Inner Nature: Cooperation versus Competition

By Vidya Rajan, Columnist, The Times

Nobel Laureate William Golding’s book, Lord of the Flies, tells of a group of young boys accidentally marooned on an island, who lost every smidgin of “civilization” and reverted to clannism, competition, and eventually to savagery: they kill the boys who show thoughtfulness. The book’s title became shorthand for the beast inside us all which needs to be tamed and conquered, or “civilized”. Golding’s book was intended to “show up” as false another book called Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne which had three kids living in harmony when marooned on a desert island as unrealistic and pollyannaish.

Phrases such as “nature, red in tooth and claw” and “it’s a jungle out there” have acclimated us to the belief that the veneer of civilization, such as it is, has saved us from ourselves. The thing is, the events of Lord of the Flies were diametrically opposite to a real-life situation where boys marooned on an island showed cooperation, just as they had in Coral Island, not competition. In 1965, six Tongan teenagers ran away from school – apparently the food was terrible – and they decided to go and catch some fish. They stole a boat and set out, but were swept out to sea by a storm which destroyed the boat. The boys were cast adrift on planking. They were weak and disoriented by the time they washed up on a small island called Ato[1]. They lived there for about 15 months during which time the boys kept their spirits up with song on a makeshift guitar and cooperated to hunt, tend a fire, garden, and keep watch. And they remained friends throughout their extended ordeal. They were eventually rescued by a lobster fisherman from Tasmania. This story is told in Rutger Bregman’s Humankind, a book that scratches the surface of behavior to probe our true inner nature. In this article, I will select some of the narratives from his book, but also look beyond humans to other social animals to explore whether cooperation or competition predominates.

Game theory is used to study the parameters of strategies underlying human competition/cooperation. A specific scenario in game theory is called “Prisoner’s Dilemma”. Two criminals are apprehended, are not allowed to confer, and are interviewed separately. If they both (A and B) stay silent, then both of them get short prison terms. If one (A) testifies and implicates the other (B), then B gets a long prison term and A gets off, and vice versa. If both turn the other in, both get medium-length prison terms. The options and outcomes are summarized in the figure below:

Figure 1: An example of prisoner’s dilemma payoff matrix[2]. By CMG Lee. Reproduced under CC BY-SA 4.0.

What would you do? Presumably it would be based on how much you liked/trusted the other person. Or it could be experience with a stranger that leads to the evolution of trust/distrust. Try playing a different version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game online here:

Other games more subtly measure cooperation vs. competition. One, which is called Space Dilemma showed that people started off cooperating. But when someone cheated, the cooperator felt betrayed and instantly switched to competition. But in a war or peace principle called “Hawks and Doves” doves (peacemakers/cooperators/coward) do well when most people are hawks (fighters/competitors/brave); on the other hand, when surrounded by doves, hawks do well[3]. The term “chickenhawk” arose following the recognition of this fact, which led some to practice pretense. The definition of a chickenhawk is “[a] public person who advocates war but declined significant opportunity to serve in uniform during wartime”.[4]  The chickenhawk is the ultimate and unrepentant cheater.

In nominally cooperating groups, when there is one piece of food and two mouths to feed, that piece of food may be amicably cut in half and shared. But when the number of mouth exceeds a tipping point – when the benefit of calories/mouth gets too low for the effort – then competition may be more effective. In other words, when there is plenty for everyone, then cooperation is possible; but when there is only so much pie and the pie slices get smaller than needed for sustenance, then conflict arises. In impoverished societies that are closely knit or related by kinship, any amount of pie is shared equitably so that no one loses altogether and conflict is avoided, but hoarding is not permitted. According to Bregman, tribal customs in hunter-gatherer societies ensured that greedy people – those that kept what they found to themselves – were cast out of the community or even killed. Successful hunters who surrendered their catch to the group, even to the point of refusing any of it, were celebrated. The takeaway is that cooperation is such a necessity when living on the edge of survival that selfishness was ruthlessly discouraged. In groups that show cooperation, strength of the affinity may be critical. In larger and more diffuse societies, affinity is less of a glue than in small groups like hunter-gathers. Affinity may be established through citizenship, clubs, ethnicity, religion, team and any number of things where an in-group and an out-group exist. Some groups actually levy a fee to belong: taxes, membership dues, tithes, hatred of the outgroup. The psychology is powerful and, if there is a pie situation involved, then members of the group are more likely to share, whereas they will compete if out-group members are involved. Just look around you for examples.

What about non-human animals?

An interesting pattern is seen in the Hymenoptera group of insects known as Aculeata, consisting of wasps, ants and bees. Female honey bees have stingers shaped from modified ovipositors and males lack them. Some groups have lost the stinger altogether, such as stingless bees and some ants. Note that the stinger is a modified ovipositor and is connected to both the ovary as well as to the poison gland. When a laying worker develops, she uses her “stinger” to lay unfertilized eggs. Wasps, bumblebees, ants and honey bee queens have stingers without barbs, and honeybee workers have stingers with barbs. Wasps can sting multiple times without injury. Bees, on the other hand, can sting but will eviscerate themselves when they sting mammals with thick skin, although they supposedly can sting other insects without evisceration. The big question is why honey bees have barbs whereas social wasps do not. This may relate to honeybees having a desirable product to protect, and being called on to defend more vigorously but without overreacting to every passerby. An analogy I just thought up is that a honey bee on guard is like someone with a loaded gun, who has to judge instantly the danger of a confrontation. Would the guard use it if they knew they would almost certainly die if they shot the gun, or only use it if there was no other option, like Bess in the poem, The Highwayman, warn the others “with her death.”[5]

Figure 2: Mechanism of venom delivery through the stinger of a honey bee.


Watching birds at a feeder is also really instructive for this purpose, although I do not know if my observations are meaningful. When the feeders have plenty of food, a diversity of birds of a 1-2 fold variation in size (nuthatches, bluebirds, sparrows, juncos) seem to have worked out a system of sharing. They come and go, spending a few minutes at the feeder. When one bird is significantly larger than the others, such as a red-breasted woodpecker, it spends more time at the feeder. This could be because it generally needs more food. Should the occasional small bird come to the feeder, the woodpecker ignores it. But should a starling (closer to the woodpecker in size) show up, the woodpecker does not allow it access and instead pecks and chases it away. When a bunch of starlings show up, they mob the feeder and empty it. They don’t peck at each other but they shake the feeder a bunch, so a lot of seed lands on the ground for the birds who can’t fit around the feeder. Is this cooperation? It looks like it because, when the feeder is empty, they all fly away a great cloud. Competition between the birds that come in dribs and drabs is non-existent because they probably cannot take on each other in a fight if they are matched for size. Birders, please do write to me about what you think!

Generally, within a single group of similar members, a hierarchy applies. This pecking order may be established based on parameters such as age, strength, ability, or size. It comes down to a fight, or a mustering of resources which may pay an army of pitchforks or lawyers. Some things can top these parameters of cooperation, such as mental instability or somebody with suicide-bomber-like recklessness who threatens damage if they don’t get their way. This person will never cooperate. It may be a competition, but they must win, or they will blow everything up. Again, just look around you.

Humans have ended up here, compromising our only planet for the sake of one-upmanship of the out-group. Unless we learn to cooperate, it will not end well. It would be sad if alien invaders with nefarious intentions are the best hope for human unity.


[1]. Bregman, R. (2020). The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months. The Guardian. [online] 9 May. Available at:

[2] Wikipedia Contributors (2019). Prisoner. [online] Wikipedia. Available at:

[3] Wills, M. (2016). The Original Hawks and Doves. [online] JSTOR Daily. Available at:

[4] (n.d.). chicken hawk | Etymology of phrase chicken hawk by etymonline. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Mar. 2024].

[5] Poetry Foundation (2019). Poetry Foundation. [online] Poetry Foundation. Available at:

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