So in considering competition the definition will be focused specifically on the conditions whereby two individuals engage each other in some confrontation for a specific and separate resource. To that end, one of the individuals will end up acquiring that resource while the other is either eliminated or goes elsewhere.
However, in a general sense, it is useful to consider first how competition actually manifests itself.
In the first instance, the resource in question must be desirable to two or more organisms and it must be non-sharable. In addition, the relative importance of the resource must be considered in determining how much each organism is willing to risk to obtain it.
If we consider an idealized set of circumstances where there are no resource shortages, then each organism has plenty of access and technically no competition occurs. However, even in these circumstances we may find that there are preferred territorial locations or mates, so even though there may be sufficient resources, a degree of competition may arise as a result of such specificity.
In these cases, the competition is between individuals and while there could be literally thousands of such encounters occurring at any particular moment, they are not species-wide or uniform occurrences, but rather each encounter will be resolved in its own unique manner.
Since one of the guiding principles we adopted was to avoid fighting, these encounters will tend to be filled with all kinds of pseudo-fighting or threatening mechanisms that may serve to intimidate or create the sense of danger that might force the other party to back down.
This is analogous to the “hawks and doves” scenario played out in game theory and illustrates a particular strategy that can be quite workable to gain access to resources and avoid the risk of death or injury. In this scenario, both sides have the option of choosing alternatives because resources are not scarce, so there is a reduced risk (or perhaps none at all) from simply moving on.
The more constrained resources become, the more intense such competition will become and when individual survival or defense of the young is at stake, then the risks will be high and the encounters increasingly violent.
Since the purpose of such competition is to advance the position of a member within a species, the four principles of success can be defined as:
1. Daily survival – you must live.
2. Find a mate
4. Successfully rear (or have survivors for) the next generation
These steps are repeated as often as necessary for the particular circumstances of the organism in question. In addition, these steps must also be achieved by the next generation. After repeated iterations, a particular strategy will prove to be a qualified success if it can continue in these actions.
The importance of each step is highly dependent on the organism’s ability to repeat it if needed. For example, a high reproductive rate would make preserving the young less important, so in order to satisfy steps 1 and 2, the young could be sacrificed. There may be numerous adaptations to deal with these issues, but in general, they must be satisfied in order for a species to succeed.
The first and primary step deals with the day to day issues of finding adequate food and water. In the cases where resources are reasonably abundant, there is little active competition and each organism can go on about its business. If resources become constrained, then the ability of an organism to reach step two (2) becomes threatened, so the competition will increase to a level where even risking death or injury may be reasonable.
However, such constraint makes it too difficult to successfully complete the subsequent steps, so it is unlikely that an animal under such circumstances would remain in the geographic area for long or even survive. Under such a resource shortage it is unlikely that mates will be readily located and even less likely that offspring can be successfully raised.
All of these events are clearly driven by self-interested behaviors, but are not selfish. In other words, there is no desire or intent for any organism to completely dominate an environment or exclude others (of its own species), except for whatever their own needs dictate. Once the needs of an organism are met then all other activities will tend to be viewed with cautious indifference instead of competition.
It should be noted that this is not being done out of altruism, or some sense of “good behavior”, but rather because selfishness is too energy intensive an activity to pursue without a tangible gain. In other words, once the resource needs are met for an organism, it becomes wasteful (in terms of energy and risk) and dangerous to engage in hoarding or confronting/denying others when no additional benefit can be achieved.
In short, the act of selfishness can only be pursued when the action is carried out by an organism that feels reasonably protected and insulated from the consequences of such an act. Similarly, to reiterate the point, such an act is only meaningful within the definition of a social organism (with the expectation of cooperation) in the first place.
In the next post we will look at how varying levels of cooperation and the rise of social groups have changed the nature of competition and how this changes the direction of the selection pressures experienced by individuals.