Cooperation, Collaboration, and Imitation for Intellectual Success

In a New York Times science article from March 10, 2011 titled “New View of How Humans Moved Away from Apes,” an astonishing finding was reported: a study of numerous hunter-gatherer peoples discovered “that the members of a band are not highly related.”

Why is this significant? Because it suggests that cooperative behavior with non-family members is the secret to the success of our species, “the turning point that shaped human evolution.”

Here’s The New York Times:

The new data on early human social structure [that it is not based upon insular family ties] furnishes the context in which two distinctive human behaviors emerged, those of cooperation and social learning, Dr. Hill [the lead researcher on the study] said. A male chimp may know in his lifetime just 12 other males, all from his own group. But a hunter-gatherer, because of cooperation between bands, may interact with a thousand individuals in his tribe. Because humans are unusually adept at social learning, including copying useful activities from others, a large social network is particularly effective at spreading and accumulating knowledge.

The notion of copying here is key, for insular people can actually regress:

Knowledge can in fact be lost by hunter-gatherers if a social network gets too small. One group of the Ache people of Paraguay, cut off from its home territory, had lost use of fire when first contacted. Tasmanians apparently forgot various fishing techniques after rising sea levels broke their contact with the Australian mainland 10,000 years ago.

Obviously, there’s also a danger here, for as the American General George Patton once said,

If everybody is thinking alike, somebody isn’t thinking.

But if critical thinking can be put under pressure by group-think, evolutionary anthropology suggests that social learning makes up for it. So long as somebody is thinking independently, creatively, well, and clearly, it appears that the rest of the group can ride piggyback. So the take-home message is this: you increase your probability for success in life, including intellectual success, if you do the following things:

  • You are nice to those you identify as part of your band of brothers and sisters (your coworkers, fellow students, etc.).
  • You get tight with the creative and critical thinkers in your band (befriend them, learn from them, and imitate the habits of the smartest among them).
  • You try to find your way to win-win trading situations with the competing groups outside your band.

In short (and to expand on the well known aphorism from The Sermon on the Mount), blessed are the peacemakers, for such are not just those purported to be in heaven, but those most likely to win at the Darwinian survival game on earth.

Notice in the below video, Cat Stevens says that his song “Peace Train” is not just life-affirming, but a money-maker for him. His joke, as Freud would suggest, is revealing.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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