We are all in this together – Part I

This essay introduces what I consider one of Evolution’s most thought-provoking, mind-expanding practices: This Master Weaver of the universe – Evolution itself – interweaves cooperation and competition into ever-more-remarkable designs that drive the vast unfolding vitality of our living world. To become conscious of that – and of our role in it – is to save ourselves into its regenerative abundance of life….

As far as I can tell, humanity and all Life are hurtling towards some inexorable rapids of evolutionary change. What we do in the next few decades may determine whether or not any of our descendants are around for the next century… or forever. If we can better understand how evolution works, perhaps we can become more conscious agents of our own healthy transformation, and thereby co-weavers of our world’s next evolutionary step. In fact, these times call us to become one with evolution—to become an aspect of evolutionary life that is becoming conscious of itself. After all, Evolution is the Master Weaver, and all our activities and “change initiatives” are simply small parts of that. What we can bring to the Master Weaver’s Loom is our human consciousness, caring and choice – accompanied by a good measure of wisdom and reciprocity to balance our cherished freedom.

Living parts into living wholes

Perhaps our first lesson here is to realize that evolution, as a whole, has tended to produce increasingly complex forms of life that include previous life forms within them. What we once thought of as mere “building blocks” of today’s organisms, for example, we now know had lives of their own, deep in the past:

The nuclei of the cells in our bodies—and in almost all other organisms, from algae and bacteria to sharks and maples—contain parts (mitochondria) that are now believed to have started out as separate single-celled organisms that joined with other independent microbes to become the first nucleus-owning ancestors of our present cells. Other microbes came together eons ago as cooperative colonies, large and small. Some of these cooperative arrangements evolved into systems that were so successful that the original cellular colonists ended up specialized and totally dependent on one another. They could no longer survive on their own—just like us modern-day humans!

What started out as groups of cells became diverse tribes of cells which then evolved into virtual civilizations of cells— which we see all around us and think of as “plants and animals.” For as evolution progressed, and cells and groups of cells became more specialized in their tasks, they became simultaneously more diverse and more interconnected—forming, for example, hearts and kidneys—bodily organs that are analogous to the fuel distribution and waste processing systems we call society’s “infrastructure.” Probably the most complex organic systems on the planet are our nervous systems—not only our brains, but our whole web of interconnected nerves, including those nerve concentrations—those quasi-brains—that exist in our hearts and guts. The closer we look, the more we learn, and the more miraculous it all seems.

Cultural Evolution

As suggested above, this increasing complexity of life didn’t stop with biological evolution, but leapt into an entirely new realm of evolution: culture, including but not only human culture. With the advent of human tool use, language, agriculture and writing, we created cultures and civilizations which, in their turn, have continually evolved. Family units combined into clans which combined into villages, which became tribes and then cities and then kingdoms, nations, empires, and now international institutions and networks, and meta-networks of networks like the Internet. Our cultures and knowledge continue to evolve—weaving and going beyond whatever came before, just as relativity and quantum physics embraced and transcended Newton’s mechanistic physics.

The games of life include winning, losing and shared destiny

In his book Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright adds a fascinating twist to all this. He looks at evolution through the lens of game theory which, it turns out, has something useful to say about an amazing variety of fields.

Game theorists call a game with winners and losers a “win/lose” or “zero-sum” game: A winner plus a loser equals zero. On the other hand, game theorists have another category of games they call “non-zero-sum” games. This category embraces both “win-win” games (everybody wins) and “lose-lose” games (everybody loses). They recognized that when both parties win, the sum of winners is greater than zero – and when both parties lose, their combined sum is less than zero. By this logic, both win-win and lose-lose games are called non-zero-sum games by game theorists. This odd framing has interesting implications in evolutionary dynamics.

Non-zero-sum games usually look like collaboration, co-operation, mutuality, working together for the common good, etc. – as well as shared suffering and shared destiny of all kinds. In contrast, zero-sum games look like competition, exploitation, destruction, etc., in which one organism, species, or team benefits at the expense of others. Wright points out that these seemingly opposite dynamics are not mutually exclusive, at least in the world of nature and evolution. On closer examination, they are often complementary.

For example, although a predator-prey relationship seems like a win/lose game in which the predator wins and the prey loses, there’s actually more going on there. The fact that predators tend to take the weakest and sickest prey ends up strengthening a preyed-on herd or species, thus refashioning the predator-prey relationship into a win-win (non-zero-sum) game at the level of the herd or species. Likewise, if the predator didn’t exist, the prey species would overpopulate, consume its environment, and die off (a well-known dynamic called “overshoot” that should set off some alarm bells in our collective psyche). And, of course, the predator species needs the prey species to flourish so the predator species has something to eat. So here we see that dynamics supporting the prey species simultaneously sustain the predator species—and vice versa. Thus we find that the predator-prey relationship is, at the collective level, more win-win than it first seemed when viewed only at the individual level.

Furthermore, evolutionary developments are often triggered by some threat or challenge—such as the prospect of losing one’s life or position in life. The speed of the fox and the speed of the hare have evolved together, as the faster individuals in each species were more able to survive. This sort of “We become stronger through struggle” dynamic is often used to defend “free market capitalism”—which may be a valid comparison up to the point that the strongest companies are left free to overwhelm everyone else in the market at which point the market is, ironically, no longer “free”.

But right here in the dog- eat-dog marketplace we find another interesting marriage of zero and non-zero-sum games: Competition BETWEEN corporations (and communities, too) has been one of the main drivers of increased cooperation WITHIN corporations (and communities). This cooperative impulse has been spreading outward such that “business ecosystems” are now springing up, involving clusters of companies in a given market—producers, suppliers, consumers, investors, etc.—all cooperating for their collective benefit. “The more we work together as a team, the better we’ll be able to beat the competition!”

Technology and cooperation

In another twist, Wright explores how new technologies can stimulate the emergence of non-zero-sum (win-win) arrangements. He describes how Shoshone Indians in what is now Nevada gathered their food. “For months at a time Shoshone families would go it alone, roaming the desert with a bag and a digging stick, searching for roots and seeds.” But when they encountered a lot of rabbits, out would come “a tool too large for one family to handle—a net hundreds of feet long into which rabbits were herded before being clubbed to death. On such occasions … a dozen normally autonomous families would come together briefly” to collaborate in the rabbit “harvest,” followed by a feast and celebration.

In a more ominous example, nuclear weapons in the hands of superpowers ultimately created the non-zero-sum game called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) —the terrifying lose-lose prospect of global thermonuclear holocaust used strategically for “deterrence”—which engendered a surprising amount of cooperation between the superpowers after the close call of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, even as they competed and dominated in their respective spheres of influence.

Probably the most familiar current example of technology’s birthing of win-win games is the way the web, cell phones, and other telecommunications are creating whole new economies—including new forms of intellectual property— that are fundamentally based on cooperation rather than competition. Those who survive best in these new economies are those who cooperate best and/or who help others cooperate (such as Wikipedia, Google and Zoom). All this is evolution working out new ways to weave competition and cooperation.

What evolution is doing

Wright’s key insight is that evolution has, for billions of years, been steadily weaving together increasingly inclusive non-zero-sum games—especially cooperative arrangements among life forms, both biological and cultural. From the earliest little cellular patches and colonies, on up through the evolutionary fabric of multicellular organisms into the increasingly complex and inclusive global garment of cooperation and competition that weaves together today’s densely interconnected world, the evolutionary loom hums along.

But the evolutionary game is changing, because we don’t have any higher-level ecosystem for competitive dynamics to play out in. The final level of inclusivity is everyone, the whole world. We’ve come to the place where everyone wins or everyone loses. The “other” is vanishing. We are all in this together. We all live downstream.

In other words, we now find ourselves faced with the ultimate lose-lose possibility—the destruction of our biosphere, without which all human games—if not necessarily all life—will cease. Now that we are operating at this global level, more and more of our favorite win/lose games are turning into lose-lose games. In other words, previously useful zero-sum games are becoming potentially deadly non-zero-sum games. War is becoming obsolete. Mindless exploitation is becoming self-defeating. Manipulative, biased news media are blinding us and endangering us all. Faced with the option of all of us losing together or all of us winning together, we now enter our “final exam” in human evolution—and possibly biological evolution—on Earth. We get to pass or fail that exam together.

Luckily, technologies of cooperation—ways of facilitating win-win dynamics—are rapidly developing. Furthermore, at the leading edge of these developments are technologies that embrace competition for its gifts—especially through enfolding competition within the larger dynamics of cooperation—because we need competition in order to remain healthy and continue evolving.

The more competition is engaged in by willing partners who seek mutual benefit through that process—as happens in the highest levels of sport where “contestants” use their contest to bring out their “personal best”—the more synergy will exist between competition and cooperation. Likewise, the more competition serves to keep cooperation from getting lazy (as in conformity, groupthink, and old habits that resist needed change), the more synergy we will have between competition and cooperation. And the more the cooperative spirit prevents competition from becoming “cut-throat”—and exploitation (as in the use of nature and people) from degrading Life—the more we’ll see synergy between competition and cooperation.

Our task

In the vast balancing act of evolution, both competition and cooperation ultimately serve the wellbeing of the whole. We humans are called to mimic that natural pattern—to do both competition and cooperation consciously and wisely, thereby becoming the evolutionary vehicle that will carry us through the next century.

Our challenge is to get very good at this dance. From the perspective of billions of years of evolution—arriving at this critical time of major breakdown and/or breakthrough—that’s the name of our game in the 21st century. Our task is to learn how to weave every viewpoint, every interest, every species into a fully inclusive win-win game that we can all play long-term, spiced with—but not ruled by—ongoing competition.

“We are all in this together.”

That statement has always represented our highest challenge. It has been spoken in various forms by most great religions. And recently it has been hailed as scientific fact by systems thinkers, ecologists and quantum physicists. But “We are all in this together” is now more than an exhortation or a static realization. It is a dynamic evolutionary reality that all of us are and will be living out and into, one way or another, as we navigate the emerging evolutionary passage. Surrounded by many treacherous dangers that could terminate our species, we are yet quite capable of conscious, continuous transformation of ourselves and our societies into ever wiser manifestations of this truth. We can evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole.

As more of us join in finding ways to be true to the reality of our shared destiny, we can collectively join the rest of the world on the growing edge of evolution as it weaves its way into ever richer win-win games, hopefully for millennia to come.

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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