Why researching cooperation matters

Why research cooperation? Everyone knows what is meant by cooperation. You either work together or you don’t. It’s easy, isn’t it? 

In fact, it is hard to imagine a more complex question than the nature of cooperation and interaction (it is impossible to distinguish one from the other precisely). We do feel that this is about something important, but we have little idea of how deeply this question is connected to our own existence. Cooperation was crucial to our early ancestors, enabling them to survive and provide the foundations for us to evolve into what we are today. Both our biological make-up and our civilization would be inconceivable without cooperation on various levels. Cooperation, or let’s call it interaction, is also deeply rooted in nature. Life itself can be understood as the uninterrupted course of cooperative processes. To search for food, we have to apply our minds, but digestion takes place through cooperative processes in our body. The same applies to the utilization of inhaled oxygen or the healing process. Collaborating cells do this work and thereby enable the entire organism, and themselves, to survive. If the cells no longer do this, no longer cooperate, and want to multiply faster than is good for the organism, like cancer cells, the organism dies, and with it all the cells that make it up. 

New things emerge from cooperative processes, not only in the realm of life, but on all levels. For example, when two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom interact and combine under certain conditions, a water molecule with completely different properties to the components that make it up is created. Even before the emergence of life, numerous cooperative processes have had to occur to make life possible. Scientists now assume that there must have been forms of reproduction and natural selection even before the emergence of life. Looking at life and its evolution, today it has become clear that Darwin’s theory of evolution only becomes unambiguous if cooperation is accepted as a third basic principle alongside mutation and natural selection. This is an important advance that will make it more difficult to misuse the theory of evolution for politico-ideological purposes. In the past, the adoption of the concept of natural selection into political ideology, (mis)understood purely as struggle for survival, has led to excesses like the Holocaust and other attempts to accelerate natural selection by eliminating politically undesirable groups. In fact, evolution is by no means determined by struggle to the extent previously assumed. It is not only about eating and being eaten (that too), but also about countless forms of interaction and cooperation, of which more and more are being discovered today. Cooperation fosters creativity and innovation, builds and enables complexity. This can be observed on the level of cells, on the level of organisms, and analogously also in the evolution of human culture, languages, or social systems – although cultural evolution is incomparably faster than biological evolution. This is why cooperation is also referred to as the master architect of evolution. Competition helps to weed out the less suitable approaches and does not have to be understood as an antithesis of cooperation; instead, it is a complementary principle. The real antithesis of cooperation is conflict of the kind that does not lead to resolutions quickly enough. As a rule (but not only), this involves special interests within cooperating groups that endanger the cooperation itself. These might be the above-mentioned, non-cooperating cancer cells in the organism, and within human coexistence the danger of war in the event of unresolved conflicts. If such dangerous conflicts can be resolved in time, their effect might even be beneficial to the cooperating group, as it will have learned from them and gain in innovative capacity. If this fails, a breakdown in the cooperation can mean the end of the group itself. 

In nature, as well as in human coexistence, cooperation is a precarious matter. Its successes are spectacular, but it can also fail, and this can have tragic consequences for the cells, organisms, or human societies concerned. 

The evolution of all human culture, from language to social orders and technical-organizational achievements, is not only much faster than biological evolution, but its speed is also constantly increasing. This is because more and more steering options for cooperation have been developed. The most important example of this from a historical point of view is war that has led to subjugation and domination. This made it possible to force people to work together (not just slaves) and gave powerful leaders the opportunity to realize their personal ideas for the further development of civilization. This gave rise to numerous other dependencies and constraints that could be used to advance civilization at an ever-faster pace. This breathtakingly fast, already global, development process is still unregulated as a whole and there are no limits to its impact on the environment. This threatens the ecosystems in which people’s lives and indeed all life are embedded. Ecosystems can be understood as complex systems of cooperation, that can only be disturbed to a certain extent before the interaction breaks down. Such a breakdown of interaction within an ecosystem and the subsequent loss of its functions could in turn have devastating consequences for the entirety of ecosystems in our planet’s biosphere and, if the worst comes to the worst, threaten our very existence. 

To counteract this development, it is necessary not only to cooperate better with each other (if only to avoid having to wage destructive wars), but also to cooperate with nature and its life-sustaining ecosystems (the other cooperation systems). Exploring the nature of cooperation and its role in the emergence and maintenance of all life is literally inextricably connected to our existence. For only if we have a sufficiently good understanding of the comprehensive workings of cooperation on all levels can we hope to work with nature (not against it), to adapt our civilization and to enable survival for future generations.