Monday, July 04, 2011

In the light of evolution - Cooperation and conflict

The Proceeding of the National Academy has just published the fifth in a series of Colloquia under the general title “In the Light of Evolution.”   The contents of the 17 papers presented are free online, and I thought I would pass on the abstracts of two broad review articles on human evolution:
From Silk and House, "Evolutionary foundations of human prosocial sentiments":
A growing body of evidence shows that humans are remarkably altruistic primates. Food sharing and division of labor play an important role in all human societies, and cooperation extends beyond the bounds of close kinship and networks of reciprocating partners. In humans, altruism is motivated at least in part by empathy and concern for the welfare of others. Although altruistic behavior is well-documented in other primates, the range of altruistic behaviors in other primate species, including the great apes, is much more limited than it is in humans. Moreover, when altruism does occur among other primates, it is typically limited to familiar group members—close kin, mates, and reciprocating partners. This suggests that there may be fundamental differences in the social preferences that motivate altruism across the primate order, and there is currently considerable interest in how we came to be such unusual apes. A body of experimental studies designed to examine the phylogenetic range of prosocial sentiments and behavior is beginning to shed some light on this issue. In experimental settings, chimpanzees and tamarins do not consistently take advantage of opportunities to deliver food rewards to others, although capuchins and marmosets do deliver food rewards to others in similar kinds of tasks. Although chimpanzees do not satisfy experimental criteria for prosociality in food delivery tasks, they help others complete tasks to obtain a goal. Differences in performance across species and differences in performance across tasks are not yet fully understood and raise new questions for further study.
And, from Boyd et al., "The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation."
In the last 60,000 y humans have expanded across the globe and now occupy a wider range than any other terrestrial species. Our ability to successfully adapt to such a diverse range of habitats is often explained in terms of our cognitive ability. Humans have relatively bigger brains and more computing power than other animals, and this allows us to figure out how to live in a wide range of environments. Here we argue that humans may be smarter than other creatures, but none of us is nearly smart enough to acquire all of the information necessary to survive in any single habitat. In even the simplest foraging societies, people depend on a vast array of tools, detailed bodies of local knowledge, and complex social arrangements and often do not understand why these tools, beliefs, and behaviors are adaptive. We owe our success to our uniquely developed ability to learn from others. This capacity enables humans to gradually accumulate information across generations and develop well-adapted tools, beliefs, and practices that are too complex for any single individual to invent during their lifetime.

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