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  • Posted May 28th, 2023

    How co-operation developed in nature and humans: implications for building the commons

    How co-operation developed in nature and humans: implications for building the commons

    I came across a fascinating study from the Journal of Economic Behaviour & Organisation, and I’d like to share a summary with you. It’s a fascinating read if (like me) you’re interested in helping build the commons in your community.

    Here’s the article: https://www.evolution-institute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Generalizing-the-Core-1.pdf


    It shows that in evolutionary terms, within groups (of humans and other species), competitive / selfish behaviour is more successful than co-operative behaviour. But groups that have more co-operators in them are more successful in the competition between groups. In this way, co-operative behaviour is passed on in nature and in society. It’s not simply about individual behaviour when it comes to passing on genes – it’s also about the behaviour of groups.

    There’s obviously a conflict for individuals when it comes to deciding between altruism or selfishness. Selfishness might benefit them in the short-term within their group, but it may also mean that their group loses out to more co-operative groups, which will mean that they suffer as an individual too. If altruistic behaviour doesn’t cost the individual much, that behaviour will be much more common than altruistic behaviour that requires a lot of self-sacrifice. And the passing on of co-operative / altruistic behaviour also depends on the size of the between-group benefits relative to the individual level of sacrifice. But to some extent, any altruism within groups will help their group compete against other, more selfish groups.


    This has been used to explain how life has evolved from single-celled to multi-celled organisms, the development of extremely successful insect colonies, and even possibly the origin of life itself – as the organisation of more ‘co-operative’ molecular groups. This is presented as the development of new ‘super-organisms’ (i.e. the multi-celled creatures, insect colonies and life itself). The formation of these super-organisms is rare, but when it happens, they become dominant.

    co-operation and the commons
    Humans developed the capacity to transmit cultural information through time – a type of co-operation between groups that allowed us to become what could be called a new ‘super-organism’ set to dominate our environment.

    The development of humans is described as one of these rare events – and that we are a super-organism that has come to dominate our planet to the extent that we have the power to control the future of life on earth. We have the ability to learn things and to pass on the new information geographically and even through time, to the benefit of others that are not related to us at all. That’s a form of extreme between-group co-operation that has made us unique, and has helped us become dominant relative to other species.


    There is often a reward / punishment system within human societies that rewards altruistic behaviour and punishes selfish behaviour (starting with parents and children) even though selfish behaviour can benefit their children within the group. This also leads to more co-operative behaviour within a group, that will help the group compete against other groups. Because behaviours and cultures within different human communities can be very different (unlike insect colonies), then differences in the levels of co-operation within them will also be very different, and give large benefits to some cultures.

    This has been used to explain the rise and fall of empires (in evolutionary terms, a type of ‘super-organism’). In the competition between kingdoms, the most co-operative ones (internally) win, and become dominant empires. But then, when they no longer have any effective competition, competitive behaviour comes to dominate within the empire – because altruistic behaviour provides no benefit to the empire via competition with other groups – and the empire starts to collapse.

    Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize winner (economics) for her work on the commons; she identified 8 design principles for managing a commons.


    The study then goes on to show that when groups use Elinor Ostrom’s commons design principles, the opportunities for individuals to indulge in selfish behaviour for their own benefit that disadvantage the group are greatly restricted. The study lists all 8 principles, and shows how they mirror historical conditions that have pushed humans in the direction of co-operation over the course of our history.

    There is a striking correspondence between the principles
    derived by Ostrom for CPR groups and the conditions that caused us to evolve into such a cooperative species in the first place.

    However, the design principles can’t be applied generally for all circumstances. Communities will differ in how the principles are implemented, depending on local conditions (NB: this is why David Bollier prefers the term ‘emulate and federate’ rather than ‘replicate and federate’. A community wanting to build a commons economy won’t just copy what happened in another community that has already done it, because local conditions will be different. Emulate fits the bill much better than replicate.).


    The use of the principles in an educational context is fascinating. When children choose their own definitions of good behaviour, and monitor themselves, benefits range from improved achievement scores to fewer mental health issues and suspensions, and less tobacco and drug use.

    A school was studied in which students even take part in choosing staff, and can choose their own curriculum, and ask for help when they need it, without the usual restrictions. There are mixed-age groups, and the younger children are encouraged to emulate the older children (and the older children tend to prevent bullying among the younger children). This would all be very familiar to members of traditional hunter-gatherer groups, in which humans have spent most of our history. Age segregation is a very recent development, and one that was introduced mainly to improve exam results and to serve capitalism, not to turn children into well-balanced, well-educated, adults that are assets to their communities.

    co-operation and the commons
    Sudbury Valley School in Massachussetts – mixed age classes, democratic decision-making that includes the students, who choose what they want to learn; excellent results.

    The students performed as well as state and private school students in terms of conventional measures of success – but at a fraction of the cost. But they weren’t just being churned out on a conveyor belt to fit into jobs in corporate capitalism.

    The commons design principles can and have also been used to build connections in neighbourhoods, including problem / unsafe neighbourhoods.

    The conclusion is that Ostrom’s commons design principles largely correspond to the history of beneficial co-operation in human social history, but also in human and pre-human evolution.


    What they absolutely don’t correspond to is neoclassical economic theory, and the belief that individuals are selfish, and that selfish behaviour results in beneficial outcomes for the whole of society (the ‘invisible hand’). They’re not and it doesn’t.

    There was a time in history when the discipline of astronomy had to start afresh, when it was confirmed that the earth orbited the sun, and not vice versa. That time is surely overdue for the discipline of economics.

    The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's


    • 1julian jones May 30th, 2023

      Thank you Dave, all vital considerations..

      Hard for anyone to seriously claim that the nett benefits of cumulative selfish behaviour (Boris J still bangs the "greed is good" drum) when the Western Economies, in terms of accumulated debt, are now some of the poorest nations on earth (All our real wealth having been off-shored)!  

      I once had a theologian explain me that to an 'Ancient', the present preeminence of Economics over our Ecology would be regarded as a complete inversion of correct understanding (which of course the minority of us, the environmentally aware do understand..), that the 'Logos' is 'the divine mind that animates the world ' and the 'Nomos' can only be deduced from understanding the Logos.  

      Natural systems are great, and feature much abundance... But they also feature much regular Carnage! It's important to clarify, for the coming Aeon, the difference between Natural, Unnatural & Super-Natural engagement with the planet. Club of Rome, Limits to Growth did much to 'muddy' the situation... Renewable resources are abundant, the best means of social equity (via Commons & other diverse realisation) and best implemented within, as Polly Higgins clarified, an Higher Moral Authority.

    • 2Simon Carter May 31st, 2023

      Your article puts me in mind of this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DowJfUmlzeI Funny yes, but also interesting. My take is we need to build mechanisms for selflessness that are in fact mutually beneficial, & then work to emulate this within groups. Most of all we need to bust the lie of trickle-down economics & stop putting billionaires on pedestals. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcQNtsY4Kh8&t=1s

    • 3Chris Ponti June 1st, 2023


      These folks have been working on exactly this for some time now. I love this knowledge and practice and the community growing around it. Cheers!

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