Reblog: Collaboration is dominant in nature

By Quirijn Foeken | July 17, 2018
Quirijn Foeken

In the last few weeks, ChainPoint had interesting conversations with multiple brand owners and sustainability standards at events such as the 2018 Global Sustainability Conference and the BCI 2018 Global Cotton Conference. These conversations reinforced one of ChainPoint’s core values: that collaboration is key to drive change across the supply chain.

This reminded us of an interesting blog ChainPoint’s Lieven Callewaert wrote a while back, on how collaboration is dominant in nature, even though you might think that both humans and animals are inherently selfish. Therefore we decided to republish this blog:

At ChainPoint we say that cooperation is in our DNA. This is not just a metaphor and it applies not only to us or to our customers working together in food supply chains that extend throughout the world. It is true for all human beings. To cooperate, as we experience it every day, is a very natural thing to do, even when the thesis of the "selfish gene", which is today supported by most evolutionary biologists, initially seems to tell another story.

Darwin discussed in The Descent of Man (1871) how cooperation or even altruism could fit into the theory of natural selection. Wasn't natural selection all about the survival of the fittest? Why do we, or other species for that matter, do things that benefit others, but not ourselves; things that might even directly harm us? We can see examples of this behaviour all around us in nature. Think about the signaling behaviour of many animals warning group members that a possible predator closes in, even when this draws the attention of the predator to the alarm-caller himself. Think about the numerous birds taking care of the brood of others while the parents are away collecting food. Think of ants and bees, all taking care of the offspring of just one queen mother. Think of the vampire bats that regularly regurgitate blood to feed other bats that weren't so lucky at last night’s hunt. Or think of elephants forming a protective circle around their youngest when they are under attack.

There is still a strong debate going on about the exact biological mechanisms, but one proven strategy of the "selfish genes" to maximize the amount of copies in future generations, is for the carriers of these genes to cooperate with each other. This seems paradoxical, but we can see it happen every day among strongly related individuals, within groups like herds, within whole species and even across species living in symbiosis, like these cleaner fish that remove dead skin and parasites from much larger and normally predatory fish.

Of course it is broadly acknowledged that human beings are a special and very complex case. Most of the time we don’t just act, but we act consciously and deliberately. That means that our behaviour is not just formed by our genes but by our psychological, social and cultural background as well. But I would say, that this even strengthens our tendency to cooperate, because it makes us care about others, about causes, about societies, about our planet as a whole and not just about ourselves. On the other hand we might say, that it was our genes that eventually enabled us to become like this.

But even when we think of humans as purely rational beings continuously striving to maximize one's own benefits, we still can see that cooperation is the best strategy. Using game theory Axelrod and Rapoport showed us that the so called tit-for-tat strategy - where we cooperate at first encounter and afterwards copy the previous behaviour of the other - is in the long run the most successful. Hence, cooperation is not only natural, it is smart as well. So, let's cooperate some more. 

Posted in sustainability standards, colloboration

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