Can We Cooperate Like Cockroaches?

CockroachesLate last year, I wrote a blog describing an experiment in which rats demonstrated the selfless behavior typical of empathy. If these vilified rodents can exhibit the capacity to understand and feel the emotions experienced by their fellow rats, we humans have little excuse. Judging from your reaction, I touched a nerve.

We can also learn something from the hated cockroach. In The Cockroach Papers, Richard Schwied makes a pretty good case that cockroaches are “one of the pinnacles of evolution on this planet.”  While humans are resistant to change, roaches should be admired for their ability to adapt to almost any environment.

How adaptive are cockroaches?

Cockroaches have been found in the arctic cold of Alaska, the jungle heat of Costa Rica, and the arid desert of Kenya. Roaches can survive for more than a month without food and more than two weeks without food or water. They will eat almost anything they can find including feces, hair, paper, and skin – even other cockroaches.  Amusingly, one of the few things they will not eat is cucumbers.

While they may not appear evolved to us humans, cockroaches have two brains. One is inside their skulls while the second is in the back near their abdomen. Cockroaches have sex, enjoy the company of other cockroaches, and exhibit the signs of male aggressions.

Still not convinced?

According to one study, cockroaches govern themselves by a simple democracy where each insect has equal standing and the entire group weighs in before making decisions that affect the group. In the experiment 50 cockroaches were placed in a dish that had three shelters with room for 40 insects each. The roaches organized themselves with 25 in each of two shelters, leaving the third one empty. When the capacity of the shelters was increased to more than 50, all of the cockroaches stayed in a single shelter.

As one of the scientists said:

Cockroaches are gregarious insects (that) benefit from living in groups. It increases their reproductive opportunities, (promotes) sharing of resources like shelter or food, prevents desiccation by aggregating more in dry environments, etc. So what we show is that these behavioral models allow them to optimize group size.

Cooperation comes naturally to cockroaches. Can we say the same for humans?

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2 Responses to Can We Cooperate Like Cockroaches?

  1. Rathna March 18, 2014 at 9:46 pm #

    I was reminded of ants; well-organized, discipline, tireless, persistent, planned and good team work.

    Well written and lots to learn 🙂

  2. jaime farinos April 28, 2014 at 1:47 pm #

    Love the post! And the question too! Does cooperation come naturally to ?
    Well, with no offense to anyone, I think we do – there are some contexts in which we do cooperate like cockroaches. In fact there are high chances that many of us have already done so very recently. Hopefully you’ve been a cockroach today!
    In the previous post stigmergy was mentioned. Stigmergy (from the Greek “stigma” or “sign/mark” and “ergon” or “work/doing”) refers to collaboration across the physical environment without the usage of conventional communication tools. In decentralized systems (where apparently no structure exists) different elements of it collaborate through different signals (i.e. ant’s pheromones to find food, bees, locusts, etc) to achieve a common goal – generally speaking for the good and the survival of the colony. Funnily enough, we humans, also do it in a social way! Such phenomena as social networks like (, Traffic App. Waze, Wikipedia, Open Source Software as in Linux OS, all consist of initial contributions that are left behind by an individual for others to build upon, it turns into a snowball and ends up having a highly coordinated structure built by the passion of one in combination of many. When we work for a common purpose, supported by the collaboration at the individual level, where we fall in love with our collective project, then we feel better, we are more productive and we create a series of non-written or spoken signs that foster team work and job satisfaction. There may or may not be pheromones in the air, but definitely a set of cues that are difficult to express with words but that can be felt with our senses. The question is, how to ensure that the little cockroach in us is always awake and ready to excel!

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