Nautilus

Survival of the Friendliest

Violence has been the sire of all the world’s values,” wrote poet Robinson Jeffers in 1940. “What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine the fleet limbs of the antelope? What but fear winged the birds, and hunger jeweled with such eyes the great goshawk’s head?”

We’ve taken these metaphors for evolution to heart, reading them to mean that life is a race to kill or be killed. “Darwinian” stands in for “cutthroat,” “survival of the fittest” signifies survival of the ruthless. We see selective pressures that hone each organism for success and drive genetic innovation as the natural order of things.

Two models of evolution: The early interpretation of Darwinian evolution as life-or-death contest is being complemented by an understanding of the importance of cooperation.Martin Harvey / Auscape / Getty Images

But we know now that that picture is incomplete. Evolutionary progress can be propelled both by the competitive struggle to adapt to an environment, and by the relaxation of selective forces. When natural selection on an organism is relaxed, the creative powers of mutation can be unshackled and evolution accelerated. The relief of an easier life can inspire new biological forms just as powerfully as the threat of death.

One of the best ways to relax selective forces is to work together, something that mathematical biologist Martin Nowak has called the “snuggle for survival.” New research has only deepened and broadened the importance of cooperation and lifting of selective pressures. It’s a big, snuggly world out there.


The fitness of a species can be thought of as a multi-dimensional landscape defined by its compatibility with its environment. The species’ place within that landscape is determined by parameters

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