Competition, Cooperation, and the Evolution of Evolution

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Evolution, often brashly simplified to “survival of the fittest,” aims to tell us who we are and how we become. However, the frontiers of evolution are adorned by the theories of Darwin to such an extent that every other contribution might be considered insignificant, or even wrong. 

Ivan Wallin and Lynn Margulis were two recent and consequential evolutionary theorists who courageously introduced us to the other side of the coin that is evolution. They gave to the world a paradigmatic perspective: symbiogenesis. It literally means ‘becoming by living together’ and refers to the crucial role of symbiosis in major evolutionary innovations. 

Simply put, it tells us that merging could be one of the possible driving forces behind evolution, and not just the ramification of evolution. Without symbiosis, the life we are living would be unfathomable. Symbiosis has made certain pivotal evolutionary events such as the evolution of the eukaryotic cell from its prokaryotic ancestors possible. 

Ivan Wallin, also nicknamed the “Mitochondria Man” revealed that the mitochondrial organelles inside our cells were a form of primitive bacteria in the past that formed cooperative associations and eventually gave rise to the present eukaryotic cells. This went on to become the first line of evidence in support of the symbiogenesis theory. Thus, an important aspect of symbiosis is the origin of evolutionary and morphological novelty, reiterating it as an evolutionary driving force. With time, many such findings have surfaced and we are slowly learning more about the different facets of evolution to re-equip our approach to human health, science, and the general outlook to science and society.

The pinnacle of the scientific method is rationalism; and symbiogenesis, a theory propagating cooperation and interdependence over competition stood no chance against the individualist mentality laid down by the Darwinian framework. Despite its noteworthy contribution, symbiosis is barely given its due credit and importance. The concepts of competition and combat just seem more comprehensible and easier to fit. Thus, we all took and still take refuge under the sanctum of “The Selfish Gene” to justify competitive behaviour, morally liberating people to be selfish and intellectually urging us to interpret natural questions in terms of simpler individual parts. With the amount of complexity at hand, wouldn’t it be almost ignorant of us to not consider symbiogenesis at least as important in the history of life as survival of the fittest? 

Out of prokaryotic–prokaryotic symbiosis emerged eukaryotes. Out of prokaryotic-eukaryotic symbiosis emerged more competitive eukaryotes and out of eukaryotic-eukaryotic symbiosis emerged multicellular life.

Eyelash mites, skin fungi, gut bacteria, and more all work in harmony with us. Each one of us is a massive colony of microorganisms. Former protists are now eloquently orchestrated animals with fancy tissues and organs.


Symbiosis is not a perfect form of mutualism; instead, it assumes control measures to resolve conflicts, therefore becoming a balancing act. It is ubiquitous and acts as a critical part of most ecosystems.

We must broadcast a more inclusive theory about evolution, one which considers all perspectives. The theory must motivate us to think for ourselves, and not merely accept what we are told to think, thus keeping our future scientists and decision-makers informed and unbiased. Otherwise, many ideas and theories that are capable of informing better approaches to human health and global ecology will be sabotaged before they even emerge.

As the  “survival of the fittest” plays out in our daily life, so does cooperation and symbiosis. By now, we are well aware of the undeniable relationship between our body and its ecosystem. The persistence of many diseases due to the disturbances in the human-microbe relationship like allergies, eczema, ulcerative colitis, and other chronic health problems led us to the Human Microbiome Project in 2008.

We are members of an interactive biotic community and due to the increasing ecological, social, cultural, and economic pressures placed on humanity, we are forced to reimagine the way we survive. Wherever there is an interaction, there is a scope for symbiosis. Our goal must be to reimagine and include in our debates of evolution, not just competition, but also cooperation; and thereby question determinism and the meaning of individuality and the whole. It is imperative to not be blinded by political, cultural, and traditional philosophies and allow ourselves to think beyond and let evolution evolve.