Monday 1st January 2007

Were 'f**k off' the first words spoken? No, of course not! The first words were about food, or about the advisability of running away rather quickly from the big dinosaur with the huge teeth, or, possibly, 'Oooh, aahh, touch me there again, Ogg!'. Language was developed because of our need to cooperate; and because it allowed us to cooperate more effectively than other animals it came to be one of our main traits as a species. What defines humanity? There are many answers, but language is one of the important ones, and it is another nail in the coffin for the argument that 'survival of the fittest' means aggression. On the contrary, as Ursula le Guin pointed out in The Dispossessed:

...the strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are the most social. In human terms, most ethical... There is no strength to be gained from hurting one another. Only weakness.

(Yes, I know, we've had that one before, haven't we? But it's worth repeating!)

Cooperation, in fact, is at least as direct a consequence of evolutionary pressures as any other human trait. Biologist Stephen Rose has shown this in two quite distinct contexts. First, cellular symbiosis and the amalgamation of distinct entities in larger organisms (human beings are a prime example); second,

evolution has resulted in a human species whose members are social animals, living in communities in which individuals need to cooperate to survive. Our offspring are born neotenous, initially helpless and for several years in need of parental care to survive and mature. These two features, among others, require that we learn to help others in our community whether or not they are closely genetically related, not to cheat or renege on our commitments to others, and so on. (The Guardian)

Rose writes about cellular cooperation in The 21st Century Brain (2005):

As soon as more-or-less faithful replication has evolved, then natural selection begins to work. To say this is not to invoke some magic principle, some deus ex machina; natural selection in this sense is a logical necessity, not a theory waiting to be proved. It is inevitable that those cells more efficient at capturing and using energy, and of replicating more faithfully, would survive and their progeny spread; those less efficient would tend to die out, their contents re-absorbed and used by others. Two great evolutionary processes occur simultaneously. The one, beloved by many popular science writers, is about competition, the struggle for existence between rivals. Darwin begins here, and orthodox Darwinians tend both to begin and end here. But the second process, less often discussed today, perhaps because less in accord with the spirit of the times, is about co-operation, the teaming up of cells with particular specialisms to work together. For example, one type of cell may evolve a set of enzymes enabling it to metabolise molecules produced as waste material by another. There are many such examples of symbiosis in today’s multitudinous world. Think, amongst the most obvious, of the complex relationships we have with the myriad bacteria — largely Escherichia coli — that inhabit our own guts, and without whose co-operation in our digestive processes we would be unable to survive. In extreme cases, cells with different specific specialisms may even merge to form a single organism combining both, a process called symbiogenesis.

Symbiogenesis is now believed to have been the origin of mitochondria, the energy-converting structures present in all of today’s cells, as well as the photosynthesising chloroplasts present in green plants.

Stephen Rose, The Future of the Brain: The Promise and Perils of Tomorrow’s Neuroscience, 2005, (p. 18).

Evolution as a driver of competition is a convenient justification for greed as a philosophy — but it bears little resemblance to reality.


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