The Evolution of Human Cooperation

Ever wonder how we went from this:


To this?



In other words, how did we go from small insignificant primates on the savannas of Africa, to building large cooperative societies with hundreds of millions of members?

It’s tempting to think technological innovations were the driving forces. The invention of tools, fire, the printing press, fossil fuels, the industrial revolution, etc.

However, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers an alternative explanation. In his book: ‘The Righteous Mind’, and various lectures available online, he argues that it was psychological innovations, rather than technological, that ultimately got us to where we are.

So what were these innovations, and how they might help explain this mystery?

1. Shared Intentions – The Initial Spark



‘It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.’ Michael Tomasello

6 million years ago, we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees.

We were the same species, with the same DNA, the same brains, the same opportunities, and the same threats.

Yet now, human beings are living in cities, conducting scientific experiments and exploring outer space, while chimps are… well, still chimps.

What could possibly explain this? And what was the initial spark that set us off on such different directions?

​Chimps are actually really smart. They can learn words, deceive people, make tools, solve problems, and can even seem to be able to mourn the death of their friends

So what can’t they do, that we can?

In an experiment comparing intelligence between chimpanzees, orangutans and human children (aged 2.5 years old), scientists administered a series of problem solving tasks – simple problems that didn’t require language.

Fifty percent of the tasks were physical with no social element involved. E.g. Using a stick as a tool to get some food through a cage.


The other fifty percent of tasks were social problems.These involved reading social signals, gestures and eye movements provided by the experimenter to solve the problem.

For example, in one of these tasks, there would be two cups placed on a table and one of the cups had a reward underneath. The experimenter would point at the cup containing the reward and it was the child or chimpanzee’s job to read the signal and choose the correct cup.

In the physical problems, chimps and humans scored almost evenly.
But as soon as a social element was added (looking at where the experimenter was pointing), the human children dominated, and the chimps’ scores were no better than chance.

In other words, the human kids could use the social signal (pointing) to read the intentions of the experimenter, and use the information to guide their behaviour.

The chimps could not.

Jonathan Haidt argues that our ability to share and read each other’s intentions was the initial spark that allowed everything else to fall into place.

If we could share intentions, it meant we could cooperate in groups for the first time towards shared goals. We could hunt bigger animals, build better shelters and we were less likely to be picked off by predators.

This one psychological innovation paved the way for language, cooperative hunting, foraging, rearing, and a division of labour.

Without the ability to share our intentions with each other, none of the above would have been possible.

2. The Evolution of Morals

‘Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.’  – Clifford Geertz

Now that we were cooperating in groups for the first time, it was critical to ensure people did their fair share of the work and were effective ‘team players’.

​For cooperation to work, we needed a way to motivate and reward selfless behaviour that would benefit the group, and punish selfish behaviour that would harm the group’s survival chances.

We needed to make it dangerous to be a ‘slacker’.

Evolutionary theorists argue that this helps to explain the evolution of human morality.

In some sense, it can help to think of morals as invisible rules that bind a group together, motivating behaviours that increase the group’s survival chances, and making it unappealing and socially unacceptable to do things that did the opposite.

Think of an early human tribe that had to go out in search of new food every day.

Men would go out on a hunting expedition and bring back some meat, and the women would go foraging for fruits, seeds and nuts. But suppose there’s one member, who stays at the shelter all day, never does any work, and still expects to enjoy the food that everyone else brings back. How do you think the group members would treat this person? Is it likely that he would pass his genes on to the next generation?

Or might they just get rid of him?

At the individual level, we can see how people with good morals were more likely to survive than those without, and from the group’s point of view, tribes containing individuals with high levels of morality would be more cooperative and therefore more likely to survive than those who didn’t.

If this theory’s right, and if you’re reading this today, it’s highly likely that you come from a long line of ancestors with high levels of morality.

Our fascination with soap operas and our universal love of gossip are just two examples of how this evolutionary tendency manifests itself in the modern world.

So now we had shared intentionality which enabled us to work together, and morals which motivated individuals to be effective team players, what was the final step? How did we go from small groups of hunters and foragers, to civilisations containing hundreds of millions of people?

3. The Psychology of Sacredness


‘If you think, as I do, that one of the greatest unsolved mysteries is how people ever came together to form large cooperative societies, then you might take a special interest in the psychology of sacredness.’  – Jonathan Haidt

Universally, humans have a tendency to elevate certain objects, people and places to the status of sacred.

​For the religious, it might be a holy book or a place or worship. For humanists, it could be The Universal Declaration of Human Rights or a cultural icon such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King, and if you’re patriotic, it could be your nation’s flag or national anthem.

When we consider something sacred, we are usually willing to sacrifice our own self interest for it. Throughout history, people have gone to war and sacrificed their lives in service of the sacred; whether it be for an ideal such as freedom or democracy, a country, or a religious belief.

Sacred things have a powerful influence on human psychology.

Why is this? And how can it help explain how we went from small groups of hunters and foragers, to mega-civilizations?

Sacredness is powerful because it can create shared belief systems and common identities.

At some point in our past, we gained the ability to think of, believe in, and tell stories about things outside of the physical world. We could imagine fictional realities and communicate them with others.

Before this psychological innovation, our group sizes were limited by the number of people we could know and trust personally.

But after, they could grow exponentially.

For example, if I became convinced that an old oak tree in the forest was magical and had supernatural powers, and could convince the thirty people in my tribe to believe it too, then that’s thirty people who now believe the same thing.

But what happens if I can convince a neighbouring tribe, which also contains thirty people about the supernatural powers of this tree? Suddenly, the two groups have something in common – they believe the same thing.

And because we trust and like to cooperate with people who believe the same things we do, the two groups of thirty now had the potential to cooperate as one group of sixty.

Now, for the first time, human beings could start combining groups under shared belief systems, and this paved the way for large scale human cooperation like never before.

Organised religions, countries, and armies would not have been possible without it.

‘Humans are ninety percent chimp and ten percent bee.’ – Jonathan Haidt

As a culture, we are living in an era of heightened individualism.

Success is measured by what we’re able to achieve personally, whether it be likes on Facebook, followers on Instagram, or how quickly we’re ascending the corporate ladder.

But researching Jonathan Haidt’s work has made me realise that cooperation is at the very core of being human. 

It’s what separates us from other primates. It’s why we’re at the top of the food chain, and it offers the best explanation for how we went from small groups of hunters and foragers, to where we are today. 

So if we’re looking for a way to improve ourselves, both individually and collectively, maybe the thing to focus is on improving our cooperation skills.

It’s worked for us in the past; why not now, too?

Picture of Niall McKeever

Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

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