In the past, cooperation was a difficult thing to account for from an evolutionary standpoint. How could cooperation between organisms evolve if the primary operative machinery of evolution is individual survival? John Nash’s studies on the prisoner’s dilemma had already made it clear that, from a standpoint of math and probability, the best individual outcome in most cases was non-cooperation.
But a recent study is calling that into question … at least as it relates to evolution. According to the study:
. . . It is not sufficient for a strategy to outcompete another strategy in direct competition, that is, winning is not everything. Rather, a strategy must also play well against itself. The reason for this is that if a strategy plays well against an opponent but reaps less of a benefit competing against itself, then it will be able to invade a population but will quickly have to compete against its own offspring and its rate of expansion slows down. This is even more pronounced in populations with a spatial structure, where offspring are placed predominantly close to the progenitor. If the competing strategy in comparison plays very well against itself, then a strategy that only plays well against an opponent may not even be able to invade.
Natural selection is all about the ability of an organism to involuntarily and generationally adapt to a changing environment. That environment includes other organisms too. Which traits will be successful is not a matter of choice as much as it is circumstance. Being able to breathe underwater but not in the open air is not an “optimum” trait in itself. That all depends on the circumstance. In a desert? You and your genes are going to die. In a world covered in water? You and your genes will survive.
This study, looking backwards, sees a clear long-term survival advantage in cooperation (e.g., it is obvious that ants could not survive as individuals). But the real question is not whether cooperation is advantageous overall. The question for an undirected process (like evolution) is whether cooperation is advantageous right now—whether or not cooperation would provide an initial survival advantage to an individual organism. And the answer is no.
Part of the problem with this study, and with all evolutionary research actually, is that a materialist really can’t talk about a “best” outcome or an “evolutionary strategy.” Whose strategy are they talking about? Do the genes have a strategy? I saw an article titled, “Is DNA the smartest molecule in existence?” Evolutionists are not against intelligent design, in other words. They need some intelligent director of evolution. Otherwise, as the study proves, short-term advantages leading to long-term detriment would end in extinction for a population of selfish individualists.
The lead author of the new “anti-selfish” study, Christoph Adami, wrote, “Being mean can give you an advantage on a short timescale but certainly not in the long run—you would go extinct.” But we haven’t gone extinct, and the only evolution we have ever witnessed has been absolutely individualistic (after all, this study is based on logic games and speculation, not hard and present evidence). We have not watched the evolution of cooperation out of non-cooperation. Cooperation is already there and has been there ever since we started looking. And it works only because it is already there. Any explanation for its existence requires the inclusion of some intelligence—some ability to forego short-term advantages for long-term ones. And natural selection offers no mechanism for this.
The “short timescale” is all that any individual organism has to look at, and it is all that really matters in terms of natural selection. After all, the “orthogenesis” hypothesis was rejected years and years ago as a vestige of essentialism. Evolution is blind. Evolution is not creating the optimum organism. It is not progressing things from simple to complex, from worse to better, from mean to nice. Evolution doesn’t make progress. If stupidity becomes a survival advantage (which it surely has in the current scientific community), then stupidity will propagate. Evolution is not upward or onward. Evolution doesn’t make short-term sacrifices in order to achieve long-term goals. Evolution is not for the better. “Better” is a moral and ideological assessment. And only people make those. Evolution is not a person. I really wish that evolutionary scientists would stop projecting their longings for a personal god onto the blind mechanism of evolution.
Ultimately, this study is flawed. Evolutionists are in the habit of searching for material causes for moral qualities (e.g., Dawkins with his famous “selfish gene”). They can’t and won’t believe that perhaps cooperation is good because it is right. Loyalty, trust, honesty, dignity, honor, and compassion are not the ideological shadows of some material evolutionary advantage. Instances of these traits occur in creation because creation reflects the character of the person who designed it. Cooperation in nature, no matter how much scientists try to explain it macro-evolutionarily, is just another evidence for divine design.