The Origin of Cooperation

by Jörgen Eriksson on August 4, 2014

"The modern human behaviours of technological innovation, making art and rapid cultural exchange probably came at the same time that we developed a more cooperative temperament" – Robert Cieri

lunch-atop-a-skyscraperA couple of years ago, I wrote an article here on The Bearing Wave about The Evolution of Cooperation. In that article I discussed how we humans have evolved civilisation, from random acts of altruism, through rapid acts of kindness and the selfish gene to the evolution of cooperation. My conclusion in the article was that we cooperate because it is actually beneficial for us in the long run. The article was very popular and remained at the top of the readers top list for quite a long time.

As I argued in the previous article, it is clear that being “nice” is more beneficial for both the species and the individual in the long run than to be “selfish”. However it has not been clear how this behaviour suddenly appeared somewhere back in the origin of mankind. Modern humans developed about 200,000 years ago but the stone age with tool-making only began about 50,000 years ago.

Something at that time happened, that made us  ascend into the stone age.

Now an anthropological study by Robert L. Cieri, Steven E. Churchill, Roberg G. Franciscus, Jingzhi Tan and Brian Hare at Duke University in North Carolina, USA have proposed a plausible answer. The study is titled “Craniofacial Feminization, Social Tolerance, and the Origins of Behavioural Modernity” and can be bought from the Journal of Current Anthropology. Here is a link to a press release about the report.

The authors claim that lower testosterone levels led to people being nice to each other, which in turn led to the development of civilized societies. The shift in temperament can be estimated from the changes in the craniums facial structure, when a reduction in male hormones led to softer facial features, with rounder heads and less prominent brows. The study argues living together and cooperating put a premium on being agreeable and lowered aggression, which in turn led to facial changes, including reduction of the brow ridge.

Having recently visited the Neanderthal Museum in Krapina, I think this theory may also help to explain why Homo Sapiens survived and evolved while the Neanderthals did not. Our current solo status on Earth is an evolutionary oddity. It is not clear when our species became Earth’s only masters, nor is it clear why we survived when all other versions of humanity died out. Did we kill off our competitors, or were the others just poorly adapted and unable to react to the extreme climatic fluctuations that then beset the planet? It is a nice thought to be graceful and assume that the evolution of cooperation rather than violence ensured our supremacy.

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