Cooperation is the adaptive behavior that evolutionary biology just cannot seem to satisfactorily explain. We see cooperative behaviors in a great variety of taxa, and cooperation seems to be a property of multiple scales of biological organization. But how does cooperation evolve? There are plenty of competing hypotheses, but none of these hypotheses has been shown to be the ‘true explanation’ for cooperation. And inasmuch as different forms of cooperation might evolve by different mechanisms, we still do not have a clear sense of why cooperation might require different drivers under different ecological conditions.
My interest in cooperation binds together and infuses all of my diverse interests. By exploring and explaining system stability I hope to understand how cooperation evolves. I see emergence as an important concept because it might help explain how the interests of smaller-scale entities (i.e. selfishness) can be reined in so that larger-scale entities can exist (via cooperation). And I also see my profession in the light of cooperation, as teaching is a critical component of maintaining a cooperative civil society.
Cooperation and Sustainability
The sustainability movement is dominated by design and technology; humans are trying to manufacture their way out of our unsustainable industrial economy. And while I do not doubt that we will need ‘new stuff’ in order to become sustainable, I also think that we need ‘new values’ and ‘new policies’ far more than we need new stuff. Humans are ingenius designers and will no doubt create the stuff we need to be sustainable once the correct social incentives are in place. But what would bring about these incentives, and what would these incentives look like? These questions are fundamentally about cooperation, and an understanding of how cooperation evolves in biological systems can inform the values and policies we need in order to become truly sustainable.
Cooperation and Pedagogy
Explaining cooperation is a major goal of my teaching. My courses in Evolution, The Evolution of Play, Ecology, The Evolution of Sex, The Evolution of Music, and Behavioral Ecology all include units on cooperative behaviors. I also teach an entire course dedicated to understanding The Evolution of Cooperation. I am also working on producing an online cooperative resource containing various tools for teaching about how cooperation evolves.
You can see all of my blog posts related to cooperation here.