Sunday, July 8, 2012

Cooperation and the Divine

(Picture from Where the Hell Is Matt?)

The thing humans do more than anything else is interact with other human beings. We are supercooperators. Nothing on this planet is even close to us in our ability to cooperate with one another. We can, easily, be members of multiple groups, some of which might be in competition or conflict with one another. A Baptist in Wisconsin can cooperate with a Musllim in Arizona and have nothing more in common with one another than a rejection of the qualifications of a politician. (Not all cooperations are positive.) 

There are a number of articles coming out (notable in Martin Nowak's Scientific American article here.) that are starting to really examine cooperation scientifically and from the perspective of evolution. Cooperation has been a problem within human evolution for a while. Why cooperate? Why not cheat? Don't cheaters win?

Not really.

The problem of cooperation appears to have been a human conceptual difficulty rather than an actual problem. It is sort of like the bumblebee myth. You know the one. Bumblebees violate the laws of aerodynamics but still fly. Aren't scientists dumb?

The actual bumblebee story is much more interesting. Yes, bumblebees violate the Bernoulli principle underlying fixed and rotor wing flight dynamics. To call them "laws" is incorrect. They are models of flight where some components of the model-- such as the viscosity of the medium-- can be negligible. If you tried to fly an airbus in honey the results would be somewhat different. To something the size and mass of an insect, however, viscosity matters a great deal and new principles must be applied.

Cooperation has had a rocky road. First, there was the fact that Darwin came up with his ideas in the midst of Industrial Revolution England. The idea of the ascent of man being the result of individual triumph was attractive. Then there was Raymond Dart who first came up with man rising from the murderous ape. And all the rest. The result of which is this idea that human beings are competitors first and cooperators a distant second if not third. Then the math models kept suggesting that cheaters and individuals were favored by evolution. Where would such behavior come from if not from evolution?

It's interesting how such ideas get established and then accepted without really being examined further. The idea of the "rugged individual" succeeding against all odds is such a powerful narrative tic that it seems to blind us to reality. The fact of the matter which you can see driving down the street, checking out at a super market or standing in line for a movie is we cooperate all the time. We do it so naturally, so easily, so comfortably it is like the air we breathe.

The article referenced above has expanded the math models significantly. It turns out that while initially there is a leaning towards cheating and favor the individual over the group, after a few generations there is a shift towards cooperation. Nowak has identified not one mechanism for the evolution of cooperation but five. (See here.)

But remember that the actions that result in natural selection of organisms do not necessarily have evolutionary origins. Chimps don't have sex because they are trying to get their genes propagated. They do it because it feels good. People don't cooperate because it will make their group genes propagate. They do it because they value the group's existence, because they want to feel included, because they value the shared experience, because they are emotionally moved.

Enter Matt Harding.

You may remember Harding as the originator of the dancing video. Harding traveled around the world getting himself filmed dancing (Badly. Very badly.) in front of a lot of landmarks and locations. In Africa there wasn't much to dance in front of so he danced with some kids. He thought this was exciting and a whole lot more interesting than dancing in front of monuments. Harding put together the video along with a music background. Nothing engenders the group experience like music. But it wasn't enough.

So he did it again. This time he filmed people dancing (Some badly. Some not so badly.) with him. This time the center of the view was him dancing with kids, adults, dogs-- anything that was there. This time he did it with his girlfriend/fiance and eventually wife.

Time passed. They had a child. Something still wasn't quite right. The videos were good but he wanted a bit more.

So he did it again. This time he and his wife did it together. This time he tried to pull together the essence of the experience into a work of art-- although I don't think Harding would ever use those words. The result is extraordinary. It's at the Harding link above. I suggest you go watch it. Then watch all of the videos on the site page.

I am biologically inclined. Anybody who's read these posts is surely aware of that by now. If there are poles of orientation in my psyche they tend to be  material, human centric and scientifically directed. I don't have a lot of truck with things termed "spiritual." After all, it was our mammalian ancestors that gave us the limbic system that gets fired when we work together on a joint project or see Yosemite or meet our newborn child for the first time. 

That said, it is not our mammalian heritage that conceived of the project, recognized the transcendence of Yosemite and named our first born son. 

We can never leave behind where we came from. It is with us root and branch as we breathe in and out. We must remember we are not limited by it. There is such a thing as an organism transcending its biology. When we pursue goals that could never have been dictated to us by our evolutionary heritage. When we aspire to things that cannot possibly be explained by reproductive success. When we reach out to strangers to do nothing more than show our common ground by dancing on it. 

It is the only thing worthy of the word "divine."

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