The Conditions of the Game: It’s Not a “World of Eternal Struggle”

“As you enter this life, I pray you depart/ With a wrinkled face and a brand new heart.”  Paul Hewson


I saw this photo of a man wearing a shirt quoting Hitler during the violent protests in Charlottesville. I thought about ignoring it, but I’m not merely concerned about this one man’s shirt. Aside from the repulsion from seeing someone walking down a public street supporting Hitler, the thought that people see life as eternal struggle is disturbing. I also think it’s very poor science. If you read the passage where this quote originated (and I’m not recommending you do that), Hitler was appealing to biology, claiming his argument was based in “the most patent principles of Nature’s rule” and “the iron logic of Nature.” Although at one point he also wrote that racial separation was “the will of the eternal creator,” so this seems to be a throwback to a confused, 18th century deistic view of Nature with a big “N” meant to reinforce his own biases.

So here it is in 2017, and some people are still leaning on what a genocidal dictator wrote in the 1920s. Somewhere, we’ve gotten off track. As we’ll see, conflict is not inevitable. In fact, in many ways, “iron logic” suggests that cooperation makes far more sense. First, I’m going to try to tie this together by starting off with a quick story. Please bear with me.

Near the end of my sophomore year, our university held an inter-dormitory volleyball tournament. That was our game. My friends and I had all played for different high schools, and upon arriving in college we formed a travelling team that competed at colleges across the region. With practice, we got to be pretty good.

It turns out that the players from the other dorms didn’t like that very much. In their eyes, the tournament was supposed to be a fun, social experience, not a competitive one. By contrast, we saw the word “tournament,” and we tried to win. At one point, two of the players on the other team – large guys who didn’t seem like they’d played a lot of volleyball before – got visibly angry at the lopsided score, crossed onto our side of the court, and challenged us to a game of football instead. One of my friends calmly explained that, yes, we did play volleyball frequently, but we were all friends and lived in the same dorm (we had no outside “ringers”). He also reminded them that we all signed up for a volleyball tournament, the point of which was to try to win. Our opponents went back to their side, and then we won.

I think about that day from time to time. I know that my friends and I had an advantage, but I also know that this was dependent on the conditions of the game. If the tournament organizers had randomly decided to change the game to chess, or golf, or even football, things might have been different. As in evolution, adaptations and skills are not some abstract measure of “superiority.” Instead, they are environmentally contingent. If you were a bird in a cold climate, you would probably prefer the roly-poly, stumpy, torpedo-like body of a penguin to retain body heat (and to help with swimming). If you lived in a warmer climate, those same traits might be a hindrance to thermoregulation (Symonds and Tattersall 2010).

Professor Jenkins’ advantage has just been nullified. From: “The Far Side,” by Gary Larson.


Likewise, ocean-dwelling stickleback fish, who are apt to encounter larger predatory fish in open water, are heavily armored for defense. But building up bony armor has costs – it requires nutrients and it also weighs a fish down. By comparison, their freshwater stickleback cousins, who became isolated in lakes and face fewer predators, have lost most of their armor. This makes them faster swimmers, and is also more economical. After all, why put your nutrients into something that is expensive and unnecessary? In such a scenario, being heavily armored means that – on average – you will probably leave behind fewer offspring. When it comes to armor, as with most things, it is the niche that matters.

Marine stickleback fish (top) have more bony armor than their freshwater cousins (bottom), who have evolved to be faster, more agile swimmers. Source.


In a similar way, the combination of skills that apply to volleyball are fairly niche-specific (ball control, jumping, diving, etc.) and don’t exactly transfer well to other activities. Try to imagine a golfer jumping before their backswing or diving on the fairway. An even sillier scenario is the idea of applying volleyball techniques outside of sports altogether. There’s no reason to make a spike approach at the grocery store, or during a lecture. It simply doesn’t fit, just like using a screwdriver to hammer a nail, or a mixed martial artist playing by the rules of boxing. Different skills and tools apply to different tasks.

Taylor Sander demonstrating some of his very niche-specific volleyball skills (source). While impressive, there is no need to do this anywhere else.


Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome

You might see where this essay is going. If volleyball players have their niche, and golfers have theirs, then perhaps people from Group A are adapted for different things than those from Group B, and never the twain shall meet. Perhaps that where you think that’s where this is going, particularly if you are of the Hitlerian persuasion, but you would be wrong.

There is another type of adaptation that nature has given organisms, including us, which is our plasticity. In fact, the zoologist Matt Ridley once referred to plasticity as “evolution’s masterstroke.” The reason that Ridley put plasticity on a pedestal is simple: a genome that can respond to environmental feedback and operate in many possible, unpredictable conditions would be more likely to survive and reproduce than a rigid one, just hardwired to just do its thing regardless of circumstances. Furthermore, within a single organism there are many types of plasticity. Organisms respond to their environments behaviorally, physiologically, and even over the course of their growth and development. We aren’t built to do just one thing all the time. Birds can’t just do mating dances all day long. That would be a terrible strategy. Instead, organisms adjust and respond to their surroundings. As the Marines say, improvise, adapt, and overcome.

As is true of genetic adaptations and athletics, it is the conditions of the game that matter for plasticity. Natural selection favored stickleback fish to have the right amount of bony armor to match their environments. Similarly, water fleas from the genus Daphnia adjust their armor depending on the presence of predators. Unlike stickleback fish, however, water fleas don’t take generations to adapt via natural selection. Instead, they will grow their “armor” (a helmet, or a spikier tail depending on the species) if they detect the scent of a predator while they are in the embryonic stage. If there is no scent, they will simply grow without them. Again, why grow elaborate defenses if they are unnecessary? In economic terms, it is an opportunity cost, a waste. 

Undefended Daphnia lumholtzi (left) and defended (right). Whether a water flea grows a ‘helmet’ depends on its early exposure to predators. Credit: Dr. Linda Weiss (Source).


In a sense, stickleback fish and water fleas are (unconsciously) predicting their future environments. Sticklebacks took generations to make their predictions, as selection favored the survival and reproduction of those with the “right” amount of bony armor to suit their circumstances. For water fleas, an embryo exposed to the scent of a predator “predicts” that it will likely encounter predators in its future. Then they are stuck with or without their armaments based on their embryonic “predictions.” As humans, we too predict our immediate and long-term futures – will they be peaceful, or turbulent? What information do we have at our disposal to make such a prediction?


The Eternal Struggle

Let’s return to Hitler and his view that the world is an eternal struggle. In one sense, he was right. We will all struggle against certain things – infection, the elements like hurricanes, wild fires, and blizzards, the senescence that accompanies old age (if we’re lucky), mortality. None of us are getting out of here alive.

However, the struggle against other humans is not a given. I’ve argued before that the evidence from primatology, archaeology, ethnography, and social psychology does not suggest that humans have always engaged in conflict with our neighbors ad infinitum. Instead, we come equipped to cooperate and compete, depending upon the circumstances. And we can take both of these to extremes. As the primatologist Frans de Waal once put it: “When we are bad, we are worse than any primate that I know. And when we are good, we are actually better and more altruistic than any primate that I know. ”

So how do we know when to be bad or good? Sometimes, it might make more sense to prepare for struggle and competition. Yet, in others, it might make more sense to be more cooperative or lay down your arms (following the lead of some sticklebacks and water fleas). Again, much depends on the conditions of the game and the accuracy of our predictions.

In the volleyball tournament my friends and I played in, there was only one trophy. Therefore, the conditions of this contrived scenario meant that there could only be one winner. Usually, sports are a fun experience, giving people the opportunity to use their acquired skills in a controlled form of competition. This often ends in mutual respect and handshakes between competitors. But they also create a zero-sum situation, where one side’s gain requires another’s loss (or, 1 + -1 = 0). Sometimes this leads to tensions, even when the only stakes involved are bruised egos and a plastic trophy.

Unfortunately, I think many people forget that much of life is non-zero-sum. Two parties can also both lose (-1 + -1 = -2), as in the case of a mutually devastating war. Conversely, two parties can both win as well (+1 + +1 = 2), as is true when they trade valued goods, or they pool their efforts to complete some task that neither could accomplish separately. Try building a lighthouse on your own, or staffing a fire department, saving a beached whale, or hunting a mammoth alone with a spear, or putting together a human chain during a hurricane. Or putting together a baseball team.

People forming a human chain during Hurricane Harvey to save others from being swept away in the flooded streets. Source.


Instead of holding a volleyball tournament, we can imagine an alternative scenario where the organizers asked each dormitory to compete in a book drive for the library, or help clean the quad, or raise money for charity. That form of competition – just as arbitrary as a volleyball tournament – has a common goal in mind and is a form of cooperation. While one dorm would still come out on top, the participants would all know that their efforts went to a common, worthy cause.

There is a certain mathematical logic to this: common goals tend to foster cooperation. Furthermore, repeated contact with the same individuals or groups also encourages cooperation for the simple reason that mutual cooperation (if not restraint) is preferable to mutual punishment.


Life is a Team Game   

The notion that life is an eternal struggle is outdated, but still has some adherents. A friend in grad school once complained that most of his undergraduate students’ understanding of evolution basically came down to a version of “survival of the fittest,” where only competition thrived, favoring strength, speed, and aggression. They saw it as bleak, and were turned off by that view. But that’s not the way nature always works. Certainly, life can be violent, but at the risk of sounding redundant, it’s the conditions of the game that matter. Again, quoting Frans de Waal:

“The error is to think that, since natural selection is a cruel, pitiless process of elimination, it can only have produced cruel and pitiless creatures. But nature’s pressure cooker does not work that way. It favors organisms that survive and reproduce, pure and simple. How they accomplish this is left open” (2009: 58).   

Out of nature’s pressure cooker there have been countless examples of cooperation. Nature is not always red in tooth and claw. We can find examples of mutually beneficial behavior to pure altruism among different species. Examples include river dolphins in Myanmar who help fishermen with their catch; rhesus monkeys who would rather not eat for days than harm another monkey; primates (and other vertebrates) who “adopt” unrelated juveniles (even from other species); and chimpanzees who have drowned trying to save unrelated individuals who fell into water. In Martin Nowak’s book “Supercooperators” he wrote:

“all around us is abundant evidence that it does pay to cooperate, from the towering termite mound to the stadium rock concert to the surge of commuters in and out of a city during a working day. In reality, evolution has used these various mechanisms to overcome the limitations of natural selection. Over the millennia they have shaped genetic evolution, in cells or microbes or animals. Nature smiles on cooperation.”  (Nowak, 2011: 11)

Furthermore, one could even read the history of life as tending toward increasing cooperation. Obviously, that would be an oversimplification, and would overlook a lot of suffering and conflict. Yet, there have been some milestones over the last few billion years where non-zero sum relationships have proliferated, from genes coalescing into genomes, cells uniting into organisms, organisms merging into groups, and groups forming larger integrated societies. In The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley even painted the history of life as one that has turned into a team game:   

“The first life on earth was atomistic and individual. Increasingly, since then, it has coagulated. It has become a team game, not a contest of loners. By 3.5 billion years ago there were bacteria five-millionths of a meter long and run by a thousand genes. Even then there was probably teamwork. Today some bacteria swarm together to build ‘fruiting bodies’ to disperse their spores. Some blue-green algae—simple bacteria-like forms—form colonies, with even the rudiments of the division of labour between cells. By 1.6 billion years ago, there were complex cells a million times heavier than bacteria and run by teams of 10,000 genes or more: the protozoa. By 500 million years ago there were complex bodies of animals comprising a billion cells; the largest animal on the planet was a trilobite—an arthropod the size of a mouse. Ever since then the biggest bodies have been getting bigger and bigger.” (Ridley, 1998)

Neither history nor evolution follow a straight line, but at each of the junctions that Ridley listed, there were reasons for those coagulations, some non-zero-sum benefit that accompanied them. When conditions are right, teams tend to fare better than individuals, often driving organisms to sociality. Many species are intensely social, including most primates. For humans, it’s why we live in villages to mega-cities: we benefit from each others’ skill sets, efforts, and expertise. In foraging / hunter-gatherer societies, Robert Kelly concluded that cooperation through food sharing is even essential:

“Food sharing is an essential and integral part of the foraging lifeway. Howell (2010), in fact, shows that Ju/’hoansi parents who have more than two children cannot consistently provide enough food to feed themselves and their dependent offspring. She concludes that sharing was essential to keeping Ju/’hoansi children alive.

Children in foraging societies are enculturated into the idea of sharing at an early age. Ju/’hoan children, for example, begin learning to trade at the age of six months and give gifts on their own by the time they are five years old. The importance of giving gifts and sharing is reinforced throughout life until it becomes deeply embedded in a person’s personality… And the act of sharing is often valued as much, if not more, than what actually is shared and plays a crucial role in maintaining an egalitarian social order, or at least its appearance. Among many hunter-gatherers, the failure to share, in fact, results in ill feeling – not so much because one party fails to obtain food or gifts but rather because the failure to share sends a strong message to those left out of the division. And such failures to share can result in social punishment, such as ostracism, gossip, or public berating. ” (Kelly, 2013: 139-40)

However, cooperation is never perfect, and there’s the rub. Kelly noted that sharing among foragers resides on a continuum from viewing resources as common property to individually owned. He added that foragers are not ‘naturally’ more generous than you or I. Rather, in most forager groups, custom dictates that overly selfish individuals be shamed or punished because if stinginess became rampant then the benefits of sharing (social cohesion, insurance against lean times) would fall apart.

Within a group of purely dovish cooperators, a selfish individual could exploit others to their own benefit (imagine a group of Gandhis infiltrated by a few Hitlers). But a group of selfish individuals would deny themselves the advantages that come from cooperation, thus hurting themselves in the process. There are other strategies. Aside from acting like a Hitler (hawkish) or a Gandhi (dovish), there is tit-for-tat (I don’t know who’s a good archetype here – maybe Bruce Lee? Alvin York? The YPJ?). Tit-for-tat is willing to cooperate, but will flip their strategy if they encounter a hawk or are betrayed. Pure doves can be exploited, but an individual that is willing to cooperate with doves but not cooperate with thugs would fare better. I’m pretty sure Bruce Lee would get along great with Gandhi. Not so much with Hitler.

Circumstances matter. If we encounter others we perceive as thuggish, we may withhold our cooperation, or even refrain from interacting altogether. Our behavioral plasticity allows us to choose which strategy in our toolkit is most appropriate. To get a feel for a few of these different strategies, check out this wonderful, interactive website on the evolution of trust by Nicky Case.

From Nicky Case’s smart, fun, interactive website: The Evolution of Trust. In a population of various strategies, always defect (cheater) will tend to burn itself out. 


Case reminds us that we aren’t merely reacting to the world around us; others also react to us. We create a niche that others swim through, and they must choose how to arm themselves :

We are each others’ environment. In the short run, the game defines the players. But in the long run, it’s us players who define the game. So, do what you can do to create the conditions necessary to evolve trust. Build relationships. Find win-wins. Communicate clearly. Maybe then, we can stop firing at each other.

How we view the world matters. If we see it as zero-sum, as an eternal struggle against other people where only one party can win, then we will act accordingly. Norton and Sommers (2011) found that many white people see racial relations as a zero-sum game: that if other groups are making progress toward equality, that this progress comes at their expense. But remember that non-zero-sum relationships are widespread. With cooperation so prolific in nature (genes, cells, organisms, groups, human societies), it just seems odd to declare that life is solely a contest of struggle. Nor does it make sense to say that cooperation is impossible between groups. Or we can see it as a chance for coalitions, that the success and well-being of others around us does not require us to lose. We make a niche for the others around us, as they do for us, and we all decide whether the costs that come with building up our armor are worth it. They may be, depending on how we perceive the conditions of the game.

I don’t know about you, but I think my life would be better if I was surrounded by healthy, fulfilled, cooperative people over those who feel distrustful, held back, and resentful. Of course, some people may feel differently. There are many strategies one can use. But don’t argue that nature gave us only one hand to play. 



De Waal F. 2009. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton Books. Link

Kelly RL. 2013. The lifeways of hunter-gatherers: the foraging spectrum. Cambridge University Press. Link

Norton MI, Sommers SR. 2011. Whites see racism as a zero-sum game that they are now losing. Perspectives on Psychological Science.  6(3):215-8. Link

Nowak M, Highfield R, 2011. Supercooperators: Altruism, evolution, and why we need each other to succeed. Simon and Schuster. Link

Ridley, Matt. 1998. The Origins of Virtue.  Penguin. Link

Symonds MR, Tattersall GJ. 2010 Geographical variation in bill size across bird species provides evidence for Allen’s rule. The American Naturalist. 14;176(2):188-97. Link

3 thoughts on “The Conditions of the Game: It’s Not a “World of Eternal Struggle”

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. While neuroplasticity is all the rage these days, I hadn’t considered behavioral plasticity. Your take is refreshing, and I daresay a little hopeful.

  2. this was indeed a very enlightening piece of work. The debate would still be ongoing as the perception is formed due to past experiences of various individuals and everyone have had their fair share of struggles so the difference in opinion would be totally understandable. I for one do consider life as a struggle since even in moments of happiness and contentment, we need to put in the effort, for others, if not for ourselves.

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