You will never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together

I’m fascinated by the evolutionary/biological origins of morality, so I love articles like Natalie Angier’s latest:

Darwinian-minded analysts argue that Homo sapiens have an innate distaste for hierarchical extremes, the legacy of our long nomadic prehistory as tightly knit bands living by veldt-ready team-building rules: the belief in fairness and reciprocity, a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively in ways that even our smartest primate kin cannot match. As Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has pointed out, you will never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together….

David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary theorist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, sees the onset of humanity’s cooperative, fair-and-square spirit as one of the major transitions in the history of life on earth, moments when individual organisms or selection units band together and stake their future fitness on each other. A larger bacterial cell engulfs a smaller bacterial cell to form the first complex eukaryotic cell. Single cells merge into multicellular organisms of specialized parts. Ants and bees become hive-minded superorganisms and push all other insects aside.

“A major transition occurs when you have mechanisms for suppressing fitness differences and establishing equality within groups, so that it is no longer possible to succeed at the expense of your group,” Dr. Wilson said. “It’s a rare event, and it’s hard to get started, but when it does you can quickly dominate the earth.” Human evolution, he said, “clearly falls into this paradigm.”

Our rise to global dominance began, paradoxically enough, when we set rigid dominance hierarchies aside. “In a typical primate group, the toughest individuals can have their way and dominate everybody else in the group,” said Dr. Wilson. “Chimps are very smart, but their intelligence is predicated on distrust.”

Our ancestors had to learn to trust their neighbors, and the seeds of our mutuality can be seen in our simplest gestures, like the willingness to point out a hidden object to another, as even toddlers will do. Early humans also needed ways to control would-be bullies, and our exceptional pitching skills — which researchers speculate originally arose to help us ward off predators — probably helped. “We can throw much better than any other primate,” Dr. Wilson said, “and once we could throw things at a distance, all of a sudden the alpha male is vulnerable to being dispatched with stones. Stoning might have been one of our first adaptations.”

Before the Patriots improbably won their first Super Bowl over the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, the Patriots insisted on coming out of the tunnel as a team rather than getting introduced player-by-player, as all previous Super Bowl participants had taken the field. Cohesive team-centric groups usually defeat individualistic me-centric “groups,” and though the Rams were more “talented,” the Patriots were the better team.

Why, then, did capitalism — based on greed — “defeat” communism? Because people are not ants or bees. We are not so selfless a species that we can practice communism on a national scale. Ant and bee colonies can become massive because ants and bees don’t differentiate between personal and collective (colony/hive) interests. When the Soviet Union and China embraced communism, people grew lazy.

On a small scale, collective-minded human teams can accomplish extraordinary things. But group cohesion falls as group size increases. Consequently, many startups (and startup-like groups within larger firms) choose to remain small because the costs of growing larger outweigh the benefits of adding more people.

Posted by James on Friday, July 08, 2011