Evolutionary psychology

Coffee!!: You co-operate with unrelated individuals because you are a hunter-gatherer

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Sure you are. Someone in your household won’t rest until they find bocconcini cheese for a recipe for guests.

Here Michael Marshall, (New Scientist 10 March 2011) tells us, “Fluid societies powered human evolution”:

Human hunter-gatherer societies swap members more flexibly than groups of other animals do. That could help explain why humans developed such powerful brains and advanced technology, while chimpanzees didn’t.People have been hunter-gatherers for almost all our 200,000-year history, so modern hunter-gatherer societies are a window on our past, argues Kim Hill of Arizona State University in Tempe.

Hill and colleagues gathered census information on 32 hunter-gatherer societies around the world. In all of them, both males and females could leave the group into which they were born for another, or could remain. In typical animal societies, only one sex disperses like this; in chimps it is normally the females.

Because of the mixed dispersal, many members of a hunter-gatherer society are unrelated. Hill says this could explain our willingness to cooperate with unrelated individuals.

Big surprise. From what I have heard from the “Apes r’ Us” crowd about chimp “societies”, most females would be better off in an animal shelter run by caring, intelligent people. At the shelter, at least, abuse is labelled as such, and may even be actionable.

However, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy of the University of California, Davis, is not convinced that human societies are as unique as Hill claims. Some other species may extend cooperation to non-kin, she says. And humans are not the only species, nor the only primate, in which either sex may sometimes disperse. Howler monkeys are one example of a primate that behaves this way, she says – but their societies are less well-studied.

Hmmm. Howler monkeys, did you say? I think any human, not engaged in research, would disperse pretty quickly given an opportunity, whether the species is well-studied or not.

See what happens? In the frenzy to deny human exceptionalism, people sail gloriously past common sense about how we all behave, based on the use of reason, into uncharted, unchartable waters. Most of this article is paywalled, but for once, that may be  just as well.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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