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Why We Cooperate

Tomasello Michael, with Dweck Carol, Silk Joan, Skyrms Brian, and Spelke, Elizabeth
MIT Press: London, 2009
ISBN 9780262013598 (pb)

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Reviewed by Athena C. Aktipis
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona

Cover of book Of all of the topics that fascinate us, there is perhaps nothing more compelling than the study of ourselves: the self-reflective, hopefully insightful quest for greater understanding of our own natures. For those of us who believe that the behavioural sciences have something to say about our natures, this quest is occasionally punctuated with scientific knowledge that challenges, threatens or confirms our assumptions about ourselves. In his book Why we cooperate, Tomasello takes on ambitious questions about human nature: Are we basically good or is it culture and societal pressures that make us behave well? And, more subtly: What makes us capable of cooperation and other complex social activities? By reporting on his extensive research and speculating just enough to engender some controversy, Tomasello challenges us to consider under-explored explanations for the origins of human cooperation.

Like all of us who attempt to say something substantive about human cooperative predispositions, Tomasello is almost certainly wrong about some of the ideas he presents in this book. But a good book is not necessarily a book that is strictly right. In fact, what often makes a good book is an author that is not afraid to be wrong. That means being willing to propose a thesis that is controversial, present the evidence in favour of the view, and then invite others to criticize that view. This book boldly (perhaps brazenly) accomplishes these goals. Tomasello even goes so far as to invite four researchers to write critical responses, which are included at the end of this book. These scientists contribute their thoughts, often proposing important challenges or extensions to Tomasello's ideas. Herein lie the greatest strengths of Tomasello's book: he is not afraid to be wrong and he gets us thinking.

Despite its title, Tomasello's book does not address the question of the evolutionary forces underlying the origins of cooperation. In the end, this is one of the strengths of the book; by sidestepping these murky waters, he bypasses an obstacle that often prevents discourse among cooperation theorists who get mired in disagreements about levels of selection and semantics. Instead, Tomasello focuses his book on the mechanisms underlying human social abilities and behaviour, resisting the urge to weigh in on the debate about roles of kin selection, group selection and reciprocity in the evolution of cooperation.

Tomasello's book focuses on four fundamental questions that have guided his research program for nearly 30 years. First, is altruism 'natural' in human children, or is it imparted by culture? He reviews his research demonstrating that young children exhibit spontaneous altruistic behaviour. However, he argues that as children grow they begin to cooperate conditionally rather than naively, attending to social norms and the behaviour of others. Second, he asks how humans and chimps differ with regard to their propensities for conspecific collaborative interaction. Tomasello argues that humans are unique in our capacity to establish a collective sense of intention, a "we", that generates mutual expectations, rights and obligations. His research suggests that children demonstrate the ability to form and commit to a joint goal with an adult soon after the first year of life, while chimps do not appear to be capable of establishing such joint goals.

Tomasello then asks two equally controversial questions: What abilities enabled cooperation to evolve, and, how did we create complex cooperative products such as social norms and institutions? Tomasello argues that our capacity for shared intentionality and coordination are the essential ingredients that allowed for the evolution of complex cooperation and altruistic behaviour. In contrast to most cooperation theorists, Tomasello does not see altruism as the primary driver of the evolution of human social behaviour and organization. Instead, he argues that other factors (namely the ability to coordinate behaviour and share goal/intentions) are responsible for large-scale cooperation, including humans' abilities to live in institution-based cultural groups.

The contributors to the final sections of Tomasello's book are recognized leaders in their areas, and their thoughts are well-articulated and incisive. Joan Silk, an expert on cooperation in primates, argues against Tomasello's thesis about the centrality of coordination abilities in promoting cooperation. Rather, she argues that altruistic social preferences must form the basis for cooperation because the interests of humans are rarely perfectly aligned (leading to the temptation to manipulate and defect in the absence of countervailing prosocial motivations). Carol Dweck, a leading developmental social psychologist, argues against Tomasello's view that spontaneous helping in very young children is due to inherent predispositions rather than learning. She describes research showing that babies develop expectations about the helpfulness of caretakers based on previous experience, suggesting that learning may play an important role in babies' social cognition and behaviour at the earliest ages. We also hear from Elizabeth Spelke, one of the world's foremost developmental psychologists. Spelke's response to Tomasello is simple: she suggests that the language capacity may be more fundamental than the capacity for shared intentionality and that it would be fruitful to explore the ways in which language may have shaped the capacity for shared intentionality and cooperation.

Brain Skyrms, a philosopher and highly respected cooperation theorist, makes one small criticism of Tomasello's arguments. He notes that complex cognitive abilities to coordinate goals may not be necessary for complex forms of communication and cooperation because simple abilities can generate complex collective behaviours, citing examples from social insects and bacteria. Reading Skyrm's response to Tomasello raises a critical question: If the capacity to represent and communicate about abstract goals is not necessary for coordination and cooperation (as demonstrated by the complex social structures present in social insects and bacteria), why do we have the capacity to share goals and communicate about our intentions? The answer might lie in the perpetual novelty of the goals that humans collectively pursue. For organisms that encounter the same collective adaptive problems day in and day out, representations of collective goals are unnecessary because very simple rules are likely to suffice for generating adaptive coordinated behaviour. However, humans have the capacity to live in highly varied environments (across both time and space). Surviving and thriving in these environments may have required greater flexibility in collective behaviours than what would be afforded by simple and fixed rules for collective behaviour. The ability to represent and communicate about novel and dynamic goals might have been critical for coordinating our behaviour in evolutionarily novel contexts, and may still play a critical role in the diverse and unpredictable environments we encounter in the modern world.

No doubt, any scientist interested in human cooperation and social organization will find something to think about, and probably something to disagree with, in this book. But more importantly, a book like Tomasello's promises to generate lively discussions among academics in a variety of fields and stimulate new research ideas among scientists who agree with him, as well as those who disagree. Tomasello's book strikes a delicate and rare balance between theory and research: he presents empirical evidence supporting his thesis, but allows his theory to stand out just beyond the edge of our knowledge, enticing us to challenge him, devise new studies, and push our quest to understand human nature on.


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