Individual roles and perspectives that may, in principle, be filled by anyone with the right skills

Joint goal


A cooperative situation:  

Agent neutral

A cooperative venture between people is “agent neutral”, in that in principle, each role can be filled by anyone with the right skills.  



Benefits of group living


Look at how fish, such as herring, swim in schools that tighten instantly when a shark or porpoise approaches.  Or how schools turn abruptly in one silvery flash, making it impossible for the predator to target any single fish.  Schooling fish keep very precise individual distances, seek out companions of the same size, and perfectly match their speed and direction, often in a fraction of a second.  Thousands of individuals thus act almost like a single organism.  Or look at how birds, such as starlings, swarm in dense flocks that in an instant evade an approaching hawk.  Biologists talk of “selfish herds”, in which each individual hides among a mass of others for its own security.  The presence of other prey dilutes the risk for each one among them, not unlike the old joke about two men being chased by a bear: There’s no need to run faster than the bear so long as you outrun your pal.  

Even bitter rivals seek companionship at times of danger.  Birds that in the breeding season fight one another to death over territory may end up in the same flock during migration.  I know this tendency first-hand from my fish, each time I redo one of my large tropical aquariums.  Many fish, such as cichlids, are quite territorial, displaying with spread fins and chasing one another to keep their corner free of intruders.  I clean my tanks out every couple of years, during which time I keep the fish in a barrel.  After a few days they are released back into the tank, which by then looks quite different from before.  I am always amused at how they suddenly seek out the company of their own kind.  Like best buddies , the biggest fighters now swim side by side, exploring their new environment together.  Until, of course, they start to feel confident again, and claim a piece of real estate.  

Security is the first and foremost reason for social life.  ... all animals that either rely on one another for the hunt, such as members of the dog family, or are prey themselves, such as wildebeests, have a need to coordinate movements.  They tend to follow leaders and conform to the majority.  When our ancestors left the forest and entered an open, dangerous environment, they became prey and evolved a herd instinct that beats that of many animals.  

Frans de Waal – “The Age of Empathy”



Division of labour

Division of labour is an effective strategy for increasing the overall productivity and well being of an interdependent community.  If we look at a hunter gatherer community, the hunters can hunt, the gatherers can gather, and at the end of the day, all can have both meat and vegetables.  




Humans are probably, by far, the most tolerant species of primates, towards each other.  

Cooperating together tends to make people tolerant of each other.  When early humans moved onto the open African grassland 2 million years ago and probably began scavenging large game, those individuals who did best would have been those who could feed peacefully and tolerantly on the carcase next to their fellows, without wanting to hog it all and dominate the proceedings.  The intolerant people who did this would have needed to be driven off by the others, would have had less to eat, have been less likely to survive, and thereby would have been socially selected against and become much less prevalent in the human race than is usually the case with other animals.  

Human life on the savannah was an intensely cooperative enterprise, with all cooperating towards the common goal of raising children and surviving together, and this naturally makes people more tolerant towards their fellows.  


Each year 1.6 billion passengers fly to destinations around the world.  Patiently we line up to be checked and patted down by someone we've never seen before.  We file on board an aluminium cylinder and cram our bodies into narrow seats, elbow to elbow, accommodating one another for as long as the flight takes.  

With nods and resigned smiles, passengers make eye contact and then yield to latecomers pushing past.  When a young man wearing a backpack hits me with it as he reaches up to cram his excess paraphernalia into an overhead compartment, instead of grimacing or baring my teeth, I smile (weakly), disguising my irritation.  Most people on board ignore the crying baby, or pretend to.  A few of us are even inclined to signal the mother with a sideways nod and a wry smile that says, "I know how you must feel."  We want her to know that we understand, and that the disturbance she thinks her baby is causing is not nearly as annoying as she imagines, even though we also can intuit, and so can she, that the young man beside her, who avoids looking at her and keeps his eyes determinedly glued to the screen of his laptop, does indeed mind every bit as much as she fears.  

Thus does every frequent flier employ on a regular basis peculiarly empathic aptitudes for theorizing about the mental states and intentions of other people, our species' gift for mutual understanding.  Cognitively oriented psychologists refer to the ability to think about what someone else knows as having a "theory of mind."  They design clever experiments to determine at what age human children acquire this ability and to learn how good at mind reading (or more precisely, attributing mental states to others) nonhuman animals are.  Other psychologists prefer the related term "intersubjectivity," which emphasizes the capacity and eagerness to share in the emotional states and experiences of other individuals - and which, in humans at least, emerges at a very early stage of development, providing the foundation for more sophisticated mind reading later on.  

Whatever we call it, this heightened interest in and ability to scan faces, and our perpetual quest to understand what others are thinking and intending, to empathize and care about their experiences and goals, help make humans much more adept at cooperating with the people around us than other apes are.  Far oftener than any of us are aware, humans intuit the mental experiences of other people, and - the really interesting thing - care about having other people share theirs.  Imagine two seat-mates on this plane, one of whom develops a severe migraine in the course of the flight.  Even though they don't speak the same language, her new companion helps her, perhaps holding a wet cloth to her head, while the sick woman tries to reassure her that she is feeling better.  Humans are often eager to understand others, to be understood, and to cooperate.  Passengers crowded together on an aircraft are just one example of how empathy and intersubjectivity are routinely brought to play in human interactions.  It happens so often that we take the resulting accommodations for granted.  But just imagine if, instead of humans being crammed and annoyed aboard this airplane, it were some other species of ape.  

At moments like this, it is probably just as well that mind reading in humans remains an imperfect art, given the oddity of my sociobiological musings.  I cannot keep from wondering what would happen if my fellow human passengers suddenly morphed into another species of ape.  What if I were travelling with a planeload of chimpanzees?  Any one of us would be lucky to disembark with all ten fingers and toes still attached, with the baby still breathing and unmaimed.  Bloody earlobes and other appendages would litter the aisles.  Compressing so many highly impulsive strangers into a tight space would be a recipe for mayhem.  

...  Descriptions of missing digits, ripped ears, and the occasional castration are scattered throughout the field accounts of langur and red colobus monkeys, of Madagascar lemurs, and of our own close relatives among the Great Apes.  Even among famously peaceful bonobos, a type of chimpanzee so rare and difficult to access in the wild that most observations come from zoos, veterinarians sometimes have to be called in following altercations to stitch back on a scrotum or penis.  This is not to say that humans don't display similar propensities toward jealousy, indignation, rage, xenophobia, or homicidal violence.  But compared with our nearest ape relations, humans are more adept at forestalling outright mayhem.  Our first impulse is usually to get along.  We do not automatically attack a stranger, and face-to-face killings are a much harder sell for humans than for chimpanzees.  With 1.6 billion airline passengers annually compressed and manhandled, no dismemberments have been reported yet.  

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy – “Mothers and Others”


People who cannot work together cannot succeed together.  

Mark Price


In nature, there are two kinds of cooperation: one-way (empathy and compassion; targeted helping) or two-way (mutualistic collaboration);  “you first” or “we first”;  “you win” or “everybody wins”.  

Helping is done in response to need: the primary motivation is the need of the other.  The neurological basis for this ability in birds and mammals is thought to be the care of offspring, and then this capacity is available to be used in social situations.  The associated moral principles are empathy and targeted helping.  

In mutualistic collaboration, two or more individuals join forces to coordinate their efforts towards a joint goal, and then share out the benefits of this collaboration among themselves.  Along the way, it is natural and necessary for the partners to help each other when they need it, since they are acting together towards a joint goal.  This kind of collaboration can be a long-lasting relationship of mutual benefit.  The associated moral principles are empathy, targeted helping, fairness, interdependence, excluding free-riders, and partner choice / partner control.  

[Hyper]cooperation is the guiding principle and reason for our uniquely human morality, and also, for our success at thriving, surviving and reproducing as a species.  


Human morality arose evolutionarily as a set of skills and motives for cooperating with others ... Arguably, the main function of morality is to regulate an individual’s social interactions with others in the general direction of cooperation, given that all individuals are at least somewhat selfish.  

Michael Tomasello and Amrisha Vaish – “Origins of Human Cooperation and Morality”


basic human economic tendencies and preoccupations – such as reciprocity, the division of rewards, and cooperation – are not limited to our species.  They probably evolved in other animals for the same reasons they evolved in us – to help individuals take optimal advantage of one another without undermining the shared interests that support group life.  

Frans de Waal – “How Animals do Business”


Two tall adolescent bulls at the Elephant Conservation Center effortlessly pick up a long, heavy log with their tusks, each standing on one end, draping their trunks over the log to keep it from rolling off.  Then they walk in perfect unison with the log between them, while the two mahouts on their heads sit chatting and laughing and looking around, and are certainly not directing every move.  Training is obviously part of this picture, but one cannot train any animal to be so coordinated.  One can train dolphins to jump synchronously because they do so in the wild, and one can teach horses to run together at the same pace because wild horses do the same.  For the same reason, one can train two elephants to pick up a log and carry it together to another place, walking in the same rhythm, and lowering the log together to set it down on a pile without a sound, because elephants are extraordinarily well coordinated in the wild.  They’re obviously not picking up logs, but they perform concerted actions to support a wounded companion or calf in need.  

I ran into a different kind of cooperation in the Elephant Nature Park, where a blind elephant walked around with her seeing friend.  The two females were unrelated yet seemed to be joined at the hip.  The blind one was clearly dependent on the other, who seemed to understand this.  As soon as the latter moved away, one could hear deep sounds coming from both of them, sometimes even trumpeting, which indicated the other’s whereabouts to the blind elephant.  This noisy spectacle would continue until they were reunited again.  An intensive greeting followed, with lots of ear-flapping, touching, and mutual smelling.  

Frans de Waal – “The Age of Empathy”