1999 William J. Beaty


Here's an interesting viewpoint I've encountered:

"Humans are just evolved animals. The only way to succeed is Darwin's way; to compete with the other animals for scarce resources; to strive for personal strength and a selfish viewpoint. The more ruthless and predatory you behave towards others, the better you are at the game of life, where only the strong survive. Whether competing for the best food, jobs, mates, or environmental niches, anything goes, and the alternative is failure and death. Altruism is stupid, and "Nice" is a sign of weakness. If you aren't a WINNER, why, you must be a LOSER, and the human race is better off without you. It's not a question of good versus evil, because the main rule is "survival of the strong", and the unfit people deserve to die, that's how the human race gets stronger. Never coddle the weaklings, or you will turn humankind itself into a population of LOSERS."

While the above might be a severe distortion of the Neodarwinian viewpoint, I find that many science-oriented people seem to believe it. Evolutionary theory prior to 1970 seems to say that "evil" is the best policy, where "evil" means self-centered behavior, lying, treachery, stealing of scarce resources from others, eliminating your competitors in any way possible, etc.

Guess what? Contemporary science is in the process of learning that this philosophy is a load of garbage. Nature doesn't work that way, and animals don't act like that. We are discovering that cooperation is one of the most powerful evolutionary forces around. We are finding that creativity wins over strength. In the battle to survive, creatures who collaborate with each other can burst ahead of the selfish and brutal "WINNERS." Altruists who team up and work to create the best food, mates, or environmental niches, are the ones who succeed.

( So the Neodarwinists... are wrong? Heresy! )


The discovery of creatures who create their own resources and who cooperate with each other was earlier voiced by Dr. Lynn Margulis, who saw that living cells are actually small bacterial societies, like miniature cities. In these "societies", brutal competition is excluded. The creatures create their own environment, and teamwork is the norm. Once this sort of cooperation was seen in one instance in Nature, it suddenly started popping up all over the place. Or maybe it was always there, but our belief in the need for brutal Darwinian "competition" made us blind to it.

Evolution in Virtual Worlds

In the last two decades we have finally gained the ability to speed up evolution and watch it happen before our eyes. In the new field of Artificial Life, or "A-life," researchers create little computer-generated worlds, fill them with a variety of simplified and dynamically-mutating creatures, and set them loose to see what occurs. What typically occurs is competition. ...then parasitism ...then symbiosis. Artifical lifeforms discover teamwork all by themselves! Competitive creatures die off, are replaced with "cooperators," and altruism rears its ugly head. :) The main rule of life is NOT the survival of the strong at the expense of the weak. Instead the rule often seems to be "survival of the reciprocal altruists." Creatures who collaborate in order to reach mutual goals are the ones who thrive. Creatures who band together to form powerful meta-creatures are the ones who conquer the world. It might be stretching things a bit, but where Evolution is concerned, it's not too wrong to say that selflessness wins over selfishness... that Good conquers Evil.

The Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma

The mathematical field of GAME THEORY supplies a simple model of life called "The Prisoner's Dilemma." The simplified version: when you are in a fix, is it best to betray your friends in order to save your own ass? A competitive/predatory mindset says yes. But what happens if you betray your friends not just once, but over and over? Everyone turns their back on you! This is the lesson of the "Iterated Prisoners' Dilemma." As a mathematical problem, the Prisoners' Dilemma has been around nearly forever, but only recently did anyone start thinking about what would happen if the process occurs more than once, so that your fellow creatures can find out about your hidden strategy. If you put yourself first above others, and if you never cooperate with others to reach mutual goals, then this is valuable "survival information" which can be used by your fellow creatures. The evil ones among a group are noticed. Evolution contains morality! "Good" computer-creatures will discover and turn away from their treacherous and self-protective fellows, and the "evil" ones become less numerous, maybe even dying off. Whenever the other creatures can see your behavior and remember it, then a life of pure selfishness does not pay.

The whole thing is very clear in hindsight. But if we were to believe that all resources are inherently scarce, and that Darwinian Competition is the only way to play the game, then we might never notice such an obvious pattern. And if our own lives have been "nasty, brutish, and short", then perhaps we'll be moved to intentionally close our eyes to any evidence that suggests life need not be that way.

Tit for Tat

Some hobbyists and researchers pit their artificial computer creatures against each other. They participate in war-games. What kind of creature wins these games? Do the strong survive? No, unless you count "moral strength" as being important. A very successful creature is a simple one known as Tit-for-Tat. When dealing with other creatures, Tit-for-tat is trusting. It first assumes that the other creature is unselfish and "good," and so it attempts to cooperate. Then, after the first interaction, Tit-for-tat remembers the behavior of its opponent, and will turn their behavior back against them. If you screw with a Tit-for-tat creature, then Tit-for tat will screw you right back the next time you meet it. But if you treat Tit-for-tat nice, then Tit-for-tat will remember this when next you meet. However, there is an additional and interesting effect. Because Tit-for-tat always gives other creatures the benefit of the doubt on the first meeting, teams made of Tit-for-tat creatures don't try to hurt each other. In the artificial battlefield, Tit-for-tat societies can often grow large and wipe out their bad-ass "Meanie" opponents.

Do you think that life is like a war, where you must screw others or they will screw you first, and where the biggest, baddest assholes are the winners? This is the philosophy of the Zero-Sum Game. In a Zero-Sum Game there is only one prize. In a Zero-Sum game you're either a winner or a loser, and the opponents never cooperate with each other and share the mutual winnings. In other words, the only way to win is to steal success from others. That's the competitive mindset reduced to its purest form.

Looks like this viewpoint is wrong. Real life is not a Zero-Sum Game where the strong Winners must conquer the weaker Losers. Instead, life is fotne more like a mountaineering expedition: everyone is on the same team, everyone cooperates in reaching a mutual goal, and competitive behavior between the team members is both stupid and dangerous.

Once "cooperation" becomes part of the mechanisms behind evolution, honor and personal integrity become like physical forces which bend the life-paths of trillions of creatures upwards into mutual success. Treachery, jealousy, and self-protection become like anti-life which, while they may temporarily aid a single creature, they drive all of life-kind downwards away from global success. The central rule is not "the strong survive", instead the central rule is to promote the spread of life in general, and also to recognize and ostracise any treacherous teammates who promote themselves while hurting everyone else.

Well, it certainly did take modern science almost a century to discover what most people knew all along!



  • The Blind Watchmaker, R. Dawkins, we're all just byproducts of
    competition between selfish genes. (see other Dawkins books too!)

Desire for approval and recognition is a healthy motive, but the desire to be acknowledged as better, stronger, or more intelligent than a fellow being or fellow scholar easily leads to an excessively egoistic psychological adjustment, which may become injurious for the individual and for the community.
- Albert Einstein


ZOOLAND Artificial Life Resource
The famous/infamous (delete one) Santa Fe Institute brings us this brainmeltingly extensive collection of links to sites involving Artificial Life: "a-life." Zerosum breakage and titfortat dealings. Simulations/animations and applet-based growings. Fractals and fishtanks & emergent-boid wings. These are a few of my favorite things! :)
The Altruist Survivor
What's wrong with Evolution?
Chaos, cheating and cooperation: potential solutions to the Prisoner's Dilemma
FAQ: self-organizing systems
Church of Virus and virus list
Oppressed by Evolution (excellent essay in DISCOVER magazine)
The Prisoner's Dilemma
Pris. Dil. population (applet)
Axelrod - Axelrod, R.: The Complexity of Cooperation: Agent-Based Models of Competition and Collaboration.
Axelrod - Evolution of Cooperation
Axelrod - Complexity of Cooperation
Axelrod - Working papers
Alife 5 IPD with noise site
The Localisation of Interaction and Learning in the Repeated Prisoner's Dilemma
B. A. Huberman and N. S. Glance, Beliefs and Cooperation
B. A. Huberman and N. S. Glance, Beliefs and Cooperation
B. A. Huberman and N. S. Glance, Diversity and Collective Action
B. A. Huberman and N. S. Glance, Evolutionary Games and Computer Simulations
N. S. Glance, Dynamics with Expectations, PhD thesis, 1993
B. A. Huberman and R. N. Lukose, Social Dilemmas in Internet Congestions, 1997

"To understand recursion, one must first understand the concept of recursion." 

Updated: March 21,2004
Created and maintained by Bill Beaty. Mail me at: .