Cooperation versus Competition: An Evolutionary Perspective

Charles Darwin is credited for forming the idea of evolution. During his explorations around the world and his intimate observation of how animal and plant life evolved over time, he came to believe that everything followed one basic maxim: “the survival of the fittest.”

This theory states that organisms will inherently struggle against one another in competition for limited resources that make life possible. Following from this logic, only the strongest, most robust and most adapted species are thus able to survive the evolutionary struggle. The emergence of life, then, is based on competition alone and individualistic competitive drive is one of the most important and a necessary trait if a species wants to survive. In essence, this theory of evolution has also given justification to everything from capitalist economic theory to pathological ideas of Social Darwinism that believed that the dominance of the Caucasian race obeyed unchangeable physical laws.

But is it true? Is life simply the outcome of cutthroat competition? Elizabeth Sahtouris is an American evolutionary biologist that is most well known questioning some of Darwin´s most basic assumptions about the evolution of life. Sahtouris says that “Darwin was right about species competing for resources but he never saw beyond it as just one stage in the maturation cycle. Evolution proceeded when crises created by species forced them to go beyond “survival of the fittest” and find cooperative strategies for survival.”

The survival of the fittest competition, then, is but one stage of a larger evolutionary cycle. Sahtouris mentions the example of how the very first bacteria that began life over 4 billion years ago spent billions of years in the competitive stage of their evolution. This competitive drive allowed them to colonize large areas of the earth and advance life itself, but had they continued with their purely selfish and competitive drive, they would have eventually died out.

Human history, especially during the last 250 years, has been characterized by unlimited competition. But Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky prophetically proclaimed that human beings are an “unfinished species.” As one of the youngest species (in evolutionary terms), we need to learn to move from competition to cooperation so that our species can continue to co-evolve with the world in which we live.

This evolutionary “jump” for humanity will mean that we´ll have to question some of the most basic tenets of our economic, political and social livelihoods. Greed will need to be replaced by a willingness to share. Violence will need to be substituted for peaceful coexistence, and our human hubris will need to be transformed into a humble realization that our survival depends on adhering to the principles and ethics that sustain life itself.

Individual self-interest won´t simply disappear. We will forever continue to be individuals. But our own self-interest will need to be negotiated with the greater interest of the communities where we live. In the next step of our evolution, cooperative synergy will replace competitive exploitation.

The coming catastrophes that will change our society present an opportunity to rethink the fundamental values and ethics that drive our civilization. If we choose to see our survival as a purely individual responsibility; zealously protecting our own survival and wellbeing from others, then we may survive, but not evolve. However, if we choose to see the impending catastrophes as an opportunity to transform some of the most basic assumptions about how we relate to one another and to the world as a whole, then surviving may also present a unique opportunity to continue to evolve as a species.


In order to take the next step in our evolution from competition to true cooperation and mutually beneficial ways of coexisting, we need to reshape our civilization so that we can live better in place. It is hard to imagine true cooperation between different organisms that don´t share the same physical reality. The hermit crab and anemone can only enter into mutualistic relationship because both of their livelihoods are fixed in a certain place within the ocean.

One of the most essential aspects of building a sustainable civilization rests on returning to place and having our lives and livelihoods firmly rooted in the tangible places where we live. Bioregionalism is one economic and social model that gives conceptual insight into how our civilization can be shaped.

Bioregions are unique, physical locations with distinctive types of soils and land forms, their own watersheds and climates, native plants and animals, and other natural characteristics. Human beings also form part of a bioregion. Even though we may very well seek to separate ourselves from the physical characteristics of the places we live, our lives and livelihoods inevitably cause profound effects on the placers where we live. In turn, we are also affected by the places we live. If, for example, we pollute the water sources in our bioregion, then we´ll either be forced to drink contaminated water or, as happens in most industrial societies, ship in potable water from other non-contaminated places.

Bioregionalism is an elaborate term for living a life firmly rooted in place where the decisions we make are based on an intimate awareness of how our livelihoods are affected by the places we live and how we are in turn affected by the conditions and limitations of our places. In order to consciously opt for cooperative relationships, it is first necessary to understand the web of relationships that makes our lives possible.

Tobias Roberts

After working in the development industry for over a decade, Tobias decided it was time to stop advising Central American farmers how to do things if he didn´t have a piece of land to live coherently with what he taught. Together with his family he runs a small agro-forestry farm, tourism cooperative, and natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador.


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