Cooperate or Compete?Competition or cooperation? One of the continuing dilemmas we face in making decisions involving other people is to compete with them or cooperate. Competition often gets good press, particularly when promoting economic theories or sporting events. And there is no doubt that we are all better for competition in the marketplace, but what about cooperation? That is often given second-place status in improving the human condition. And yet a reasonable argument can be made that we owe more to cooperation than is generally recognized. In fact, civilization as we know it could not exist without cooperation that goes beyond simple profit and loss.

The choice between competition and cooperation is often obscured because of the common mis-perception of the Darwinian phrase (actually due to Spencer, not Darwin), “Survival of the fittest.” For reasons I do not understand, many people think the fittest implies the biggest, toughest, meanest dude who can outfight anyone and eat their livers afterward. But the phrase is “Survival of the fittest,” not “Survival of the toughest etc.”

In many situations, the fittest for survival might be the fastest to run away from a fight. “He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.” More important, the fittest are often the ones most willing to cooperate to achieve a mutual goal. Hunting tribes succeed by sharing in both the work and the rewards. The best individual human cannot hold a candle to the effectiveness of a tribe of hunters. Darwinism has nothing to do with being the toughest or strongest, but has a lot to do with what type of cooperation is being used to help ensure survival.

That brings me to the puzzling enigma of open source software. When I try to explain open source software to my more conservative friends, they really look puzzled. They understand that Google is free, but it has advertisements, so that seems natural. Being exposed to advertisements in exchange for access to desired information seems like a fair trade. Downloading and installing Linux with LibreOffice and Thunderbird seems unnatural. I think they fall back on an analogy with public broadcasting where material is broadcast without advertisements or fees, but they regularly seek voluntary contributions. The idea of getting quality software, including operating systems, for free would probably seem like a socialistic institution, but governments are not involved. It must be something different. Could it be a spontaneous act of cooperation for the benefit of all?

The lead article in the July 2012 Scientific American is entitled Why We Help by Martin A. Nowak, and it makes a compelling argument that cooperation, more than intra-species competition, is responsible for the spectacular rise of humanity from foraging primates to where we are now. This seems counter-intuitive since we also know of the rewards of strenuous competition. Where would we be without the struggle to be better than “them,” whoever “them” is?

An answer to this puzzle (and a warning) might be found in the mathematical simulations that Nowak reports. Key to his results is the classic logical poser of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Details of the dilemma vary with the teller. I will use numbers from the article. Two prisoners are charged with a crime. They are held separately. Each is promised a reduced sentence of one year for testifying against the other while the other person gets four years confinement. If both denounce each other, they both go to jail for three years. If neither rats on the other, then they both get only two year sentences. Each prisoner must decide to be quiet (cooperate) or testify against (compete) the partner. If both act selfishly, both suffer with longer sentences. If both act faithfully to each other, they get reduced sentences, but — and this is the crux — if one rats and the other is faithful, then the rat gets rewarded with a much shortened sentence at the partner’s expense of a longer sentence. Each prisoner knows how the other thinks. What does a reasonable person do? The least amount of total years of confinement occurs if both cooperate. The highest total of years of confinement happens if both compete (rat). But each one benefits the most by ratting while the other is faithful.

This dilemma has generated many articles and analyses over the years. I was enchanted to see the results of expanding the dilemma from two participants to a whole population. Imagine a population composed of a mixture of cooperators and competitors. They make deals. Over time, who wins? The answer seems to be that the situation is unstable. At first the competitors excel, but as time goes on, the cooperators win out until they dominate, then a few competitors can clean up and, after dominating for a while, the cycle starts over. Cooperation is facilitated if initially the parties are distributed in clumps. That is, a group of cooperators might find themselves surrounded by competitors. The cooperators will dominate.

This is an exciting result. As longtime readers of this series know, I have always considered urban street gangs to be a solution, not a problem. Nowak’s article explains how this might happen. The population of young people has both competitors and cooperators, but by clumping together in a cooperating gang, they can dominate over individual competitors. The cooperators are a gang (tribe, etc.)

In a larger sense, we can ask how do competitors like Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin succeed in dominating the cooperating majority? While the dominating individuals certainly must be special, the inherent instability between populations of cooperators and competitors must be at work here. Humanity has evolved from tribal bands of cooperators led by a top dog competitor through city-states to large nations. Always the underlying difficulty of deciding to cooperate or compete has been there. Sometimes one tendency wins: sometimes to the other. It becomes meaningless to ask about single encounters. The resolution can only be found in following the actions of large numbers of people in a population. That is the solution to the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”

I like open source software.