New theory of the origins of trust

Primatology has long fascinated me for the insights it yields — by comparing and constrasting ourselves with our biological cousins: chimps, bonobos, gorillas, etc. — about human nature.

The dominant paradigm holds that much of morality grew out of the need to collaborate with those close to us (our “in group”). We therefore keep careful track of favors and harms others do to us and are prone to gossip about, ostracize, and punish those who cheat us. In-group collaboration is also fostered — with the help of collective activities such as dance, music and religion — by the need to protect our group (“us”) against external threats from rival human groups (“them”). Anyone with even cursory knowledge of human history will recognize that territoriality and glorification of “war heroes” are perhaps universal truths across human societies. Richard Wrangham’s Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence is an excellent example of this literature.

So I read with great interest about a new paradigm suggesting trust evolved in humans alongside adorability of babies and the need for “cooperative breeding” as the human baby’s need for adult support greatly outstripped that of other primates.

As a parent who benefits from both daycare and grandparents who live with us, I suspect there’s a lot of truth in this new theory, esp. since infanticide is common in most other primate species.

These theories are likely both true to some extent. That this theory comes from a female scientist illustrates (once again) the value of having a diversity of backgrounds engaged in creative endeavors.

Posted by James on Monday, March 02, 2009