Is competition the only way to organize nature?

Is competition the only way to organize nature? Why must nature work so unethically as we can witness even in this ant war?

[ 27/April/21 ]

Simple answer – No.

And nature is not simple.

So simple answers tend to only be useful if there is urgent need for an answer (in an “act or die” type situation).

The evidence from physics, cosmology, geology and biochemistry is now overwhelming that reality is more complex than any computational entity (human, AI or other) can deal with in detail, so all computational entities must simplify things down to something simple enough to work with. Evolution tends to do that at multiple levels, at the level of the genetic influence on the structure of our sensory and brain systems, at the level of culture, and at the level of our individual life experiences and distinctions.

We can all experience the same event, all have the experiences we do, and they can all be different (sometimes in significant ways) and none of them are the objective reality of what actually happened – all are necessarily some level of simplification (and mostly they are sufficiently similar that we can get some level of agreement, and not always).

Thus it is very much the case that reality is usually sufficiently complex that we tend to see what we expect to see (as everything else gets filtered out, if it is distinguished at all).

Thus if we look for competition, we can certainly see it.

And if we look for cooperation we can see that too.

It takes a great deal of work in the depths of the mathematics of strategy in evolutionary contexts to see that all levels of complexity are necessarily built on new level of cooperation, and all levels of cooperation require evolving ecosystems of cheat detection and mitigation systems if they are to avoid being destroyed by invading cheating strategies. So it rapidly gets extremely complex, every level.

By the time you get to a human being, then there must exist embodied in that human being at least 15 levels of such systems, each new level built atop the previous ones. Yet we just see Joe or Peggy or Rod. We tend to not see the systemic complexity unless we are very atypical individuals.

So nature is full of competitive and cooperative systems, and both can be fun.

And it is also true, that in the long term, every level of complexity is built upon a base of cooperation, and any level of competition that damages any of the constraints required for the existence of that level of complexity, will destroy itself.

So in terms of complex systems (and we currently know of nothing more complex in this universe than a human being) it is true to say that all levels of complexity are built upon and sustained by cooperation, and any level of competition that does not respect all the conditions required for that level of cooperation is an existential level risk to complexity itself.

Thus all freedom comes with responsibilities.

Competition is only survivable if it is built on a cooperative base. If you get a hyper aggressive male that kills of all other males to have sole access to females, then at some point in that lineage the last two remaining male offspring are likely to kill each other in combat, and that species goes extinct.

In terms of complex human society, long term security demands a respect for individual life and individual liberty, and that demands responsibility from each and every one of us, and ethics can be seen as classes of cheat detection and mitigation strategies for the cooperative that is human level complexity.

And as someone who has had a passion for complex systems for over 50 years, it is deeply complex, and there are some contexts within which some classes of simple models do give useful approximations to optimal outcomes (and that is a very different thing from any sort of “Truth”). It is a logical reality that the more simple a model someone has, the more certain they are that it is True and Correct (always). The more one understands of complexity and uncertainty, the more one can appreciate that all models are necessarily wrong, and some are more useful than others in some contexts.

When faced with a rapidly approaching tiger or bus, one needs a simple fast response that allows one to get out of harm’s way quickly.
But not everything it is tiger.
Some things take years of study even to begin to see. Much of the complexity actually present in our social and technological systems seems beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt to actually fall into that class of “things”.
There is nothing wrong with competitive systems, provided that they are built on a cooperative base that actually ensures that all individuals have all of their reasonable needs met, and all have reasonable degrees of freedom (provided that they are in fact acting responsibly – and what responsibility actually looks like in any particular context is an ever evolving conversation).

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see
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