A big topic in the scholarship on human social evolution is our peculiar proclivity for cooperation. There’s no doubt that human cooperation is pretty remarkable, in a number of ways. The benefits it brings in terms of pooled risk, division of labour and economies of scale, etc., are well known.

Athena AktipisAnd, from a strictly evolutionary perspective, there’s nothing else quite like human cooperation. No other species cooperates on anything near the massive scale that human beings do, without having a kin foundation to the process. The eusocial insects, like bees and ants, are pretty remarkable cooperators, but they’re mostly all siblings. Evolutionary theory predicts that kind of cooperation. What it has a harder time with is making sense of why we do it.

So, the keen interest in human cooperation is understandable. However those facts do not really explain why so many evolutionary theorists, and just folks in general, make such a virtue out of cooperation. Too often cooperation is taken as an unquestioned good and those who disrupt it are stigmatized as anti-social or even pathological.

Is all cooperation good, though? This is one of the matters addressed in the most recent episode of The Biological Realist Podcast, where I get to talk to cooperation theorist Athena Aktipis, psychology professor at Arizona State University. She has identified some key principles that can be identified at work in the cultivation of cooperation across levels of organism complexity.

In the course of our discussion, it becomes clear that not all cooperation is necessarily laudable and indeed sometimes the biggest enemy of cooperation is cooperation itself – at some other level of organization. It’s a fascinating discussion. Come check it out and let us know what you think.

We don’t get into this in the podcast, but I’ll leave you with this final thought. Considering the absence of strong kin selection pressures, human cooperation would only be possible with an evolved psychology that was predisposed to cooperation. Might a bias in favour of cooperation, even including a moralizing dismissal of anti-cooperative tendencies, be part of such an evolved psychology? I’m thinking, yes. But I’d love to hear what you think.