Cooperation has deep roots

We are told that self-interest is a guiding, pervasive principle that directs our everyday lives. The father of modern economics, Adam Smith, elevated self-interest to the status of religion.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” This observation led Smith to conclude that everyone’s interests are best served by looking after ourselves; by the “invisible hand” that drives societies to a greater good.

Self-interest drives evolution too, we are told. We are absolved of the guilt of greed because it’s just the way we are made. Stock markets are naturally driven by fear and greed because of evolution.


Frans de Waal, professor of Primate Behaviour, disagrees. “Our ancestors seized land, so the story goes, wiped out other species –including our brethren the Neanderthals — and hunted big predators to extinction.” It’s an interesting narrative but not quite true.

Cooperation has deep evolutionary roots. Humans have organized to achieve colossal feats through principles that emphasizes responsibility to others. “And sometimes we do incredible things that put a lie to the idea of humans as purely self-interested actors,” de Waal explains in Scientific American.

Consider what happened last winter in Kamloops as oldtimer hockey players sat around after a game, having a few beers, and saw a woman fall through the ice of the Thompson River. They risked their own lives to rescue her and her dogs.

What they did was heroic although they would never claim that: it’s what anyone would have done. In fact, such acts of selflessness and cooperation are not that unusual for primates. To understand the evolutionary source of primate cooperation, look at the behaviour of chimpanzees.

De Waal observed how a group of chimps helped an aging female, Peony. Younger members would help push Peony up trees. They brought mouthfuls of water and spit them in her open mouth. They groom each other and warn of predators.

Primate behaviour illustrates three guiding principles of cooperation. First, cooperation is not limited to family ties: unrelated individuals in the wild work together. Another is reciprocity. Favours are returned to those who extend them first. Third, we identify with others in need, pain or distress. Empathy provokes emotions that activate us to help.

Humans differ from other primates in that we cooperate with outsiders and strangers, not just tribal members. “Human communities allow outsiders to travel through their territories, share meals with them, exchange goods and gifts, or band together against common enemies is not a typical primate pattern,” elaborates de Waal.

Humans are also unique in their degree of organization. We are capable of organizing large-scale projects not found in other primates, such as the terraced rice paddies of the Mekong Delta or the largest experiment ever devised — the Large Hadron Collider.

Competition is undeniably a human trait, whether it’s in an oldtimer’s hockey game or the marketplace but it doesn’t define us the way Adam Smith supposed. Cooperation is the source of our success as a species.


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