Thursday, October 20, 2011

Does Teamwork Have Evolutionary History?

It has always been speculated whether humans are selfish or whether teamwork is built into our evolutionary history. A Planck Institute funded study recently performed by Yvonne Rekers, Daniel B.M. Haun and Michael Tomasello seeks to reveal whether the tendency to cooperate is purely human or springing from primate’s tendencies. Human societies have always been built on collaborative activities. From childhood, human children are skillful and proficient collaborators and are able to identify when they need collaborators to solve a problem. Primates, specifically chimps, also engage in cooperative activities such as border patrols, group hunting, and intra- and intergroup coalitionary behavior. This study was the first study comparing collaborative motivation between children and chimpanzees, and was based on the hypothesis that a key difference between human and chimp collaboration – potentially a key point in the evolution of human cooperation – is a simple preference for collaborating (versus acting alone) to obtain food. The study gave children/chimps the option of collecting food from a board by either pulling on two ropes simultaneously by themselves, or pulling on one rope and allowing the other rope to be pulled by a partner in another room simultaneously in order to obtain the food. Children used the collaborating option 78% of the time while chimps only used it 58% of the time. This supported the hypothesis, reflecting the human tendency for collaborative foraging manifest in human foraging societies and raising the possibility that humans may have specialized cognitive and motivational mechanisms for collaboration, including collaborative foraging. Collaborative foraging may well have been an important behavioral domain, which humans evolved a suite of new proximate mechanisms, both cognitive and motivational, for collaborating with others in ways that eventually led to the complexities of modern human societies. Further research should compare cooperative motivation across different primate species to try to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the trait. It’s recommended to try it with bonobos, who have been argued to closely match some of the human prosocial motivations.


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