People commonly think of evolution as a ruthless quest for survival among competing organisms. But Richard Michod, head of the University of Arizona's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, says nature is replete with examples of cooperation. He'll be giving a talk on the many forms of evolutionary cooperation--including sex--as part of the UA College of Science's ongoing lecture series on evolution on Tuesday, March 28, at 7 p.m. in Room 100 of the UA Social Sciences Building, 1145 E. South Campus Drive. Information on the lecture series and podcasts of previous lectures are available online.

What are you going to be talking about specifically?

The common view ... is that Darwinian evolution is "nature red in tooth and claw"--a very competitive view. While competition certainly is important in nature, during the past 30 years, we have found that cooperation plays an even more fundamental role when one is interested in major transitions in complexity in life. For example, the transition from unicellular to multicellular life, the origin of the eukaryotic cell and the origin of life itself involves cooperation among genes. What has really changed in the last 30 years is our understanding of the importance of cooperation in nature. It's not just restricted to humans or primates or social insects.

So, cooperation is common.

It's common, yeah. It's common if you're interested in these major transitions. If you just go out and look at nature, and the way organisms are interacting, most of the time, they're either competing or predating. But if you're interested in why there are multicellular organisms instead of just unicellular organisms like bacteria, why there is the eukaryotic cell, then cooperation plays a fundamental role in those transitions in complexity. So our body is basically a group of cooperating cells, and diseases of the human body, such as cancer, are a reversion from the cooperative state to the selfish state. Cells just start replicating without helping each other and listening to each other, and that leads to cancer.

Will you be talking about cooperation in humans a lot? Are they at the apex of cooperation?

They're actually not at the apex. I mean, they have elaborate cooperative networks, but the flip side of cooperation is conflict. Whenever you have cooperation, then you have the temptation to cheat. And there's no way of getting around that--that is, once organisms are helping each other, you always have the possibility of one of the partners or one of the members of the group not helping as much and cheating. ... In humans, we illustrate both elaborate forms of cooperation and elaborate forms of cheating, as do all social organisms. But in the social insect, the altruism is almost complete. Unlike our own species, where it's very rare for humans to give up their complete life for helping the group, in social insects, that's routinely done. So it's debatable that humans are at the pinnacle.

Are there any particularly unusual and elaborate ways in which organisms are cooperative?

The most universal form of cooperation that we think of is actually sexual reproduction. I'll be talking about sex in this lecture as well. Sex is a paradox to biologists, because it's so costly. And it's clumsy: It takes two organisms to make one. Not very efficient, you know? It's much more efficient to just clone yourself. But that isn't what happens in nature. Nature constantly rediscovers sex. The partners have to cooperate for only maybe a brief period of time during which they have to coordinate their activities (and) their lives so they can mate and produce an offspring. Maybe there's cooperation in the caring of the offspring; maybe not. In some humans, males stay around and care. In some birds, that's true, and in some fish. By and large in nature, the males don't contribute anything to the offspring save their genes.

Let's talk more about the preoccupation with sex.

Sex is a paradox for biologists, because it's so costly. ... We as humans are obsessed with--since childhood--the idea of finding a mate, keeping a mate, staying attractive to others. It's a huge cost. In addition to the cost of time and energy, there's the cost of parasites. Infectious elements have discovered that this is a very handy way of transferring themselves from one body to another, because of the intimate contact between the bodies. So that's a cost--and we've very familiar with that, with calamities like AIDS and even less serious--but still bothersome--things like herpes and stuff. What's true of us is true of all life. ... Organisms expend huge amounts of time and energy in displays, in finding mates and keeping mates. This wouldn't be necessary if sex were just abandoned.

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