Life is a constant conflict, a conflict between different principles, between different physical systems, between different alleles of the same gene, between different genes, between groups of genes, between individual living creatures and between groups of individuals that have banded together to improve their own survival. Living creatures compete for resources and for social status (which is important for survival and for procreation), genes – for a place in the genome; alleles – for a higher number of their copies to be present in the genotype.
I cannot explain why this is so, why the laws of physics, out of which abiogenesis – and life – flows, dictate that living organisms must eat other living organisms or compete against them, but I can explain how it is so: resources are limited and life is constantly evolving, constantly growing.
My main claim, here, is that at any resolution with which we choose to examine life in any given region (all living creatures and the elements they are made of), we will observe the same ‘social’ structures – patterns of cooperation and of competition – repeating themselves across all orders of magnitude. There are 2 competing principles here: competition and cooperation. Each provides its own advantages, and this leads to the establishment of an equilibrium between them – an optimal balance which become the organism’s survival strategy.
In any given area in which life exists, living organisms are organized in groups, the members of which cooperate in order to obtain resources for their groups – resources and other advantages, all related to survival and to procreation. Each of these groups, in turn, is divided into sub-groups, which compete for the resources of their containing group. Each of those, again, is divided into sub-groups which, while they are interested in the general success of the groups and supergroups they are part of, also try to obtain for themselves as large a portion as possible of these groups’ common resources.
This division continues until we get down to the level of the individual organism, which, while seemingly representing an atomic unit of interests, is also made up of competing elements: the self, the mind, that can feel pain and pleasure and controls the organism, and the genes that have ‘designed’ it to ‘want what they want’; genes can also be viewed as ‘individuals’ with unique interests that organize in groups and subgroups – just like living organisms do. They are not ‘alive’, they have no will. Their ‘will’ is, in fact, the mathematics of life, in action.
The ‘interests of the genes’ are represented in our biology and in the way our brains are wired, yet, since our mind has been ‘created’ for and can be motivated to generate behavior, make decisions, it also has its own interests – it becomes a group of one, and also a supergroup for itself and for the genes (with all their group hierarchies) that are a part of it. Our personal interests, as individuals and even as groups, almost always match those of the genes, our ‘creators’; but they are not always identical.
We were designed to want whatever helps spread our genes/alleles. This means that sometimes we will sacrifice ourselves to satisfy our urges of procreation, or to increase our chances of procreating, which can sometimes mean the destruction of the organism. Mathematically, considering copies of the same genes exist in multiple organisms, this can be a sound strategy – to sacrifice some ‘copies’ of the allele and the organisms that contain them, with their procreational capacity, in order to increase the chances of the other copies making many more copies of themselves – though, for some individuals, it can prove to be catastrophically harmful.
This is why men fight eachother to gain the favor of women, or just to control more women; or risk their lives for a sexual adventure; this is why mothers sometimes sacrifice themselves so that their children may live. These are 2 variations of the same strategy.
A subgroup does not need to be completely contained by its containing group. Each group can be spread across several containing groups and have areas that overlap those of other groups of any order of magnitude. A group can share interests with several competing groups, for instance, or with unconnected groups.
One example of this principle, one tiny example in a wide ocean full of such examples, is the war between England and Scotland at the end of the 13th and in the beginning of the 14th centuries: William Wallace, Robert the Bruce. The situation, as gaudily depicted in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, was that 2 supergroups of interests existed side by side, on the same island, in Europe: England and Scotland. The Scottish nobility had holdings on both sides of the border, so it was basically part of both supergroups. When war broke out between these supergroups, the Scottish nobility had a very hard time committing to one of these sides and, in fact, preferred to stay neutral for as long as it was possible for it to do so.
Too much cooperation is ineffective, and the same is true of too little cooperation. On some level, all life is cooperating on planet earth – creating new biospheres and adjusting their biochemistry to match that of all other living organisms. On another – everyone is fighting everyone else, constantly. The Equilibrium is created automatically, mathematically, by means of natural selection, and it is unavoidable: there will always be balance.
- Meme – Definition (a short article I’ve written to explain the term).
- Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick.
- The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins.*
- Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond.
* – I recommend skipping chapters 12 and 13, the last chapters of the book, or reading them with extreme suspicion. I guess Dawkins was afraid of being perceived as being too Machiavellian, or, maybe, it was just his tribute to political correctness.
(Continued in: The Fractal Model – Part II)