Evolutionary History Retold: Cooperation Out-Competes Competition – Part 1 of 2

Top photo by Biggles 621.  Bottom photo by Tambako the Jaguar.
Top photo by Biggles 621. Bottom photo by Tambako the Jaguar.

A person’s culture colors the way that they see all of reality.  This becomes particularly clear in people’s retelling of history.  Even if the story is accurate, which facts get told is still the product of the teller’s worldview, perspective, biases, prejudices, and even temperament.

The story of evolution is no exception. The first accounts of evolution, and the history of life on Earth, were told within a very particular historical context – during the height of the industrial revolution in the mid-1800’s in Great Britain. The influences of this time period are quite obvious: the scarcity of resources, the overproduction of offspring, the death of many in the competition for survival, etc.  This perspective reflects the contemporaneous societal difficulties – life expectancy was around 40 and society was plagued by such scourges as tuberculosis, cholera, scarlet fever, whooping cough, the Irish Potato Famine, poverty stricken city slums, slavery, political revolution,  and many other large scale difficulties.  The Malthusian paradigm that there is a brutal tug-of-war between life and death in society rang deeply true to many during Darwin’s time.


The overall point? Darwin had particular emphases (and biases), just like we all do (myself included!).  He was a product of his culture, just like we all are.  As such, his emphasis (and the emphasis of those that popularized his work) was often on competition’s role in evolution.  In Darwin’s words, evolution is “the war of nature” and a “struggle for life.”  What I’d like to do is retell the history of life on planet Earth with a different emphasis.  This emphasis does not in any way contradict what Darwin and his contemporaries put forth.  It just expands on it.

Since discussions of evolution focus so much on competition, it makes sense to take a look at the latter — cooperation. And an analysis of this reveals that nearly every major revolution in evolution is the result of cooperation.   I’ll start at the beginning and show how life as we know it, by-in-large, is the product of non-zero sum relationships. Let’s take a look.

The First Life ~4-3.5 billion years ago (bya)

The first life, our ‘cenancestor’, likely was a collective of lipid bubbles that shared back and forth genes, enzymes, proteins, and means of metabolism.  It is widely hypothesized that the borders of the first life were very fuzzy indeed, and their success was contingent upon their collaboration in sharing adaptations.  The first life was a team.

The Great Oxygenation ~ 2.4 bya

Around 2.4 billion years ago something truly remarkable took place – the Earth rusted.  As you know, oxygen is produced as a by-product of photosynthesis.  During Earth’s earliest stages of life, photosynthetic cyanobacteria produced enough oxygen to drastically change the nature of our atmosphere and even to have iron compounds in the ocean oxidize, sinking to the bottom of the ocean leaving pretty bands for us to find as evidence of this occurrence.

Banded Iron Formation specimen from Upper Michigan Source

At first, this was awful news for the non-cyanobacteria of the day.  Oxygen was a toxin to the most abundant life at that time – the anaerobes.  This molecular oxygen waste caused massive die-offs of anaerobic microbes. Then something else remarkable happened.

The mutually beneficial cycle of exchange formed between photosynthesizers and aerobes.  The photosynthesizers traded oxygen for carbon  dioxide and the aerobes traded carbon dioxide for oxygen.  It’s a beautiful cycle that has been going strong ever since!

Some, like James Lovelock, have pointed out that the more life there is on Earth, the more capable the Earth is to contain more life i.e.,  life promotes life. For example, it is estimated that Earth’s atmosphere without life would look like 98% Carbon dioxide, 0% Oxygen, 1% Nitrogen.  Let me translate that for you:  with all that carbon dioxide, Earth would be blazing hot and inhospitable to life, much like Venus.

It’s not like that, though, is it?  Photosynthesizing plants and algae have soaked up massive quantities of carbon dioxide while producing oxygen and annamox bacteria have put out equally massive quantities of nitrogen (which is an inert and bio-friendly gas).  Here’s what Earth’s atmosphere now looks like after life has drastically changed it: .00035 % Carbon dioxide, 21% Oxygen, 78% Nitrogen.  Please glance up to the previous paragraph to compare those figures with what it would normally be.  It’s a drastic change.

We have a near optimal amount of oxygen in the atmosphere.  Any less and we all would be anemic and respiration would struggle.  Any more and oxidation would be rampant along with extreme wildfires that would run out of control. (Source: James Lovelock’s influential and controversial book “Gaia.”)

Endosymbiosis ~ 2.0 bya

In 1967 Lynn Margulis, a biologist that had been studying mitochondria (the powerhouse organelle of our cells and other eukaryotes), announced a startling conclusion she had come to: mitochondria are a separate species that lives inside of us (and other eukaryotes). Her evidence was robust and has been confirmed and strengthened over time. It is now known as the “Endosymbiotic Theory” (endo=in, sym=with, bio=life). Mitochondria divide like bacteria, have protein making ribosomes like bacteria, have their own unnucleated genome like a bacteria, and are structurally shaped like bacteria.

When you think about it, it’s a shocking proposition. We, and other eukaryotes, aren’t one thing — we’re many things working together. We aren’t a human. We’re trillions of evolved bacteria working together.  Bacteria that, if you were to separate us from our friends, the mitochondria, we’d quickly die.  As would they. This genius idea might have come about as aerobic bacteria (the mitochondria) and anaerobic bacteria (that’d be ‘us’, so to speak) dividing the labor, became specialists and after billions of years are absolutely, completely, 100% dependent on each other. Marvelous!

Multicellularity ~ 1 bya


Multicellular life further refines the idea of working as a team of specialists. As oxygen continued to build up in the atmosphere, complex organic molecules like collagen, that uses oxygen, started to stick stuff together to build the vast city-scape networks of multicellular life.

Consider this:  Your body has 10 trillion cells, 100 billion neurons, and 100 trillion synaptic connections between those neurons.  The level of symphonic cooperation that is exhibited by the human body should leave us all in wonder at the magnitude and scope of cooperation within us.

Sexual Reproduction ~ +-1 billion years ago

Around the same time that multicellularity evolved, another extraordinary event took place – two individuals shared genes and sexually reproduced for the first time ever.

This is a big deal and kind of a mystery we’ve yet to fully crack on how it first took place.  Why was it so advantageous that sexual reproduction came about?  Because it revolutionized the way evolution took place.  Instead of just relying on mutation to introduce novel adaptations, now chromosomal cross over and random assortment could combine the best that two had to offer.  Not only that, but it also allowed the storing of genes in a second set of chromosomes, thus acting as a trait repository for later evolutionary use.

Symbiotic Digestion ~ 600 mya

Simple animals with the first digestive tracts co-evolve with bacteria (and later fungi and protists) to digest food more completely. Consider ourselves: by count, we are more bacteria than human.  May I repeat that?  In and on our body there are more bacterial cells than there are human cells.  It’s been estimated that a normal person has 10 trillions cell, but in and on us we have 100 trillion bacteria cells. Once again, on yet another level, we are cooperation on legs.

The First True Plants ~ 500 mya

Plants colonize the land by working with fungi.  The fungi may have provided structure and metabolic assistance to photosynthesizing cyanobacteria.  They teamed up and pretty much made the rest of terrestrial life possible.

Mammals ~ 200 mya


What makes us so different from other organisms? How is that we rule the Cenozoic period? Warm blood? No, think of other warm blooded animals like birds and arguably dinosaurs that were doing just fine before mammals took over. Is it having fur? Not really. Feathers are probably more effective at retaining heat. Is it our differentiated teeth? Eh. I think one of the greatest things that makes us so special is the way we take extraordinarily good care of our young – namely, we feed them milk through mammary glands. The child offers a way to pass on the mother’s DNA and the mother offers milk and care. Cooperation.  Non-zero sum.

Flowering Plants ~ 140 mya

Flowering plants evolved using insects as pollinators and animals as seed distributors. They now out number the previous land champions, ferns and conifers, 20 to 1. There are 300,000 species of plants and the newcomers, flowering plants, number 250,000. Cooperation works. If there were no flowering plants there’d be none of our normal fruit, butterflies, honey bees, cotton, roses, orchids, or likely us since many of our ancestors were fruit eaters or frugivores.

Hominin Alloparenting ~ 6-2 mya

Alloparenting, the process of rearing young by a tribe, gives Homo sapiens the ability to provide food for large brained, feeble offspring. “It takes a village to raise a child” really is true for humans. As our brains got bigger, our bodies got smaller (since there were selective forces that were keeper our hips small, like needing to run fast) and our babies started to need so much care that one woman couldn’t do it alone, nor could one couple. A whole village was needed – someone to get carbs (like digging up tubers), several people to hunt meat collectively, another to gather fruits and nuts, another to bring water home, etc. Contrast this with newborn wildebeests, which have to be able to stand within minutes and join the herds migration or become dinner. Our babies can’t even raise their heads or roll over, much-less walk for a considerable time. Our success (our survival) is a testament to our ability to cooperate and work together.

You can, of course, continue this line of thinking including cultural evolution of cooperation like spoken language, agriculture, government, written language, et cetera. (And I will soon have another post about how human fossils show a touching story of love and cooperation.)

Granted, there will always be parasites and predators using short term strategies that take advantage of other organisms. However, there almost by necessity is more cooperation than competition in any given ecosystem.  If it weren’t so, the ecosystem would simply collapse.  Take for example the lion depicted at the very top of this page.  That lion may be competing with the wildebeest, but she is still trillions of cells cooperating through multicellularity; symbiotic bacteria for digestion; endosymbiotic mitochondria; sexual reproduction; deep, long lasting relationships with other lions in her pride; and through the care she expresses to her offspring.  Pick any ecosystem you’d like and you will find an overwhelming amount of cooperation!


I hope that when you look outside at your backyard or walk through a park or forest you look around and see the massive amounts of cooperation in the endosymbiotic, multicellular, sexually reproducing, symbiotically digesting, symbiotically reproducing, child caring life all around us!  It’s beautiful!

Long term: cooperation out competes competition.

Nature is nice. 🙂

Rough Brown Stucco

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