The scale of human cooperation is an evolutionary puzzle

Culture and the evolution of human cooperation

The scale of human cooperation is an evolutionary puzzle. All of the available evidence suggests that the societies of our Pliocene ancestors were like those of other social primates, and this means that human psychology has changed in ways that support larger, more cooperative societies that characterize modern humans. In this paper, we argue that cultural adaptation is a key factor in these changes. Over the last million years or so, people evolved the ability to learn from each other, creating the possibility of cumulative, cultural evolution. Rapid cultural adaptation also leads to persistent differences between local social groups, and then competition between groups leads to the spread of behaviours that enhance their competitive ability. Then, in such culturally evolved cooperative social environments, natural selection within groups favoured genes that gave rise to new, more pro-social motives. Moral systems enforced by systems of sanctions and rewards increased the reproductive success of individuals who functioned well in such environments, and this in turn led to the evolution of other regarding motives like empathy and social emotions like shame.

Keywords: cooperation, culture, coevolution