Book Summary: “Why We Cooperate” by Michael Tomasello


Title: Why We Cooperate
Author: Michael Tomasello
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

As the title suggests, Tomasello seeks to explain the biological and cultural roots of humanity’s unique ability to cooperate.

Key Take-aways

  • To an unprecedented degree, homo sapiens are adapted for acting and thinking cooperatively in cultural groups.
  • Humans are the only species to have cumulative cultural evolution. If another individual makes some improvement, everyone, including developing children, tends to learn the new and improved version. This produces a kind of cultural ratchet.
  • Humans are the only species to establish social institutions governed by norms and rules.
  • Neither of the above would have been possible without the biologically-driven skills and motivations to cooperate.
  • Human children are already cooperative and helpful in many, though obviously not all, situations. And they do not learn this from adults; it comes naturally.
  • Later children learn culturally-specific social norms for how we do things, how one ought to do things if one is to be a member of this group.
  • Unlike other primates, humans came to engage in collaborative activities with a joint goal and distinct roles, with participants mutually aware that they were dependent on one another for success.

Important Quotes from Book

Individuals of many animal species exploit the experience and hard work of others by learning things from them socially. When individuals socially learn to the degree that different populations of a species develop different ways of doing things, biologists now speak of culture. In this very broad perspective, many animal species live in culturally distinct groups, including a variety of species of birds, marine mammals, and primates.

But there are two clearly observable characteristics of human culture that mark it as qualitatively unique as well. The first is what has been called cumulative cultural evolution.

If another individual makes some improvement, everyone, including developing children, tends to learn the new and improved version. This produces a kind of cultural ratchet.

This means that just as individual humans biologically inherit genes that have been adaptive in the past, they also culturally inherit artifacts and behavioral practices that represent something like the collective wisdom of their forebears. To date, no animal species other than humans has been observed to have cultural behaviors that accumulate modifications and so ratchet up in complexity over time.

The second clearly observable feature of human culture that marks it as unique is the creation of social institutions. Social institutions are sets of behavioral practices governed by various kinds of mutually recognized norms and rules.

Underlying these two singular characteristics of human culture—cumulative artifacts and social institutions— are a set of species-unique skills and motivations for cooperation.

First, humans actively teach one another things, and they do not reserve their lessons for kin. Teaching is a form of altruism, founded on a motive to help, in which individuals donate information to others for their use.

Second, humans also have a tendency to imitate others in the group simply in order to be like them, that is, to conform (perhaps as an indicator of group identity). Moreover, they sometimes even invoke cooperatively agreed-upon social norms of conformity on others in the group, and their appeals to conformity are backed by various potential punishments or sanctions for those who resist…  Both teaching and norms of conformity contribute to cumulative culture by conserving innovations in the group until some further innovation comes along.

To an unprecedented degree, homo sapiens are adapted for acting and thinking cooperatively in cultural groups.

I will argue and present evidence that from around their first birthdays—when they first begin to walk and talk and become truly cultural beings—human children are already cooperative and helpful in many, though obviously not all, situations. And they do not learn this from adults; it comes naturally. (That is the Spelke part.) But later in ontogeny, children’s relatively indiscriminate cooperativeness becomes mediated by such influences as their judgments of likely reciprocity and their concern for how others in the group judge them, which were instrumental in the evolution of humans’ natural cooperativeness in the first place. And they begin to internalize many culturally specific social norms for how we do things, how one ought to do things if one is to be a member of this group. (That is the Dweck part.)

Although both chimpanzees and young human children help others in some situations, there is one special form of helping in which only children engage: providing needed information. Importantly, this is not dependent on language.

Importantly, children do not just follow norms as they encounter them, but in new situations they actively seek out what they are supposed to do—what the social norms and rules are in the situation—so that they can behave accordingly.

Guilt and shame are thus biologically based emotional reactions, which presuppose the kinds of normative (or at least punitive) social environments that humans have constructed for themselves. They are thus particularly good exemplars of the co-evolutionary process between human biology and culture.

So the development of altruistic tendencies in young children is clearly shaped by socialization.

They arrive at the process with a predisposition for helpfulness and cooperation. But then they learn to be selective about whom to help, inform, and share with, and they also learn to manage the impression they make on others—their public reputation and self—as a way of influencing the actions of those others toward themselves. In addition, they learn the social norms that characterize the cultural world in which they live, and they actively attempt to learn what these are and to follow them. They even begin to participate in the enforcement process by reminding others of the norms—as in our studies in which children tell others “how it is done”—and punishing themselves through guilt and shame when they do not live up to them. All of this reflects not only humans’ special sensitivity to social pressure of various kinds, but also a kind of group identity and social rationality that is inherent in all activities involving a shared, “we” intentionality.

I do not believe altruism is the process primarily responsible for human cooperation in the larger sense of humans’ tendency and ability to live and operate together in institution-based cultural groups. In this story, altruism is only a bit player. The star is mutualism, in which we all benefit from our cooperation but only if we work together, what we may call collaboration.

But in an evolutionary story, collaborative activities actually constitute a kind of middle step; there is an earlier development that paved the way for the evolution of complex collaborative activities. None of the advancements in cooperation we have been talking about could get moving evolutionarily in animals that were always competing: there had to be some initial emergence of tolerance and trust—in our current story, around food—to put a population of our ancestors in a position where selection for sophisticated collaborative skills was viable.

But when food is found in clumps, dominance raises its ugly head.

At some point in human evolution, it became important for individuals in a group to all behave alike; there arose pressure to conform. The proximate motivation here is to be like others, to be accepted in the group.

Imitation and conformity can create high degrees of intra-group homogeneity and inter-group heterogeneity, and on a faster time scale than that of biological evolution. Because of this peculiar fact—presumably characteristic of no other species—a new process of cultural group selection became possible.

Both norms of cooperation and conformity are cemented by guilt and shame, which presuppose some kind of social norms, or at least social judgments, and so co-evolutionary processes between biology and culture.

Homo sapiens must have begun with collaborative activities of a kind that other primates simply are not equipped for either emotionally or cognitively. Specifically, humans came to engage in collaborative activities with a joint goal and distinct and generalized roles, with participants mutually aware that they were dependent on one another for success. These activities hold the seeds of generalized, agent-neutral normative judgments of rights and responsibilities, as well as various kinds of division of labor and status assignments as seen in social institutions.

Humans putting their heads together in shared cooperative activities are thus the originators of human culture.

Indeed, recent evolutionary models have demonstrated what politicians have long known: the best way to motivate people to collaborate and to think like a group is to identify an enemy and charge that “they” threaten “us.”

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