04 September 2020

biology: competition & cooperation

The idea that selfish competition is an essential part of evolution has sometimes been misrepresented. The fact that animals typically engage in intense competition for resources requires us to acknowledge that humans, like other animals, are probably hardwired to some degree for competitive behaviour. This should dampen any temptation to regard such behaviour as a vice, but does not mean we have to regard it as virtuous.
   More importantly, the fact that humans are social animals may require us to modify the simple selfish-gene picture. Cooperation in humans appears to go beyond kin selection (i.e. beyond cooperation between close relatives with many genes in common), though the evolutionary mechanisms for this have not been fully elucidated.
   Critics of sociobiology, however, seem just as capable of misrepresentation. In an introductory chapter to Blackwell's Companion to Ethics, academic philosopher Mary Midgley complains that sociobiologists
sometimes point out [that their use of the word 'selfish' is technical], but nearly all of them get carried away by its normal meaning and may be heard preaching egoism as ardently as Hobbes.
I don't have access to some of the references Midgley cites in support of this allegation, but neither E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology nor Hobbes's Leviathan can meaningfully be accused of "preaching egoism", in the sense of holding it up as a moral ideal.
   In the following passage, Midgley seems herself to get carried away to the point of preaching, albeit in the opposite direction.
It is essential to distinguish the mere fact of happening to 'compete' from the complex of human motives which current ideology endorses as fitting for competitors. Any two organisms may be said to be 'in competition' if they both need or want something they cannot both get. But they are not acting competitively unless they both know this and respond by deliberately trying to defeat each other. Since the overwhelming majority of organisms are plants, bacteria etc. which are not even conscious, the very possibility of deliberate, hostile competition is an extremely rare thing in nature.
   Moreover, both at the conscious and the unconscious level, all life-processes depend on an immense background of harmonious cooperation, which is necessary to build up the complex system within which the much rarer phenomenon of competition becomes possible.
   Competition is real but necessarily limited. For instance, the plants in a particular ecosystem normally exist in interdependence both with each other and with the animals that eat them, and those animals are equally interdependent with each other and with their predators. If there had really been a natural 'war of all against all', the biosphere could never have developed in the first place.
There may be some technical way in which this passage could at a stretch be defended as correct, but prima facie it seems misleading, if not plain wrong. Midgley seems to be (deliberately?) confused about the concept of competition, and she surely exaggerates the degree to which ecological interdependence can be interpreted as "harmonious cooperation".

Quotations are taken from Mary Midgley, 'The origin of ethics', in A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer, Blackwell 1993, p.9 and pp.5-6. Accordingly to Wikipedia, the late Midgley was the first winner of Philosophy Now's "Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity".