It’s a dog-eat-dog world: True/False?

This may seem quite true in the world of human affairs. But if you look to the natural world for justification of human aggression, backstabbing and other antisocial tendencies then you may be disappointed.

For a start, dog does not eat dog. The phrase dog-eat-dog was probably an ironic twisting of this ancient proverb which you don’t hear much these days. Dogs are naturally social creatures, which is why they get on so well with us. Here, and elsewhere, our idea of nature is often far more brutish than the reality.

Aphorisms like Tennyson’s “nature, red in tooth and claw” and “the survival of the fittest” paint life as a battle or race where it’s every creature for itself. When Charles Darwin came along with his theory of evolution by natural selection, that’s what most people thought he meant. But natural selection is inclined to evolve altruism and cooperation just as much as ruthless egocentrism.

Think of those dogs, hunting in packs. Think of bees, and ants, where hundreds, thousands, of individuals serve the common purpose of the hive or colony without even the ability to reproduce.

Cooperation extends beyond species, too. Lichens are symbiotic pairings of fungi with algae or other primitive plants. Take a moment to gaze at your navel and think of all the useful bacteria in your intestine helping break down your food. Where would you be without each other?

And if that isn’t enough, think of your countless cells. Each still holds the traces of an inconceivably ancient merger between bacteria which got together and joined forces to form the first eukaryotic cells, of which we are all composed.

Nature, through natural selection, doesn’t worry about perfection, it only worries about solutions that work here and now. If cooperation works — between species, or organisms, or even individual genes within an organism — then nature will use it.

Life is a struggle for existence but sometimes the struggle is won not by beating off the competition but joining with them. Not always: cheetahs still eat gazelles — but dogs don’t eat dogs.

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