Ian Ramjohn recently posted an interesting (but far too short) article on Scientific Blogging titled Competition and Coexistence in which he discussed various theoretical scenarios that could develop if a new species formed and began competing with its parent species for resources. It set me thinking about the whole concept of competition, in particular its alleged importance in evolution and the widely held assumption that competition is ever present, a constant, a given condition of existence.

I revisited a similar discussion in The Selfish Gene in which Richard Dawkins used the example of robins. (Page 38) “As we saw earlier, members of different species are less direct competitors than members of the same species. For this reason we should expect fewer disputes between them over resources, and our expectation is borne out. For instance, robins defend territories against other robins, but not against great tits.”

This is simplistic to the point of silliness, for if robins repel all robins then the species dies out. But robin territoriality has been observed, so what’s it all about. Rather than being a battle for resources, I would suggest that it’s a battle for one resource only – potential sexual partners. Why make that assumption? Because I do not believe that competition within species for resources is as common or significant as some allege, nor is it supported by evidence. I think that sharing of resources is far more prevalent, and far more significant from an evolutionary point of view.

Examples from the natural world suggest that for many animals, within-species competition for resources is unknown. This was highlighted in a documentary I saw just a few days ago in which a wildebeest cow and calf were separated from their herd and subsequently found another herd that accepted them immediately. For grazing animals, sharing of resources is their mode of operation. There could well be isolated instances of jostling for a particularly juicy bit of herbage, but such would be rare, certainly not typical. The cost in energy is just not worth the effort.

Sharing of resources has been a feature of human development also. Our history books and oral traditions are full of conflicts and chaos, but that’s because these were the exception, not the rule. Periods of peaceful co-existence and slow steady progress are so humdrum that no-one feels the need to record them, for what’s there to record? Each night on the TV news we see conflict and chaos, but the number of people in the world at any given time that are engaged in such vigorous competition is nothing in comparison to the rest of the human population quietly going about their business.

“Nature red in tooth and claw” is not the full story of evolution, it’s not even the full story of life, it’s merely the scuffle on the sideline.

Not only is it implied that competition is a universal fact of existence, we then put conditions on it by claiming that it’s really only important within species. (Presumably to explain species development.) We can’t have it both ways. It’s either universal or it’s within species. It’s obviously not universal.  Herds of different grazing animals co-exist quite peacefully on the African savannahs. If competition is a universal constant, the shaper of the natural world, why do we not see the larger animals excluding the smaller from certain areas.

There’s probably a few reasons for this; there’s the effort for reward question, there’s different diets for different animals, and there’s the mutual advantage factor in which different herbivores consume the same plants at different stages of development in such a way as to increase the resource for each other.

The fact remains however that they do not compete, they share resources, particularly if we regard the grassland as a whole as the resource. As competition is not therefore not the shaper of the world as implied, we need only demonstrate that within species it is of secondary importance to show that the whole thing is a beat-up, spin-doctoring of the most shameful kind.

Why do we not assume that sharing of resources is the natural state of things? After all, that’s the conclusion reached by Charles Darwin himself. Peter Kropotkin put it best in his excellent Mutual Aid, A Factor in Evolution, Chapter 1:

In The Descent of Man … (Darwin) pointed out how, in numberless animal societies, the struggle between separate individuals for the means of existence disappears, how struggle is replaced by co-operation, and how that substitution results in the development of intellectual and moral faculties which secure to the species the best conditions for survival. He intimated that in such cases the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community. "Those communities," he wrote, "which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring" (2nd edit., p.163).”

But competition is not a figment of the imagination altogether, it does exist, so what is it all about? Robert Ardrey, famously defamed by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, in his greatly underappreciated work The Social Contract, concluded that competition is important within species, not for resources, but for position, for status. But it should not be assumed that the struggle for status is resource grabbing by another name, for he alsoshowed that within species, in line with the thoughts of Darwin, cooperation is the means of achieving survival.

Of course many examples can be found of within-species competition, but these need to be kept in context. Some groups of animals, not all, will defend territories from other groups of the same species, but territory defense is not the primary activity of the group nor is it the guiding principle of their survival. Mutual aid and cooperation within the group is the activity to which they devote their time overwhelmingly, and which is the guarantee of their survival.

Once again, Kropotkin puts it best:

As soon as we study animals -- not in laboratories and museums only, but in the forest and the prairie, in the steppe and the mountains -- we at once perceive that though there is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species, and especially amidst various classes of animals, there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence amidst animals belonging to the same species or, at least, to the same society. Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle. Of course it would be extremely difficult to estimate, however roughly, the relative numerical importance of both these series of facts. But if we resort to an indirect test, and ask Nature: "Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?" we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest. They have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their respective classes, the highest development of intelligence and bodily organization. If the numberless facts which can be brought forward to support this view are taken into account, we may safely say that mutual aid is as much a law of animal life as mutual struggle, but that, as a factor of evolution, it most probably has a far greater importance, inasmuch as it favours the development of such habits and characters as insure the maintenance and further development of the species, together with the greatest amount of welfare and enjoyment of life for the individual, with the least waste of energy.

When we consider that Kropotkin’s exhaustive study of this matter was published in 1902 and that its main thrust was supported by no less an authority than Stephen Jay Gould, we must ask ourselves why it is that the myths of competition still prevail. I suggest that a strong element of intellectual laziness is involved. How much simpler and easier it is to detect and describe isolated stand-out examples of competition, than it is to find the subtle intricacies of mutual aid and support that flow unceasingly but unnoticed, just below the surface of every life. Our lives are mundane, so we are attracted by the unusual, the bizarre, the violent and aggressive.

We are drawn to the spectacle of two bulls fighting for dominance of a herd but fail to see the lifelong network of support and cooperation that gave them the strength to compete. We entertain ourselves with drama, with shoot-ups, even our educational documentaries feature grazing herds under attack by predators. We should not be surprised that this tendency has also influenced our approach to biology.

The views expressed here will be denied by those who claim a place for less spectacular forms of competition. Some will claim that the herds sharing grasslands are in competition for each blade of grass. This is a misuse of the term, for on that basis we could claim that every organism is competing for atmospheric oxygen. The use of the term “competition” is simply not appropriate for this type of relationship. If a better term cannot be found it should be made conditional by referring to it as passive or unconscious competition or something similar, because it certainly is worthy of study, but must be differentiated from the simplistic sensationalism of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’.

But again, passive competition is not the ultimate shaper of the natural world; it’s simply an influence, one of the many currents that make up the ebb and flow of life.