The Origin and Evolution of Cultures

By Robert Boyd; Peter J. Richerson | Go to book overview

PART 3
Human Cooperation, Reciprocity,
and Group Selection

A number of years ago the Cambridge paleoanthropologist Rob Foley published a book on the evolutionary ecology of early hominins entitled Another Unique Species. The title was meant to capture the idea that while humans are unique in many ways, so too is every other species. We like the book very much, but perhaps the title is a bit misleading. Humans are, if you will allow us, “more unique” than any other primate. We are extreme outliers in our use of tools, in our ecological and geographical range, in the richness of our communication system, and so on and on. Perhaps the most singular feature of Homo sapiens is the scale on which humans cooperate. In most other species of mammals cooperation is limited to close relatives and (maybe) small groups of reciprocators. After weaning most individuals acquire virtually all of the food that they eat. There is little division of labor, no trade, and no large-scale conflict. Amend Hobbes to account for nepotism, and his picture of the state of nature is not so far off for other mammals. In contrast, people in even the simplest human societies regularly cooperate with many unrelated individuals. Sharing leads to substantial flows of food and other resources among different age and sex classes. Division of labor and trade are prominent features of every historically known human society, and archaeology indicates that such trade has a long history. Violent conflict among groups is also quite common. Since the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago, the scale of human cooperation has steadily increased so that most people on earth today are enmeshed in immense cooperative institutions like universities, business firms, religious groups, and nation states. Moreover, experimental work, both in psychology and economics, indicates that people have social preferences that incline them to such cooperation (see Fehr and

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