The payoffs of sustained cooperation can be huge

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I have begun reading E O Wilson in earnest. He is a major figure in evolution research and thinking, and he has a lot to say about cooperation. Below is an excerpt from his latest book. I am posting it because itpowerfully points out the value that the biological and social sciences have to offer us practitioners of cooperation. Unfortunately, very few of them make that connection just as very few of us do.

There is plenty to challenge as well as learn from Wilson and others' work, but this excerpt highlights why a dialog between reserachers and practitioners is so important.

In his newly published The Social Conquest of the Earth—the 27th book from this two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize—Wilson argues the nest is central to understanding the ecological dominance not only of ants, but of human beings, too. Ants rule the microhabitats they occupy, consigning other insects and small animals to life at the margins; humans own the macroworld, Wilson says, which we have transformed so radically and rapidly that we now qualify as a kind of geological force. How did we and the ants gain our superpowers? By being super-cooperators, groupies of the group, willing to set aside our small, selfish desires and I-minded drive to join forces and seize opportunity as a self-sacrificing, hive-minded tribe. There are plenty of social animals in the world, animals that benefit by living in groups of greater or lesser cohesiveness. Very few species, however, have made the leap from merely social to eusocial, “eu-” meaning true. To qualify as eusocial, in Wilson’s definition, animals must live in multigenerational communities, practice division of labor and behave altruistically, ready to sacrifice “at least some of their personal interests to that of the group.” It’s tough to be a eusocialist. Wouldn’t you rather just grab, gulp and go? Yet the payoffs of sustained cooperation can be huge. Eusociality, Wilson writes, “was one of the major innovations in the history of life,” comparable to the conquest of land by aquatic animals, or the invention of wings or flowers. Eusociality, he argues, “created super­organisms, the next level of biological complexity above that of organisms.” The spur to that exalted state, he says, was always a patch of prized real estate, a focal point luring group members back each day and pulling them closer together until finally they called it home. “All animal species that have achieved eusociality, without exception, at first built nests that they defended from enemies,” Wilson writes. An anthill. A beehive. A crackling campfire around which the cave kids could play, the cave elders stay and the buffalo strips blacken all day. Trespassers, of course, would be stoned on sight.

GEO did a whole issue focused on bringing researchers from the Elinor Ostrom Workshop and practitioners into dialog with each other. I wrote a piece in it that gives one practitioner's critique of Ostrom's model of cooperation.

The review article:

Edward O. Wilson’s New Take on Human Nature
Natalie Angier
Smithsonian magazine, April 2012

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