What We Know: Cooperation, COVID-19, and Certain Success

In this Issue:

Our Topic: Cooperation

  • Hard-Wired Together

  • Cooperation in Nature

  • Our Early Ancestors

  • Turning It Up A Notch

  • You're In the Know

Humans are social beings; cooperating with each other is key to our survival. From everyday interactions to our greatest accomplishments, our ability and motivation to work together to achieve a common goal forms the bedrock of our lives.

Understanding how and why humans cooperate is integral to solving many of the global challenges we currently face; it's imperative when it comes to creating a more compassionate world, and it’s also at the heart of social-distancing and “flattening the curve” when it comes to overcoming the spread of disease with COVID-19.

In this edition of What We Know, we'll find out: Why do we cooperate at all, when choosing to be selfish may appear to be the most logical and rewarding option in our seemingly competitive modern-day world?

Humans are Hard-Wired to Cooperate.

It was once thought that altruism (selfless concern for the well-being of others) and cooperation were simply antidotes to the highly competitive, aggressive, warfare tendencies of our ancestors. Humans, it was believed, were naturally aggressive and basically selfish, thus any instances of cooperation could ultimately be explained by self-preserving motivations.

Modern research, however, has found otherwise.

Cooperative and altruistic behaviours are, in fact, essential components that drive the evolution, ecology, and development of nonhuman and human primates when it comes to group living.

People don’t just cooperate out of self-interest but also because they are genuinely concerned about the well-being of others, they want to uphold social norms, and

they value behaving ethically.

When it comes to natural human behaviours, researchers have found that contributing to the success of a cooperative project for the benefit of one’s group, even at personal cost, evokes feelings of satisfaction and pride in an individual. Failing to contribute, in turn, is also often internalized as a source of shame or guilt.

We came to have these “moral sentiments” because our ancestors lived in environments (both natural and socially constructed) where individuals who were prone to cooperate and uphold ethical norms tended to survive and thrive relative to other group members. Their success allowed cooperative motivations to flourish over the course of our evolutionary history.

But our tendencies to work together for the benefit of our survival is by no means a strictly primate trait – cooperation exists in several other species too!

There is a Remarkable Amount of Cooperation in Nature

It's true that competition and aggressive self-protection are certainly part of the behavioural repertoire of all mammals. But cooperation also prevails in every facet of nature - revealing that teamwork is one of the most important and beneficial behaviours on earth.

Male lions, for example, have been observed to form cooperative coalitions that compete against other coalitions for exclusive access to females – and these coalitions are not always made up of related males.

Groups of unrelated males working together occur much more commonly than related groups, indicating that kinship is not the primary factor determining their cooperation and low-levels of competition among group members.

Ants have been observed to formulate three-lane, two-way traffic systems when marching in and out of nests in search for food.

Each day as many as 200,000 ants will split into two groups to form two outgoing lanes, then return in a single centre lane, sometimes carrying more than 30,000 tasty grasshoppers and other insects back for the nest.

Ostriches and zebras have been observed to team up for added protection against predators - which is particularly cool because, as researchers have noted, zebras have excellent eyesight but weak sense of smell, whereas ostriches have weak eyesight and an amazing sense of smell. By sticking together they are better able to detect impeding danger and everyone is safer.

Even vampire bats (who die if they go beyond two nights without a meal) demonstrate cooperation with a food sharing system that increases their survival rate.

Researchers have found that adult bats fail to find food about 8% of the time, and younger bats do much worse. If colony members didn’t share food, four out of every five bats would die each year. But by cooperating and sharing food, the death rate is reduced to only one in four.

And these are just a few examples of the multitudes of cooperative behaviours research has found across the vast array of biodiversity our planet has from air to land to sea!

Ultimately, when it comes to species survival, cooperation is essential to the success of life on earth. Our natural human tendency towards cooperative behaviours, therefore, simply maximize an already important trait we repeatedly see in numerous forms of life on earth.

Our Early Ancestors.

When a chimpanzee selects an item from nature to use as a tool, it often chooses a stick, a leaf, or a stone. Occasionally the chimpanzee will modify the sticks or leaves for the purposes of the task at hand but not with stones. Instead the perfect stone is selected based on the weight and size and natural physical properties of the rock that make is the perfect instrument for completing the required task (often cracking open nuts).

We know from observing chimpanzees in the wild that they live in groups and several individuals in the group will use tools (making their own, teaching the young how to use them, transporting tools between locations when they travel, flavoring certain objects that work particularly well); but when a tool-using chimpanzee leaves those tools behind - as objects of nature they return to the earth wherever they lie. Any evolutionary evidence of tool use or cooperation is lost, thus we can only infer from our closest living relatives that our earliest human ancestors 3.4 million years ago likely did things the same way.

But there is a point in human history when things change.

About 120,000 years ago, a group of Neanderthals used their hand-crafted wooden spears to kill two male fallow deer.

We know this because in 1988 and 1997 at a site called Neumark-Nord, those deer skeletons were recovered from the ground bearing markings from the people who killed them – they are are the oldest example of hunting marks in the history of human evolution.

Neanderthals thrived for more than 200,000 years throughout Europe and western Asia, and disappeared about 30,000 years ago. They excelled at hunting animals and making complex stone tools, and their recovered bones reveal that they were extremely muscular and strong individuals, who led hard lives, suffering frequent injuries.

By looking at the bone pattern markings on ancient prey and the recovered tools used by Neanderthals, researchers have recreated possible scenarios to depict the hunting practices they may have used tens of thousands of years ago, noting that groups of hunters likely had to rely heavily on each other and closely cooperate when attempting to catch their prey.

Neanderthals predominant form of hunting tools were long spears that occasionally could have been thrown at a distance to kill prey, but more likely were used to thrust into animals at dangerously close range. Close-range hunting techniques are extremely hazardous; meaning the likelihood of injuries was high when hunting and this is evident in the multiple examples of healed bone wounds in their skeletal record.

The fact that individuals could live long enough to heal from such wounds indicates that Neanderthals had to have been helping one another to recover after sustaining such injuries. These cooperative hunting practices and linked evidence of caring for one another when injured reflects the tight-knit social networks and empathetic support they likely shared as a social group.

But before you start drifting into self-preservation mode questioning the benefits of cooperation thinking: "well ya, but Neanderthals went extinct… "

Remember this:

Neanderthals existed for about 360,000 years, thriving in some of the harshest, most variable climates on earth. Whether or not Homo sapiens (who have been around for approximately 300,000 years so far) will have such a long run remains to be seen… and based on what we’re doing to the planet right now - it’s not looking so good.

Collectively we're destroying the ecosystems we depend on. But that's increasingly happening as we become more divided and segregated - waging wars against each other, politically dividing, and allowing economic systems and socially isolating stereotypes to drive deep socio-economic divides between us.

Cooperatively we can easily change our ways to restore things.

If we "get it together" and turn things up a notch...

Turning It Up A Notch:Together Is Always Better.

Humans seem to cooperate on a larger scale than most other mammals.

We care for our sick and elderly; we divide labour to achieve monumental tasks; and we trade resources to keep our society functioning. We also leverage our cooperative skills to formulate general norms of social conduct, establish social institutions to regulate our conduct, communicate rules and, when necessary, even alert others when rules have been violated, forming coalitions to punish violators.

But why have humans, rather than chimpanzees, lions, or vampire bats, developed such exceptional forms of cooperation?

That "something" that makes our species different, several researchers have argued, is our ability to culturally adapt to our environments and share our knowledge over time and space. Accumulating and sharing knowledge among others, leverages individual creativity and experience in humans on a scale unparalleled in other mammals. Sticking together, therefore, and helping others by sharing our knowledge becomes integral to our success and ability to survive in new and different environments all over the world.

This, in turn, also gives us enormous power when faced with new challenges that arise. Cultural adaptation is the capacity of human beings and our societies to overcome changes in the natural and social environment by modifying our cultural ways. The scale of change can vary from slight modifications with daily systems (like social distancing) to massive transformations in the social, psychological, or ideological systems people believe in (like stopping wildlife markets and the illegal trade of wild animals). By cooperating to change our ways, learning from our mistakes historically, and taking action quickly to adjust when problems arise, humans take cooperation to another level - allowing us to work together for the greater good for all. After all,

Now You're In the Know:

Why people help other people has been a subject of great interest and much debate across multiple disciplines invested in human behaviour over the years (like anthropology, ecology, economics, neuroscience, psychology, and sociology) and one thing has become clear: that even in difficult situations, humans exhibit a desire to cooperate. In fact, we're all naturals at it when given the opportunity.

Right now our species is in a heighten state of awareness as the threat of COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, and yet still evidence of our tendency to cooperate is all around us.

As healthcare workers continue to give it their all (sometimes putting their lives on the line) to care for the sick, as governments implement controls to keep citizens at safe distances from each other, as essential businesses work to support their communities to maintain our survival, and as individuals 'come together' by staying apart hoping to curb the spread of disease and reduce infecting each other, our ability to cooperate in the short term will have major impact on the fate of our communities.

In the long term, cooperating to change our ways and culturally adapt by changing the way we perceive animals, the ways we treat other animals and our environment, and the way we interact with and respect each other, will be imperative to preventing the mass spread of disease in the future and creating a more compassionate world.

Luckily, cooperation comes naturally to us and it’s important to keep in mind during these uncertain times that working together is, without a doubt, our best asset and biggest strength when it comes to outlasting the challenges we face.

So until next time...


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