Birds Do It. Bats Do It.

New research shows how cooperation prevails across the animal kingdom. What can humans learn from other species?

By Alex Dixon and Jeremy Adam Smith

Cooperation—where individuals work together in order to create a benefit for an entire group—seems at odds with what many people assume are the basic forces of evolution. After all, it’s a jungle out there, only the strongest survive, humans are selfish, etc.

But most scientists don’t share that view of evolution. “The role of unbridled violence in evolution is greatly overestimated,” says Danny Grunbaum, an oceanographer at the University of Washington and a pioneer in revealing the ways that ocean life cooperates in order to survive. “When we see animals like elephant seals fighting with each other—as we do in lots of nature documentaries—we’re really seeing only a very small sliver of time. Much more of the time they’re accommodating each other and respecting where the boundaries are—and that’s cooperation. There is a tremendous amount of cooperation in nature.”

Across dozens of fields, scientists like Grunbaum are making exciting new discoveries about the nature of cooperation—progress enabled, they say, by new observational and computational technologies. “We are much more able to, for example, take video of a large collection of organisms and quantify their movements using a computer,” says Grunbaum. “Twenty years ago,…