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See Inside Scientific American Volume 307, Issue 1

Why We Help: The Evolution of Cooperation

Far from being a nagging exception to the rule of evolution, cooperation has been one of its primary architects



Noma Bar

Last april, as reactors at japan's fukushima daiichi nuclear power plant were melting down following a lethal earthquake and tsunami, a maintenance worker in his 20s was among those who volunteered to reenter the plant to try to help bring things back under control. He knew the air was poisoned and expected the choice would keep him from ever marrying or having children for fear of burdening them with health consequences. Yet he still walked back through Fukushima's gates into the plant's radiation-infused air and got to work—for no more compensation than his usual modest wages. “There are only some of us who can do this job,” the worker, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Independent last July. “I'm single and young, and I feel it's my duty to help settle this problem.”

Although they may not always play out on such an epic scale, examples of selfless behavior abound in nature. Cells within an organism coordinate to keep their division in check and avoid causing cancer, worker ants in many species sacrifice their own fecundity to serve their queen and colony, female lions within a pride will suckle one another's young. And humans help other humans to do everything from obtaining food to finding mates to defending territory. Even if the helpers may not necessarily be putting their lives on the line, they are risking lowering their own reproductive success for the benefit of another individual.

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