Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation

Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation

Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation

Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation


From the family to the workplace to the marketplace, every facet of our lives is shaped by cooperative interactions. Yet everywhere we look, we are confronted by proof of how difficult cooperation can be--snarled traffic, polarized politics, overexploited resources, social problems that go ignored. The benefits to oneself of a free ride on the efforts of others mean that collective goals often are not met. But compared to most other species, people actually cooperate a great deal. Why is this?

Meeting at Grand Central brings together insights from evolutionary biology, political science, economics, anthropology, and other fields to explain how the interactions between our evolved selves and the institutional structures we have created make cooperation possible. The book begins with a look at the ideas of Mancur Olson and George Williams, who shifted the question of why cooperation happens from an emphasis on group benefits to individual costs. It then explores how these ideas have influenced our thinking about cooperation, coordination, and collective action. The book persuasively argues that cooperation and its failures are best explained by evolutionary and social theories working together. Selection sometimes favors cooperative tendencies, while institutions, norms, and incentives encourage and make possible actual cooperation.

Meeting at Grand Central will inspire researchers from different disciplines and intellectual traditions to share ideas and advance our understanding of cooperative behavior in a world that is more complex than ever before.


We teach on rutgers UNIVERSITY’S campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey, located in the southern part of the New York metropolitan area. On September 11, 2001, Beth was scheduled to teach a seminar on citizen activism. the class did not meet that day. Following that morning’s terrorist attacks, the university cancelled all classes. When classes resumed the following week, the syllabus called for a discussion of Mancur Olson’s writings on the collective action dilemma. Olson, an economist, used a formal model to explain why “rational self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests.” the problem, Olson argued, is that a rational person would instead choose to let someone else do the work while still reaping the benefits. Because this is a problem that every group must face, the class began with the issue of what to do when most people “free ride,” or choose not to contribute to the common good.

The students were astounded by the very question. “What do you mean?” they asked. “OF course people participate. everyone participates. Just look at what people are doing now in response to the terrorist attacks.” and they had a point. Thousands of people volunteered at Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center’s twin towers once stood. Many thousands more around the world responded to calls for donations of money and relief supplies, with cash donations by individuals totaling more than $1.5 billion. That generosity was accompanied, particularly in New York City itself, by a refreshing spirit of civility, friendliness, and cooperativeness that lasted for some time after the initial shock of the attacks had subsided.

We are thus faced with a paradox: theory predicts that cooperation will be rare, but everyday experience tells us that it is quite common. This paradox is what drew us to the study of cooperation and inspired us to write this book. Most scholarship to date has focused on only one side or the other of this paradox. Which side any particular scholar focuses on depends largely upon which body of scholarly literature most informs his or her worldview. Social scientists, particularly political scientists, economists, and sociologists, tend to focus on free riding and other obstacles to collective action and how they are sometimes overcome. Scholars with an interest in human evolution, in contrast, tend to be most impressed by how much humans cooperate, particularly with nonrelatives, compared to most other species. We represent both approaches. Beth L. Leech is a political scientist whose work on such topics as interest groups, agenda . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.