At this level, it would be hard to express any survival strategy beyond probabilistic, since reproduction is asexual with those cells that have the proper attributes, being able to dominate an environment in a short period of time. Similarly, it is also an environment that is subject to genetic “plagiarism” whereby novel combinations or sources of genetic information may be acquired directly through mechanisms like conjugation. The process of conjugation results in the transfer of genetic materials from a donor cell to that of the recipient.
Even at this rudimentary level one would be hard pressed to argue that there is any real competition beyond that of indifference to the survival of other cells. They certainly aren’t engaged in battling each other directly, so there must be a fundamental principle at work even at this basic level that needs to be considered.
The basic principle can be described as “competition may be difficult, but fighting is expensive”. Therefore one of the governing principles of biology is that fighting should be avoided at all costs. While acquiring resources may be quite competitive, fighting shifts that focus to a significantly higher risk activity and prevents the accumulation of resources. Therefore those members of a species that are able to behave more “indifferently” to others can retain their focus, while those that fight will either be killed, injured, or deprived of resources that others obtained in their distraction.
It is this distinction that gives rise to one of the points often misunderstood regarding “survival of the fittest”. The base interpretation has often been one of bloodied conflict or aggression, when in reality success is primarily based on tolerance and indifference precisely to avoid these higher risks. It should also be noted that fighting is not reflective of the predator/prey relationships that may exist and shouldn’t be confused with that special case.
While our current set of examples doesn’t specifically suggest cooperation, it paves the way for such development, since the alternatives tend to result in higher risks with questionable benefits. Therefore while the behavior is certainly self-interested, it would not rise to the level of being strongly selfish where the potential for more aggressive encounters could occur.
From this point we see two paths of increased cooperation developing. When we consider the reproduction of single-celled organisms, the cells in the immediate vicinity would share a common heritage since they would possess the same genetic material. In addition, this common origin would suggest that there might be enough of a chemical basis to form a cohesive group that could exchange chemical information without compromising the integrity of any individual cell in that group. In other words, this could be the origins of a primitive multi-cellular or colonial organism.
The second point is that methods like conjugation could be made more orderly if specific groups of cells could exchange genetic information with similar groups. This would result in an equal exchange of genetic information and provide potential benefit to both groups. At this point, the groups become locked into a “cooperative” agreement for reproductive stability and the beginnings of sexual (versus asexual) reproduction would occur .
From this, various species have adopted a wide range of mating strategies, but at some level, they must all cooperate to some degree or another. The only possible exception that comes to mind is the hostile nature of many insect reproductive methods, which I will attempt to address later.
Without retracing every evolutionary step, the benefits to multicellular organisms extended their mobility, afforded new methods for protecting themselves, and gave rise to many novel and specialized developments as a result of this new cooperative effort by the individual cells. Once again, it is useful to point out that, even at the cellular level the primary processes are governed by “indifference”. It would be difficult to argue that cells have a preference in being a muscle cell versus a skin cell, or a neuron. As a result, each is “assigned” a responsibility and benefits by the success of the group. Failure to cooperate invariably endangers the group and gives rise to cancers and other destructive variants.
In addition, this grouping of cells would have a unique chemical signature with which it could identify members of the group and anything that differed would be treated as a threat. This is where the immune system would come into play and why the response to disease and even transplanted organs originates. In this case, cooperation has not only extended the scope over which an organism can operate but also provided a strong “incentive” to be a part of the group versus going it alone.
These developments gave rise to new levels of competition but not necessarily confrontation. While each species will do its utmost to acquire the resources it needs to survive and reproduce, it will rarely manifest as direct confrontations. The notable exception to this is when a species itself becomes the resource.
So if we consider the more stable each step is, the greater the possibility and need of novel approaches becomes. In our scenario, once single-celled organisms had dominated the available niches and maximized the means of exploiting their environment, then new variations could extend that influence and increase the number of solutions for more diverse ways of acquiring resources.
NOTE: Bear in mind that resources would consist of raw materials from the environment, or the species that acquired those resources. Therefore the driving force in all development was to either become better at directly acquiring resources, or to become better at acquiring the species that contain those resources. In both cases, this created an absolute dependence in the balance between all the competing species to avoid total depletion and consequent death. Therefore, the selection pressures on any species were always oriented towards improving their exploitation, but not becoming too efficient since both would result in their demise. It is these selection pressures that ultimately played into the reproductive rates, so that a species would reproduce at a rate that was commensurate with its necessary representation in the environment. Since this is a quite delicate balance to achieve, any major variations will tend to result in species extinction.