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Title: Competition vs cooperation
Description: learning from (non-human part of) nature

Jaroslav O. - June 3, 2009 01:22 AM (GMT) : pg.5-6

[note: 'biomimicry' is interdisciplinary scientific study to take lessons from nature & apply to human endeavours, e.g. material fabrication based on spider silk or abalone shells, agriculture based on ecosystems' perennial companion cropping, computing like brains rather than binary machines, etc etc -- J.O.]

Competition versus Cooperation
by Robyn Klein, Dayna Baumeister, Janet Kübler

Robyn Klein sleuths for the Biomimicry Guild, following emergent cyber-phenomena like an ant tracks pheromones.
Dr. Dayna Baumeister is co-founder and keystone of the Biomimicry Guild.
Dr. Janet Kübler is an Adjunct faculty member at California State University at Northridge

During the 2009 Alumni Gathering, the question of
competition in nature was asked, specifically with regards to
business. What role does competition versus cooperation
play in natural systems and what implications does that have
for the business world? The discussion was dynamic and
warranted a follow-up to clarify just exactly what competition
in nature looks like.

Our understanding of biology follows from what scientists
have sought to understand. Inevitably, cultural and personal
perceptions affect where scientific research is directed, and in
some cases, how the results of that research are interpreted.
Ideally, the science of biology is purely objective, but humans
interpret the natural world according to personal experience
as well as what they have been taught in their cultural system.
Competition in nature is a good example of this. The
interpretation of interactions between organisms has changed
throughout history along with the cultural and sociological
shifts of human experience. Statements such as “nature red,
tooth, and claw” (Tennyson 1844) and “survival of the fittest”
ascribed to Charles Darwin in the 19th century resonated with
social mores of the time, becoming popular memes. However,
they do not give an accurate description of our current
understanding of competition in nature.

For most of the twentieth century, competition was assumed to
be the driving force in biological communities but was only
rarely quantified until the second half of the century. During
this time period, competition was the buzzword in business
and assumed to be the mechanism driving relationships
between organizations. The period from the 1960s through
the 1990s saw the birth of quantitative community ecology and
the drive to find the strengths of driving factors and
relationships in biological systems. Much emphasis was
placed on competition, but little evidence arose to support
that thesis. By the 1990s, ecologists came to realize that
competition was not the universal driving force that it was
assumed to be. A landmark special edition of the scientific
publication Ecology (Ecological Society of America) in
October 1997 focused on competition and its mirror image,
facilitation. Facilitation or cooperation is a beneficial
interaction between species rather than the mutually negative
effect of competition. The understanding among ecologists
today is that competition is only one of a suite of ways that
organisms can interact and occurs rarely, if at all. Surprised?
Let us explain.

As a rule, living things avoid direct competition whenever
possible because it is costly, resulting in reduced fitness as
energy is devoted to competing rather than diversifying into
new niches. Instead, life evolves toward alternatives to
competition, suggesting that we are witnessing in biological
systems the avoidance of competition, rather than competition
itself. For example, two bull elk spar in the season of rut to
compete for opportunities to mate. More often than not, a
simple look over by each bull preempts the match with the
larger bull “denoted” as dominant. If they do actually “lock
horns”, bull elk rarely kill each other and sparring matches
are usually short. One bull retreats.

Most examples of competition in nature exist as a snapshot in
time, a temporary but costly solution. Two bull elk facing off is
seasonal and intermittent behavior. Their dance is meant to
test, to push the other and see if he will yield. If so, the test
was successful. If not, then another niche is sought as a
remedy. Killing all the other bull elk would leave wolves only
one choice to hunt, not to mention the energy expended and
wounds one would incur in the process. Short, intermittent
competitive behaviors are certainly part of healthy,
functioning ecosystems.

Overall, the struggle to survive in a world of limited nutrients
and riches is commonly performed in a fluid dance of push
and retreat. An opponent may be tested, but the competition
is broken off when it is no longer a benefit to the organism. In
contrast, interactions that benefit organisms are reinforced by
evolution. Overall, organisms that have long evolutionary
histories have many established interactions with others in
their ecosystem and most of those interactions are noncompetitive.
Competition is just too expensive an option.

How do biologists measure the “expense” of competition in
Nature? During the discussion at the Alumni Gathering, Janet
Kübler drew the following graph and explained it this way:

[follow link at top of post to see the graph]
On the vertical axis
is fitness or how
well the organism
f i t s i n t o i t s
ecosystem (usually
measured as growth
rate or reproductive
success) while on
the horizontal axis is
the number of
o r g a n i s m s
increasing from left
to right, causing crowding and interactions. The dotted line
shows the effect of crowding alone. The dashed line below
the diagonal shows the effect of crowding with competition. It
is that suppression of success that biologists use as the
hallmark of competition and the vertical difference between
the two lines gives a measure of how strong the competition is.

Using this measurement tool as a model, competition is seen in
cases where artificial boundaries around the community are
made as part of an experimental design or where one species
is removed and a competing species then expands into the
cleared space.

When species are mixed together, or individuals of the same
species are crowded together, they may actually have
mutually beneficial effects on each other. We call this
facilitation, mutualism or cooperation. Facilitation would
appear on the graph as a line above the diagonal indicating
that individuals or species are more successful together than
alone. This is in fact the most common observation of
interactions in Nature, outside of mere co-existence.
Our own Dayna Baumeister conducted research on facilitation
in mountain forest communities for her PhD thesis. Her work
coupled with that of her advisor, Ragan Callaway, who
repeated studies on mountain slopes around the world, found
not only that facilitation is more common than competition, but
also that facilitation was especially common under stressful
conditions. When the going is tough, life cooperates more
and competes less. That is, the harsher the conditions, the
more organisms will attempt to cooperate. We see fewer
examples of cooperation in non-harsh conditions because,
ostensibly, the needed benefits of a mutualistic relationship
are not as important for an organism’s survival.

When is there competition? Scientists observe competition
when organisms are attempting to use the same limited
resource at the same time and their needs will not be met
unless they somehow negotiate the interaction. Living
systems evolve toward the lowest cost way to share resources
and nutrients. Fighting or overpowering is not sustainable
because of the cost to growth and reproduction. Evolution to
avoid competition leaves more opportunity to grow,
reproduce and diversify.

Yet competition does persist in nature, particularly as a
mechanism for testing and exploration of new habitats. The
costs of competition shorten the length of these interactions
and lead to evolution toward mutual facilitation in long-term
interactions. We learn from the Life’s Principles Butterfly that
life leverages interdependence. Competition is not inevitable
in biological systems or in human endeavors and really is not
sustainable in the long run. Competition does not make you
stronger; it just makes you need an alternative strategy more
urgently. This is the lesson for business. We should not be
asking “How can I become a better competitor?”, but rather
”What alternatives do I have to competition?” Cooperation,
mutualisms, facilitation and niche specialization are common
alternative strategies that are worthy of exploration for
business strategies and models. So the next time someone
asks you about competition in nature, you will have a bit more
to talk about.

For the time being, the adage still holds true. As “win-win”
becomes a buzzword in business, cooperation reveals itself to
ecologists. Or is it vice-versa? In the world of biomimicry,
finding closer alignment between our human
endeavors and those time-tested resilient
strategies of nature should always remain our
ideal goal.

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