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The origins of human sociality

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Posted May 6, 2014

“It is commonplace to refer to Homo sapiens as the social animal. But many animal species are social, in many different ways, and so, it is not always clear exactly what this appellation means,“ Michael Tomasello writes. He is  co-founder of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and one of the most prominent contemporary theorists investigating origins of human sociality. In his new article published in the European Journal of Social Psychology the psychologist presents evolutionary scenario depicting the emergence of human sociality. He supports his explanation by the results of numerous laboratory studies.

Interview with Tomasello 

Tomasello proposes the two‒stage model. First of all, humans probably managed to develop their unique ways of collaboration. He claims that this hypothesis is supported by experimental studies which discover profound differences between cooperative activities of human children and chimpanzees who are our closest relatives. For instance, in a series of experimental studies he and his colleagues investigated how the identical tasks are done by chimpanzees and small children. They “presented pairs of chimpanzees with out-of-reach food on a platform that could be obtained only if both individuals pulled simultaneously on the two ends of a rope.“

Image credit: Rhys Davenport via Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

Image credit: Rhys Davenport via Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

Chimpanzees often tended to be selfish and thus failed to cooperate. While one of individual took all the food, other one received nothing. But human children were able to cooperate successfully. Even when food was gained after collaborative efforts, apes remained self‒regarding. “In contrast, young human children treat resources generated collaboratively in special ways, applying some sense of distributive justice in dividing the spoils,“ the scientists claim.

Further experiments show that human children communicate in order to coordinate their decisions. And when they do so, they are trying to reach joint goals. It can seem effortless, but chimpanzees are not able to do that. They do not coordinate their actions and concentrate on their individual goals instead.

Subsequent development of human sociality was reinforced by two main factors. On the one hand, group cohesion increased due to competition between humans. Stronger collaborative alliances helped to defend against enemies. On the other hand, increasing population size “meant that recognizing others from one’s cultural group became far from trivial—and of course, one needed to ensure that one could be recognized by others as well.“ Tomasello reasons as follows: you can recognize those who are similar. Similarity can be established by imitative behavior and imitation of others should result in conformist behavior.

For instance, one of the experimental studies showed that young children and chimpanzees tend to follow the majority. They observed individuals performing the task and repeated these behaviors which were performed by the greater number of individuals. However, when individuals had previous experience, results differed. “Chimpanzees continued to use the hole that had been successful for them in the past—even when the other hole gave a higher reward—whereas the human children went with the majority over their own experience“

Videotapes of the experiments can be accessed at the Max Planck website here.

Article: Tomasello M., 2014, The ultra-social animal, European Journal of Social Psychology,  44, 187–194, source link

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