This View of Life Anything and everything from an evolutionary perspective.
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It’s All About Cooperation
Joe Rebholz
Joe Rebholz
is an independent researcher and writer.

Cultural evolution is all about cooperation. Then what is cooperation? Let’s look at a couple definitions.

Here’s one from

Voluntarily arrangement in which two or more entities engage in a mutually beneficial exchange instead of competing. Cooperation can happen where resources adequate for both parties exist or are created by their interaction.

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The first sentence mentions entities. This must include people. Then it talks about an exchange. What is exchanged? Money? Things? Cooperation is more than that. It seems to me there must be something about working together. And this definition seems to imply that competition is the opposite of cooperation by including “instead of competing”. That’s no good because it’s easy to show, with a better definition of cooperation that at least some forms of competition (organized sports for example) are cooperation. This definition is not very good.

Let’s look at another definition of cooperation from

  1. an act or instance of working or acting together for a common purpose or benefit; joint action.
  2. more or less active assistance from a person, organization, etc.: We sought the cooperation of various civic leaders.
  3. willingness to cooperateto indicate cooperation.
  4. Economics. the combination of persons for purposes of production, purchase, or distribution for their joint benefit: producers’ cooperation; consumers’ cooperation.
  5. Sociology. activity shared for mutual benefit.
  6. Ecology. mutually beneficial interaction among organisms living in a limited area.

In this definition #1 is the most relevant to what I want: “working or acting together for a common purpose or benefit”. This fits in with “for their joint benefit” in #4 and “mutual benefit” in #5

So here’s my definition.

Cooperation is a voluntary arrangement in which two or more people (or organisms) work or act together for a common purpose or benefit.

So cooperation is a voluntary arrangement. It’s not forced. The people agree to do something together for the benefit of all of them, to do something they all enjoy, or to make something or some things they all can use or that someone else can use. When the people agree voluntarily they must communicate that fact to one another. They must all understand what they are going to do, how they are going to do it, who does what, etc. And actually working together for a common purpose for some period of time requires that they communicate with one another. Communicating requires that they send and receive information to and from each other.

Not all definitions of cooperation limit it to people. We have “entities” from From we have “person, organization” from #2, “persons” from #4, and “organisms” #6.

So cooperation is inseparable from communication and communication is inseparable from information.

It is commonly thought that cooperation is the opposite of competition and conflict. But competition as in sports is a form of cooperation since the participants voluntarily agree on the rules of the game and work or act together for the purpose of determining which person or team is better at the sport. Conflict in the form of war and killing or injuring others is not a voluntary arrangement of working together for a common goal and is destructive. Conflict in the form of a heated discussion can be cooperation in the sense that the discussion might be part of a larger process of working together for a common purpose.

What’s going on when two or more people work or act together? To work or act together means they are doing something together. Doing something together means they are exchanging information to do something, to make something, to create something. So the process of cooperation requires the exchange of information and the exchange of information requires the creation of new information since the exchange of information means new information is created in the brains and minds of the participants. To incorporate information into your mind means you have to add the incoming information to what is already there and that means you have to modify the information that is already there and you have to modify the information that is coming in. Thus the result of receiving new information is the creation of new information in your brain. [1]

When you receive information through your senses you not only store it somewhere somehow but you categorize it, you connect it to already existing information in your brain. These storage and connection processes are necessary so you can retrieve and use the information later. If a chunk of information in your brain had no connections to any other information in your brain/body, it may as well not be there because it couldn’t do anything, you couldn’t use it.

When you receive information from another person you connect it to the unique other information you already have. The connections of this chunk of information coming from the other person’s brain in the other person’s brain are different from the connections you will make in your brain when you receive the chunk. Thus new information is created in your brain by the new connections you make to an incoming chunk of information. Exchanging information creates new information. The process of communicating creates new information. Cooperation creates new information.

Cooperation is a voluntary arrangement. An arrangement is information in the form of rules about who does what in the cooperative activities and it’s voluntary so all the participants agree on the rules. We can say the arrangement here is a social arrangement since it’s people working together for a common purpose or goal or mutual benefit.

What is the role of rules in the cooperation of large social groups such as a nation or a religion consisting of thousands or millions of individual humans? In such a large group it is not possible for each pair of individuals to have a conversation. And any one person in such a group cannot know each of the other members of the group. So in what sense can we say the whole group is cooperating? In a nation or religion there is a more or less commonly accepted set of beliefs and rules for personal and interactive behaviors. These beliefs and rules are taught by parents and others to children and younger members. In a nation these rules are in the form of customs, habits, and laws. The beliefs and rules are reinforced continuously or periodically. In many religions the beliefs and rules are reinforced in weekly services. In nations the beliefs and rules are reinforced continuously through mass media such as printed materials like newspapers, magazines, books, films and electronic media like radio, TV, Internet. These all have the characteristic of being one way transfers of information from one or a few people to many people. The Internet allows some feedback, poling also, but feedback from receiver to sender is insignificant. In recent times the changes that are important are the decline of physically printed materials, but most importantly the increase in the number of sources, senders, of information. So receivers have more choices, but still a limited effective number of sources because receivers can spend only so many hours per day receiving information from broadcasters. Which sources do people choose? The number of receivers of information from different senders is something like an exponential decreasing function with a few winners per category [2]. We get a few superstars per category (musician, politician, athlete, movie star, composer, scientist, etc.)

The beliefs and rules, social norms, are necessary and structural, even defining, for groups of people. The beliefs and rules are information transmitted to the group members and they are reinforced and evolve over time. For large groups they are not transferred only through one to one conversations, but are mostly transmitted and reinforced through broadcasting. Rules are necessary for groups to exist [3]. If you don’t know the rules for a group you couldn’t be in it. They wouldn’t let you in even if you tried. We need rules and values. The only question is which ones.

The phrase “mutually beneficial” suggests that all the participants in a cooperative effort benefit from it. But we should expect that in reality not all participants benefit equally, some may not benefit at all, or maybe even be harmed. Certainly not all participants contribute equally because they can’t since each participant comes to the cooperative effort with different knowledge, different information, different abilities, different abilities to communicate, different attitudes and so on. This diversity is the magic of cooperation. If all the participants were identical in their knowledge, information, beliefs, attitudes etc. then there would be little or no benefit for cooperating. Not all cooperative efforts are successful. Imagine a meeting of a design team where nothing is resolved. That would seem to be a failure. But there likely was some communication between the participants that will have effects on the design that will show up as progress in a later meeting. A group of individuals might band together, cooperate, as an army and go out and fight some other band and all be killed. That cooperative effort was a total failure. Maybe we should say that in cooperative efforts the participants intend to benefit or just that they have a common goal. A hunting party that on a given day did not kill any game was still a cooperative effort.

Culture and cultural evolution is all about cooperation because cooperation is way more important for understanding our social structures, how our cultures work, how our economies work, than harmful conflict, selfishness, isolationism, destructive individualism. Cooperation is a better explainer of our success than selfishness, greed, harmful conflict, and even competition. Why? Because there is way more of it.

In part II of my book “Information, Communication, Cooperation” I examined some of our present day major institutions in terms of information flow. I showed that non-competitive cooperation vastly exceeds conflict and competition in all these institutions.

The institutions I analyzed were: Family, Property, Government, Law, Religion, Education, Business, Money, Science, Art and Entertainment, and War.

Yes even war involves much cooperation. This is consistent with Peter Turchin’s “Ultrasociety” assertions that war between groups in the past led to cooperation within groups.

OK, given that cooperation is everywhere, that cooperation is way more important than anything else for understanding our social systems, then what? If something is more important we should pay more attention to it, we should study it more, we should research it more, we should try to understand it better, we should try to improve it. We should do whatever we can to improve cooperation. Of course cooperation is never perfect. Nothing is perfect. But things can be improved.

We should get rid of those things (ideas, beliefs, memes) which lead to destructive conflict. This would decrease the occurrence of wars and help end wars that do occur. Same for fights, interpersonal destructive conflicts, killings, assaults, destruction of useful property, destruction of useful information. We should not waste resources. We should use resources efficiently, wisely, minimize destruction and disruption of the natural environment. We should maximally develop human resources. At present too many people do little that benefits their own or others’ lives. They are human resources being wasted. We should evolve our systems so everyone has the human necessities so they can contribute to our success.

What we should do is already happening. It’s the evolution of culture. It’s the evolution of information. As information increases, communication increases, and cooperation increases. These three things go together, cannot be understood separately, and are different aspects of the same thing. So cooperation is increasing and it will continue to increase.

Here are a few results from the fact that cooperation is everywhere and increasing:

  1. The role of conflict is tiny and will decrease. Between-group destructive conflict, war, is of course a danger to group preservation and thus individual preservation. It will likely continue to be reduced. Non-destructive conflict and interpersonal destructive conflict will decrease as more and more people improve their communication skills and acquire the human necessities.
  2. The role of competition, a particular form of cooperation, is important but it is by no means the only form of cooperation. For many purposes there are better forms of cooperation than competition. Non-competitive cooperation will probably increase faster than competitive cooperation.
  3. The emphasis on greed and hoarding as driving forces in human behavior causes us to discredit non-competitive cooperation. Greed and hoarding will be seen more and more as socially destructive and will be reduced.
  4. There are many mechanisms and processes that support and promote group preservation via within group cooperation. Examples: Our sense of justice, our disapproval of cheaters, freeloaders, those who violate laws, etc. We can and will improve these. Some within group mechanisms promote destructive conflict between groups. Some examples: Ideas of group superiority; ideas that our group is right or correct and different groups are wrong, evil, and they should be conquered, destroyed, or their material goods taken; ideas that other groups are threats, and dangerous.  We can modify or eliminate these. We will teach our children and whoever we can alternatives to these destructive beliefs.
  5. Cooperation is increasing and destructive conflict is decreasing both within groups and between groups.  There is empirical evidence for this [4].
  6. Between-nation trading is nominally cooperation between groups, but there are likely devils in the hidden details of some present day trade treaties.
  7. Respect and support for individual self development is necessary for group preservation and development and will increase. Information about how the brain works is increasing so we will know better how to teach people how to communicate better, and thus cooperate better [5, 6, 7; Cognitive Behavioral Therapy].

OK, Enough for now.

In “Information, Communication, Cooperation” I have connected these ideas to those of the Physicists but I want to do it more clearly by defining information (and thus communication and cooperation) so that it applies not just to people but to all living and non-living things, from elementary particles, to atoms, to us and our social systems. The complete treatment requires discussion of the creation, storage, transfer, use, coding, decoding of information, as well as computation and data processing. All these are inseparable. All are different aspects of the same phenomenon.

In The Computational Universe, an article by Seth Lloyd, he says:

“The computational paradigm for the universe supplements the ordinary mechanistic paradigm; the universe is not just a machine, it is a machine that processes information. The universe computes….”

So do we.

We are cooperation.

1. Kurzweil, R. (2012). How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. New York: Viking.

2. Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2014). The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. W. W. Norton.

3. Henrich, J. (2015). The secret of our success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton University Press.

4. Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking.

5. Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. New York: W.W Norton.

6. Biglan, A. (2015). The nurture effect: How the science of human behavior can improve our lives and our world. New Harbinger.

7. Rosenberg, M. B., & Rosenberg, M. B. (2003). Non-violent communication: A language of life. Encinitas, CA: Puddle Dancer.

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  1. Ted Howard says:

    Hi Joe,

    While I agree with much of your thesis, your definition of co-operation doesn’t work, and is not the standard Oxford English Dictionary definition. You have tried to combine two necessary ideas into one, and damaged both in the process.

    Co-operation is simple. It comes from the Latin. Co mean together – or more formally the general sense is ‘together’, ‘in company’, ‘in common’, ‘joint, -ly’, ‘equal, -ly’, ‘reciprocally’, ‘mutually’.
    Operari simply means to work.
    So in the simplest of modes, cooperation simply means working together – in practice.

    Human beings are not simple. Human beings have about 20 levels of complex systems present. Each of those levels contains many sets of cooperative systems, that work within and between levels.

    Trying to introduce a high level construct like voluntary into a fundamental construct like cooperation prevents understanding rather than aiding it.

    It seems entirely accurate to me to characterise the emergence of all new levels of living complexity as the emergence of new levels of cooperative systems. And Axelrod clearly demonstrated that to be stable cooperative systems require sets of attendant strategies to prevent invasion by cheating strategies.

    Holding that principle is fundamental to understanding the evolution of higher level systems.

    I am all for freedom in the realm of human choice, and that is a fundamental part of the term “voluntary”, and that is also an extremely complex and slippery notion, that I have spent over 40 years investigating.

    So in the realm of human affairs, I fully support the use of voluntary and cooperative together, but not as one term. For the sake of clarity, they must remain separate terms. Without that separation, it is not possible to understand the evolutionary pathway that has led to our existence, and this conversation.

    And for me, any exploration of the idea of choice has to come with the notion of responsibility. Humans live in complex social and physical systems, and our actions in both sets of systems have consequences on the experience and freedoms of others. So freedom is not license to follow whim, it is something much more complex, constrained by responsibility in many different dimensions.

    The second aspect is that there is a major flaw in the rest of your argument, coming from an unexamined cultural assumption.
    This has to do with the nature of markets and their derivative value of money.

    In times of genuine scarcity there are two major classes of benefit derived by the use of markets.

    1/ In times of genuine scarcity the sharing of goods and service through trade reduces both the frequency and degree of scarcity experienced across the range of goods and services so traded, and in doing so tends to reduce the incentive sets to violence.

    2/ The actual social contacts made over time in markets tend to form socially cohesive bonds over wider networks than would otherwise be the case, and such social cohesion tends to weaken the power of propaganda to demonize an “enemy” and create feelings that sustain war.

    I full acknowledge both of these aspects of markets in history, and “the times they are a changing”.

    Now we have automation taking an ever greater role in our lives.

    Automation changes things in several profound ways.

    In terms of goods and services, any process that can be fully automated can be supplied in abundance to all, but markets cannot deliver universal abundance. Anything universally abundant, no matter how important it is, has zero value in a market. Oxygen in the air is the prime example – without doubt the single most important thing for any human being, yet of zero value in most markets, due to its universal abundance.

    This becomes a major issue of justice, when the only reason that most people do not experience the sort of abundance that some of us do, is the market mechanism itself. The search for profit prevents the benefits of full automation being universally distributed.
    Automation changes everything.

    Full automation turns markets from a power for peace, to the greatest source of existential risk present (when viewed from this perspective of the sets of strategic influences present in human interactions).
    Some people are reacting to that by trying to prevent automation (we see an explosion of such legal edifices – in the realm of intellectual property laws in their many guises).
    That is a very sub-optimal outcome, that still imposes a great deal of unnecessary risk and tragedy on human existence for the majority.

    I am clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that in this strategic sense, of the fundamental drivers that create the playing field of this game we call life, that markets have gone past the point at which they delivered benefit, and are rapidly diving into the realm of delivering severe (and exponentially growing) existential risk.

    Another thing automation is doing is taking the human relationships out of markets. EBay and Alibaba supply goods and services without the human relationship.

    So while the internet does allow you and I to meet, and to communicate, which might be a very positive thing, it is also progressively taking that daily trading relationship away for many. Multi player virtual environments allow some individuals to shrink the size of their real world networks.

    And I trained in biochemistry and ecology over 40 years ago, and for the last 30 years have run a software company specialising in the fishing industry, which is an industry with many levels of complexity present. On the legislative side there is fisheries legislation, health and safety, food safety, tax law, accounting law. Then there are the many levels of needs of business, from board reports, down through the many levels of operation within large companies to operational requirements of people using complex computer hardware in a shop floor situation containing knives and salt water, truck drivers needing to record bins of fish being unloaded from a vessel in driving rain, fishers needing to record catches at sea, in storm conditions. So making such systems work in practice means bringing together experience in many levels of hardware and software operation in practice to meet multiple levels of requirements simultaneously – a fairly good definition of evolution in action.
    30 years of designing, writing, testing and supporting systems in this context (while retaining my interests in both evolutionary theory and artificial intelligence) has given me an intuitive view of systems that is not common, and it works, in practice.

  2. Joe Rebholz says:

    Hi Ted,
    Thanks for your comment. I pretty much agree with you. I was trying to use common words to explain some results from looking at culture as information while avoiding a lengthy definition of information. So I started with a definition of cooperation.
    This business of giving definitions has its limits. As a practical matter we can’t define every word. I try to give a definition and then further explain it and give examples. As you noted the word “voluntary” does have problems especially if we think of the free will questions. With that word I was trying to add the idea that cooperation by two or more people can’t be forced. While this may work for human cooperation, it won’t work for talking about cooperation between cells or atoms.
    My main point is that there is way more cooperation in human societies than competition or conflict. And actually most competition is a form of cooperation. This is not what is generally thought. People tend to think that competition and cooperation are opposites. And they confuse competition and conflict. I’m not claiming this is some profound truth. Rather it becomes obvious if you analyze a few of our institutions in terms of information flow. (Ted, analyze your fishing industry in terms of information flow within that industry and all the information flow between that industry and the rest of society all the communications that must go on between and among individual humans and organizations and suborganizations, communications whether face to face, via the internet or whatever, all these communications, all these interactions, all this information flow, all this cooperation.) Most people do not see this because our ideology says it’s all about competition and conflict. I say it’s all about cooperation. Cultural evolution is about increasing cooperation on multiple levels.

  3. Steve Davis says:

    Joe, congratulations on a great article.
    I particularly liked your final paragraph in your reply to Ted.
    Cooperation is so pervasive we take it for granted, and in so doing allowed the perversion of selfish genes to proliferate.
    Cooperation is everywhere because groups are everywhere, at every level of existence – sub-atomic particles grouping into atoms, atoms into molecules and compounds, molecules into the first life forms, cells into organisms and so on.
    As a result, all selection is group selection.