Evolutionary biology predicts that mutualism, reciprocity, symbiosis, and cooperation are unstable strategies because cheaters will destroy them. Despite this, there has been surprisingly little evidence of cooperative breakdown due to cheating – until now. The new findings may have political implications.
A team of biologists at the University of California, Riverside, finally found the missing evidence in bacteria. They studied the interaction between nitrogen-fixing bacteria and their legume hosts in a 530-mile-wide Californian habitat. They found that the fewer benefits that the microorganisms provided to their hosts, the more common they were.
The leader of the research team, Dr. Joel Sachs, said that “our data show that natural selection favors cheating rhizobia, and support predictions that rhizobia can often subvert plant defenses and evolve to exploit hosts.”
Beneficial microbes have been increasingly recognized for their health benefits, both in humans and other species. Because of this, agronomists have tried to design biofertilizers that utilize beneficial bacteria in agriculture to improve crops, but with little success. Sachs explains why: “Our dataset suggests a potential flaw in these approaches; the bacteria, with their own evolutionary interests, can destabilize these interactions.”
In plain language: There is much to be gained from cooperation, but typically cheaters ruin the party.
If that sounds eerily familiar, it is because we are also plagued with our fair share of cheaters. Throughout most of history, people have lived in poverty due to endemic corruption in human societies. It was only with the rise of capitalism and the freedom from theft, plunder, and bribery that society blossomed into unparalleled prosperity for all.
The most significant predictor of the wealth of nations is freedom from corruption, which in turn is strongly correlated with minimal government and economic freedom. Evolution may provide the answer to why attempts at implementing capitalism have been so unsuccessful in most poor countries: Benefits of cooperation are quickly eroded by cheaters.
What We Can Learn
The lesson from biology is that mutualism is unstable, vulnerable, and tends toward collapse. However, nature is full of successful symbiotic relations. In Africa, wildebeests flock cooperatively together with zebras and have done so for eons. Why have these mutualistic systems survived?
It turns out that all forms of cooperation must be fought for and protected. The rules of mutual engagement must be vigorously enforced. Cheaters must be policed. The unparalleled success of the West relies on the strict enforcement of laws that facilitate cooperation.
However, in America, the system of constitutional rule of law is under assault by the progressive left. Everything from a welfare state that attracts moochers to gaming the system through activist judges and legislation designed to give Democrats an easy victory undermines the level playing field of an honest system.
While we may grant them the assumption that they want to do good, what they in practice do is create ever more opportunities for people to cheat the system. The evidence from nature shows that this is a recipe for disaster.