In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cooperation and Conflict: Microbes to Humans

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • Semantics
  • History and Debates

Evolutionary Biology Cooperation and Conflict: Microbes to Humans
Kevin R. Foster
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0013


Cooperation—when one individual improves the fitness of another—is common in the natural world, with the most famous examples in animals such as humans, meerkats, and honeybees. However, cooperation is a much more pervasive trait than these examples might suggest, and it occurs at many other levels of biological organization, including among genes in genomes, cells in multicellular organisms, and among multiple species in mutualisms. And where there is cooperation, there is typically also evolutionary conflict whereby the phenotype of an individual that gives it the highest fitness is not the phenotype that maximizes the fitness of others. For example, an individual is often favored to reproduce more than is good for the fitness of others. Indeed, the central question that pervades the study of cooperation is why conflict doesn’t dominate and ruin the collective good that can be obtained by cooperation. Modern sociobiology studies this question using a wide range of theoretical tools and empirical systems. On the theoretical side, there are three main frameworks. There is Hamilton’s 1964 (cited under Inclusive Fitness Theory) inclusive fitness theory, which sees the world in terms of a focal actor that can change its social environment. This has played a dominant role in the development of the study of cooperation. However, there is also neighbor-modulated (direct fitness) theory, which has a flipped perspective and sees things in terms of how the social world affects a focal individual. Finally, there is group selection or multilevel selection theory, which divides things up into a focal actor and its group. A lot of journal space has been taken debating the value of the different methods, but, as discussed in this article, they are all useful when applied correctly. On the empirical side, the eusocial insects (bees, ants, wasps, and termites) with their sterile work castes have long played a central role in the development and testing of explanations for cooperation and conflict. And inevitably, the study of human cooperation has long been a motivating factor in the field, although it is also arguably the most difficult because cultural and psychological processes must be integrated with hypothesis based upon any genetic evolution. Other vertebrates are social as well, and the cooperatively breeding mammals and birds are major study systems. Finally, there has been a recent rise of what were once considered unconventional study systems. This includes the study of cooperation and conflict at the level of genes and genomes and the study of cell groups, particularly the microbes, where cooperation and conflict have proved central to much of their biology.

General Overviews

The field of cooperation and conflict has relatively few overviews that encompass the subject as a whole, but there are a number of good books and reviews that deal with some or all of the central themes. These are divided here into key Classic Texts and more Recent Synthesis and Summaries.

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