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Warfare, not hunting, drove human collaboration, researcher claims

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From ScienceDaily:

How humans evolved high intelligence, required for complex collaborative activities, despite the various costs of having a big brain has long puzzled evolutionary biologists. While the human brain represents only about two percent of the body’s weight, it uses about 20 percent of the energy consumed. Other costs of having a large brain include a need for extended parental care due to a long growth period, difficulties giving birth to larger-headed babies, and some mental illnesses associated with brain complexity. So how did the human brain evolve to become so large and complex?

Another long-running question is how did humans evolve strong innate preferences for cooperative behavior, as cooperative behavior is vulnerable to exploitation by cheaters and “free-riders.” A free-rider doesn’t contribute or cooperate and thereby undermines the effectiveness of the group’s collaborative effort, something scientists call “the collective action problem.” Thus, collaborative behavior is expected to be rare, and indeed, in animals it is typically limited to close relatives. Humans, however, are a unique species where collaboration is widespread and not limited to relatives.

The theory cooked up here, using a mathematical model, is that warfare came first and was better than hunting for organizing collaborate behaviour. Despite the fact that an army travels on its stomach. The theory also explains altruism. Yes, that’s the thing. Always the need to explain away altruism.

By the way, “how did humans evolve strong innate preferences for cooperative behavior, as cooperative behavior is vulnerable to exploitation by cheaters and “free-riders”? Well, how about the fact that intelligence enables humans to detect this activity–which is one of the advantages of a large brain? Most humans just do not find it that difficult to spot the user and the cheat.

Note: Good idea to be cautious of theories about human behaviour that depend on mathematical models that ignore common sense observations. It’s easy to build something in and then, lo and behold, find it.


Humans are unique both in their cognitive abilities and in the extent of cooperation in large groups of unrelated individuals. How our species evolved high intelligence in spite of various costs of having a large brain is perplexing. Equally puzzling is how our ancestors managed to overcome the collective action problem and evolve strong innate preferences for cooperative behaviour. Here, I theoretically study the evolution of social-cognitive competencies as driven by selection emerging from the need to produce public goods in games against nature or in direct competition with other groups. I use collaborative ability in collective actions as a proxy for social-cognitive competencies. My results suggest that collaborative ability is more likely to evolve first by between-group conflicts and then later be utilized and improved in games against nature. If collaborative abilities remain low, the species is predicted to become genetically dimorphic with a small proportion of individuals contributing to public goods and the rest free-riding. Evolution of collaborative ability creates conditions for the subsequent evolution of collaborative communication and cultural learning. – Gavrilets S. Collective action and the collaborative brain. Open access Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 26 November 2014 DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2014.1067

See also:

Would we give up naturalism to solve the hard problem of consciousness?

Does the evidence point to mankind’s fully natural origin ?

The search for our earliest ancestors: signals in the noise

Human origins: The war of trivial explanations

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4 Replies to “Warfare, not hunting, drove human collaboration, researcher claims

  1. 1 says:

    Human cooperation is driven almost entirely by shared story, not by wars. The stories we believe together enable us to trust one another. Stories can work as long as they are believed. They do not necessarily have to be true to enable us to cooperate together. There are many religions that have “worked” in their context. They cannot all be “true”.

    Wars are usually fought between people who believe different stories. There are many stories. Nationalistic stories, religious stories, economic stories. Money is really just a story. When we believe in the dollar, we are happy to cooperate and trust one another. You give me a wad of paper and I give you a car. In Zimbabwe they use US dollars because no one believes the story that the Zimbabwe government is financially capable of guaranteeing the currency. The international financial crisis was a crisis of confidence in the money story. People were tempted to doubt their deep belief in the “real” value and stability of the monetary system. When the Federal Reserve Chief speaks, people listen and are reassured in their belief in the story of money.

    When we realize that what enables people to trust one another is shared story, it helps us understand why many are so worried about religion, and atheism, whether one is left wing or right wing, and about evolution, creationism and ID.

    Those who think they can prove their story to be really “true” think they can change the world. There is however no guarantee that the truth is what people will believe.

  2. 2
    Robert Byers says:

    Big brainism is just a presumption/bias in thinking why we are smarter then critters.
    Is there any evidence, beyond seeing a big brain, for the size of brains indicating smarts? Is there evidence our intelligence is inn the brain?
    Don’t whales have the second biggest brains? are they really smarter then other creatures?
    In this age of small equals brilliant, like in computers, is it not demanding the more to prove the sizr of brains is equal to intelligence?
    Perhaps my brain ain’t big enough and my skepticism is unfounded.

  3. 3
    mahuna says:

    Do any of these people ever try out their blackboard theories assuming a pack of Bushmen or Aborigines? I think both Bushmen and Aborigines would be confused by the entire idea of “war”. And as you point out, a group of 20 or so humans (half of which are children) who have spent their entire lives with each other can easily identify a slacker. At the same time, the group is closely related, play with the babies every day, and spend most of the day every day sitting around and talking. (On average, Bushmen spend 4 hours per day in the collection and preparation of food in one of the harshest environments on the planet.)

    War is a VERY modern concept that clearly followed the rise of dwelling in fixed villages and cities. So more than 99% of all human existence was lived without wars. I can’t see such a late-arriving experience having any significant impact on human development.

    Besides, modern humans appeared fully formed, and we have no known ancestors. And gorillas are all still gorillas, and chimps are all still chimps. So I think the more interesting question is: after 5 million years, why haven’t chimps evolved into more advanced primates?

  4. 4
    Bob O'H says:

    I think it’s worth pointing out a couple of things:
    1. Gavrilets doesn’t talk about war or warfare in his model, rather about inter-group conflict, so mahuna’s criticism isn’t relevant (one could, though, criticise ScienceDaily and whoever wrote the press release for making the connection explicit).
    2. suggests that stories are more important, but I don’t necessarily see any conflict with Gavrilets’ theory: stories could be a proximate mechanism for binding a group together (as a way of sharing cultural values?), and Gavrilets’ theory gives an explanation for why cultures that do this are more successful.

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