New research finds altruism and cooperation among humans may have emerged from prehistoric warfare

The New York Times reports:

Compared with other species, humans are highly cooperative and altruistic, at least toward members of their own group. Evolutionary biologists have been hard pressed to account for this self-sacrificing behavior, given that an altruist who works for the benefit of others will have less time for his family’s interests and leave fewer surviving children. Genes for altruistic behavior should therefore disappear…

Warfare “may have contributed to the spread of human altruism,” [economist Samuel Bowles] and his colleague Herbert Gintis write in their new book, “A Cooperative Species”(Princeton, 2011). “We initially recoiled at this unpleasant and surprising conclusion. But the simulations and the data on prehistoric warfare tell a convincing story.”

Archaeology lends some support to the idea. “Groups that successfully organize themselves to raid others will acquire external resources and, in the long run, will be at a selective advantage against groups that are less well organized,” [archeologists Charles Stanish and Abigail Levine] write of their findings in the Central Andes.

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One response to “New research finds altruism and cooperation among humans may have emerged from prehistoric warfare

  1. That certainly jibes with the story that gets told in Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation.” In it he talks about how British and German troops “regularized” their firing on each to such a degree that injury could be easily avoided by both sides. “These rituals of perfunctory and routine firing sent a double message. To the high command they conveyed aggression, but to the enemy they conveyed peace.” (on Page 86) Peace in the midst of war! We are a bizarre species.