“Daddy, why are the new chickens going bald?!” was the question my daughter asked as she ran back inside the house.
My daughters had just returned from their grandmother’s, excited to go into the backyard and visit the new chickens we had integrated into our existing flock while they were gone. Our three older ladies had come with the hen house when we bought it and were great egg layers, but were also getting very old. Soon they would stop laying and we knew we needed to introduce some younger chickens if we were going to maintain egg production.
It turns out these “spring chickens” were getting hen-pecked (literally) so severely by the older birds that they had already lost most of their tail feathers. I knew from the farm stories I had heard growing up that the running of a farm held important life lessons. I was about to learn an important life lesson from my very own tiny backyard farm.
The Super Chicken Study
This experience with our flock of aggressive chickens happened many years ago but was brought back into my consciousness as I read David Sloan Wilson’s newest book This View of Life in which he recounts a study by William Muir at Purdue in the 1990s.
Interested in learning about productivity, the researchers created 2 groups of chickens. In the control group an average egg-producing flock was left alone for 6 generations. In the other group the highest egg-producing individuals were selected for breeding, ensuring their offspring would have two highly productive parents.
The most productive chicken award goes to …
After 6 generations the most productive group was actually the flock that was left completely alone. In fact, in the “super chicken” group there were only three hens left because the other six had been murdered and these remaining three were plucked of their feathers. Over the generations egg productivity had plummeted in the super chicken group, even though the best egg-layers had been selected each and every time.
Goodness can evolve
Evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson, shares the findings of a continuation of this experiment, “In another condition, the researchers selected the members of the most productive hen houses to be selectively bred. Here, egg productivity increased across time. The chickens in these houses were not only productive, but they were also not jerks to each other. And this fact led to overall increases in productivity. So there is a lesson in how “goodness” can evolve.”
Cooperation is the New Competition
These scientific findings go against everything we have been led to believe about evolution and Darwin’s concept of “survival of the fittest.” In this research we saw that the most competitive chickens, the so-called “super chickens” were only the best egg-producers because they bullied the other chickens, hoarding the most food and water for themselves. When this selfish behavior was in the minority it was not enough to hinder overall productivity. But when selfishness became the majority trait not only did productivity plummet, but these birds actually murdered one another in their greed and desperation.
Meanwhile in my backyard …
A funny thing happened when our older, more aggressive chickens died out — our own backyard egg productivity went up. When our newer, more cooperative hens were no longer being bullied, the productivity far surpassed anything we had previously seen. In fact, there were times when we were giving eggs away to neighbors and friends because of our new-found surplus.
What are the characteristics of a cooperative group?
Stay tuned if you would like to learn the 8 characteristics of cooperative groups as laid out by our 2019 McPhee lecturer David Sloan Wilson. These principles are based on the Nobel prize-winning research of his former mentor and collaborator, Elinor Ostrum. Any group from a home a backyard urban farm to a Fortune 500 company can implement and benefit from these Core Design Principles.