and, two, that the winner of said competition argued in favor of cooperation?), as if the world would be a better place if only we embraced the one to the exclusion of the other.

The ultimate answer is that we need both. The question is, how much of each is necessary to achieve a given end?

Agustin 13 Jun 05

@Guy: employees are no more offsprings of a company than the bacteria humans house within our bodies are our offsprings. Both the bacteria and the employees help their hosts towards their goals, but neither is offspring.

It’s all well and good to draw ideas from one field (biology) and try to apply them to another (business) but be very, very careful when you do so. That the theory of evolution applies to finches does not mean it necessarily applies to sprocket manufacturers. Darwin (and many since him) rigorously tested the theory of evolution in biology. There is no science I’m aware of that shows the same concepts apply to businesses.

I’m not saying don’t try it, I’m just saying be careful.

Chui Tey 14 Jun 05


Darwin’s theory isn’t about the survival of the fittest. In simple words it is “adapt or die”. All corporations face this test of relevance every day. Eating your competition may well be an adaptation strategy, but eating your customers isn’t.

Brad 14 Jun 05

The most successful creatures on earth are the most cooperative.

Give me some examples; I sure can’t think of any. If by “cooperative” you mean altruistic, then this is definitely not true. Altruism is quite rare in nature, and almost never occurs between species. When it does occur, it is usually within a species and among closely related individuals. Worker bees in a hive are altruistic: they are all sisters, and infertile at that. In cases like this, the genetic tendency for altruism gets perpetuated because the worker bees’ acts of selflessness promote the success of a close relative (the queen), who passes on that same genetic tendency to her offspring. In almost all cases of altruism that have been studied in nature, it occurs among closely related offspring. Humans are the only animals I know of that regularly perform altruistic acts for individuals that are not close relatives.

Darwin’s theory isn’t about the survival of the fittest. In simple words it is “adapt or die”.

No, it really is about survival of the fittest. If I leave more surviving offspring than you do (which is the Darwinian definition of “fitness”), my behavior or body characteristics will become more prevalent in the population and the species will be seen to “evolve.” Adaptation in the evolutionary sense is something that happens across generations, not within an individual’s lifetime. Yes, individuals can adapt to changes that occurr during their lifetimes, but evolution happens when a fortuitous genetic mutation arises in an individual that makes that individual very successful in terms of leaving behind lots of surviving offspring, who in turn leave behind lots of surviving offspring and thus perpetuate that mutation until it becomes prevalent in the general population.

Brad 14 Jun 05

And another thought (again)…when you say “the most successful creatures on earth are the most cooperative,” I’m not sure how you define “successful.” If you mean the creatures that are present in the greatest numbers, again you’d be talking about bacteria, which are not exactly cooperative. They’re all out for themselves; some of them are symbiotic but I wouldn’t really call them “cooperative.” And if you define “successful” as those species that have survived the longest, it’s probably bacteria again, along with a few species of insects and plants, none of which strike me as particularly cooperative either.

Darrel 14 Jun 05

Businesses don’t have the life cycle that living things do (birth, reproduction, death),

Actually, I’d say they do. Or, at least industries do. New industries are formed, they split/segment/branch. Those that evolve/diversify tend to survive beyond the ones that don’t, as, often, it’s inevitable that the industry eventually becomes supplanted by a new one.

And it at least seems that the societies/cultures that have taken the most have seen the most success

They key here being how to properly define ‘success’.

If Harttung’s observation were true, shouldn’t indigenous cultures (i.e. Native Americans, Aborigines, etc.), who truly lived symbiotically with their environments, be the “strongest?”

Strongest? I don’t know. I’d say they were definitely the most balanced and best prepared for the long haul (as a group…maybe not as individuals).

Also, societies like the Mayans were incredibly strong.

A look at the business world would also seem to negate this observation as it appears that the most competitive corporations, both internally and externally (think Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Nike, GE, et al) tend to be the most successful — no?

In terms of pure greed/profit? Yes. But in all other definitions of ‘success’ I’d say no. Are the employees the happiest at those companies? The healthiest? I imagine at somepoint, they become too big…the giant dinasaurs that can no longer adapt to subtle changes in the environment. Also note that the companies listed are relatively young in the broad timeline of corporate evolution.

My overall point is that observations like these are simplistic to the point of being useless and potentially harmful in that they can lead people to think in a binary, black-and-white way.

But of course. This *is* a blog, is it not? ;o)

Give me some examples;

Any balanced ecosystem. Granted, in nature, humans usually fuck up that balance. In business, lobbyists usually fuck up that balance.

Maksa 15 Jun 05

If somebody’s into a formal (formal != boring in this case) and general treatment of this issue, I’d suggest Gerald M. Weinberg’s “General Principles of Systems Design”, chapters on aggregates.

Anthony 16 Jun 05

The most successful creatures on earth are the most cooperative.

Brad: Give me some examples; I sure can’t think of any. If by “cooperative” you mean altruistic, then this is definitely not true.

No, cooperative implies that both parties recieve something in return. To see one of the most successful, cooperative creatures on earth, you just have to look in the mirror; human society would cease to function without cooperation from the majority of individuals.

Joe 19 Jul 05

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