New research by the University of Chicago has many journalists and even some scientists buzzing, but it really shouldn’t have caused this reaction. In the study, scientists demonstrated compassionate or cooperative behavior between lab rats, notably their choosing to free a trapped comrade over food. Many of us expect rodents to behave more selfishly, even as significant science, including key principles of evolutionary theory, predicts the reverse.
When thinking about animal behavior, we often assume the Darwinian idea of survival of the fittest implies that life in nature is unendingly nasty and brutish, to use the famous words of Thomas Hobbes. But highly individualistic and competitive behaviors are only a starting point for natural life and generally signal more primitive states of natural selection and evolutionary progress.
In nature, as plants, animals, and even whole ecosystems evolve through either implicit or explicit competition and the gradual selection and transmission of beneficial traits, environmental niches available to simple, individualistic behaviors are steadily filled and then dominated by organisms specially optimized for these niches. If we look at the world around us, we can see that natural evolution does not stop at these primitive niches and instead begins to work around or above them.
Through the same process of natural selection of beneficial traits, more complex and behaviorally richer niches are progressively explored and filled, niches that specifically involve the increasing use of creative intelligence, sociality, and cooperation. We can see this exploration of richer and mutually beneficial behaviors in the evolution of sexual over asexual reproduction, in the emergence of symbiotic relationships between species, and most significantly in the higher-order social characteristics of more advanced species, including many birds and some species of insects, fish, amphibians, and reptiles.
Considering evolution of natural life on earth, however, we understand that late-coming mammals are the ultimate cooperators so far and that we are in fact expressly evolved for and predisposed to complex social and cooperative behaviors in ways that earlier life was not. This more complex, literally leap-frogging advance of mammalian life includes the extended care of the young by one or both parents, communal living and reciprocity among adults, active nurturing and teaching, and common defense against threats (all of which both require and promote selection for increasing intelligence).
While human beings represent the height of this evolutionary trend to date, we should expect and do in fact observe a predominance of cooperative species behaviors in nearly all mammals, since this is precisely the central evolutionary strategy or advancement we employ overall as a natural lineage. As such, seeing these characteristics in lab mice should be interesting, rather than startling, but our surprised reaction reflects the still too limited understanding of natural life and health in our time – even among scientists who really should know better.
You can learn more about the new study at Cooperative Mice or about key principles of evolutionary science and its prediction of increasing natural intelligence and cooperation via HumanaNatura’s popular article, Understanding Evolution. If you are interesting in exploring the critical human health and quality of life lessons from evolving natural life, a great place to begin is via About HumanaNatura and its summary of our four science-based natural health techniques.
Photo courtesy of African Striped Mice.
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