Nathanael Garrett Novosel, December 20 2023

Competition Is Cooperation

Social species inevitably involve competition and cooperation. Before social species evolved, it was mostly competition as all living organisms fought for survival. Early forms of cooperation were coincidental, as bacteria move in patterns and birds clean the teeth of crocodiles. But once animals began to form large families and communities, mass cooperation became common and essential.

But cooperation is more than just protecting and nurturing kin and peers. In a world where only the fittest survive, all species need to be the best that they can be to carry on their genes. In social species, they are able to cooperatively compete to ensure survival. It's that specific type of cooperation that is the topic for today's post.

So what is cooperative competition? It's competition where there is either stated or implied rules of engagement. For example, two men in a fight follow certain unwritten rules such as no eye-gouging or groin punches. You can see this in various forms of martial arts and self-defense training, as women are trained immediately to go for the groin to get away from an attacker, yet groin hits are near non-existent in any style of combat sports. This is because of the implication that both parties want to be able to recover back to full health after the bout, and poking someone's eye out or preventing someone from having children would prevent that from being the case.

How did this evolve? The evolution of cooperation in social species involved two components: ethics and support. Ethics are rules to minimize harm to people that also won't hurt you, which started with family and expanded to peers and now societies. Support is the ability for life forms to help each other grow more than they could on their own. Together, humans and other social animals follow rules for how they treat each other and ensure that they can improve safely.

An example of cooperative competition is when two animals fight for dominance, the losing party gives up by exposing their neck, and the winning party acknowledges the submission by backing off and letting the loser live. In pure survival-of-the-fittest competition, the winner would kill the loser. But in a cooperative world, animals evolved ways to fight so that they can build their abilities with minimal harm and no fatal consequences. This evolves in males of social species in the form of rough play as children and then organized competition and simulated combat in adults. The social group knows the unwritten rules and oversees the bout, such as when animals circle around a competition or humans gather in large stadiums.

As a result, social animals like humans have evolved for organized competition to make individuals and the group the best that they can be. This competition IS cooperation, as the individuals and groups in competition agree to the rules of the game, hold each other accountable, and make each other better in the process. Everything from no kidney punches to not swinging on a 3-0 count with a massive lead in baseball is considered to be a rule to follow to compete in a way that minimizes unnecessary harm and maximizes growth.

This expands into the real world as well and not just sports and other competitions. Politicians compete for citizens' votes. Businesses compete for consumers' dollars. Competition allows everyone to try their best to succeed. The strange thing in the real world is that when competition loses its cooperative component, the "safely" part of the "improve safely" goes away, and people begin to "fight dirty". It can seem strange to someone with a "winning is everything" mentality that there is such a thing as playing or fighting "dirty"—after all, isn't the point to win? Not entirely, no. In cooperative/organized competition, the goal is to win within the rules. It's why businesses don't burn down the buildings of their competitors and athletes don't intentionally try to injure their opponents. Because the world has gotten so safe from cooperation, it would only get worse if ethics departed from human interactions such as competitive activities.

There is the other side of this as well: the idea that we shouldn't have competition now that the world is relatively safe compared to the days of bear attacks and nighttime barbarian raids. What people don't realize, however, is that competition makes people stronger. Tom Brady is only Tom Brady if he has a Peyton or Eli Manning to win against. It's why Tom Brady didn't compete against high school athletes for his entire career and decided upon a pro career. You play against the best to become your best. This works in business as well, as we all know that controlled monopolies improve at much slower rates than free markets because there is no risk of consequences for resting on their laurels. And we all know that absolute power corrupts absolutely, which is why we need competing political parties and separate branches of government to keep each other in check. Without competition, continuous improvement can be reduced or even eliminated. The idea that humanity can push itself beyond all limits without competition is silly.

So when you think about proceeding in life and face adversity, know that competition is there to make you better. People talk about the "power of belief" with Roger Bannister, but it should be the "power of competition" since the people who also strived to attain the fastest mile had benchmarks to push them. People think that competition is a filtering mechanism, but it's also a lifting mechanism. People can think something is impossible, see someone else do it, and then immediately replicate it and take it even further. We see that everywhere, from the famous "Moneyball" approach to fielding a baseball team to the Space Race to Netflix's $1 million challenge of making their recommendation engine 10% more accurate. Modern competition is humanity's way to cooperate in a way that maximizes the end result. Yes, there are still armed conflicts, power struggles, and instances of coercion in the world as well, but most of the world's activities has moved toward cooperative competition.

What about you? Are you the best that you can be? Maybe you need to find something that you're passionate about and compete to be the best at it. It might change your life. Just remember: it's about getting the most out of yourself, and so you want both cooperation and competition to achieve that while following rules to minimize harm to anyone else along the way.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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