“Origins of Human Cooperation” | Speaker: Professor Michael Tomasello [LSE]

“London School of Economics and Political Science

Origins of Human Cooperation

Public Lectures and Events

Origins of Human Cooperation

19 Nov 2020 | 1 Hour 4 Minutes


Speaker: Professor Michael Tomasello

Published on: 19 Nov 2020

Humans are biologically adapted for cultural life in ways that other primates are not. Humans have unique motivations and cognitive skills for sharing emotions, experience and actions, whereas our nearest primate relatives do not.

Michael Tomasello, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, is one of the world’s leading researchers on social learning, communication and language in human children and great apes.

Sandra Jovchelovitch is a social and clinical psychologist by training and her research focuses on human development under contextual adversity, the social psychology of public spheres, community development and the socio-cultural context of knowledge. Sandra is a Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Psychologyical and Behavioural Science.”

Agustín Fuentes — Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being [Science salon/Skeptic]


Agustín Fuentes — Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being

Agustín Fuentes — Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being

Why are so many humans religious? Why do we daydream, imagine, and hope? Philosophers, theologians, social scientists, and historians have offered explanations for centuries, but their accounts often ignore or even avoid human evolution. Evolutionary scientists answer with proposals for why ritual, religion, and faith make sense as adaptations to past challenges or as by-products of our hyper-complex cognitive capacities. But what if the focus on religion is too narrow? Renowned anthropologist Agustín Fuentes argues that the capacity to be religious is actually a small part of a larger and deeper human capacity to believe. Why believe in religion, economies, love? Fuentes employs evolutionary, neurobiological, and anthropological evidence to argue that belief — the ability to commit passionately and wholeheartedly to an idea — is central to the human way of being in the world.

The premise of the book is that believing is our ability to draw on our range of cognitive and social resources, our histories and experiences, and combine them with our imagination. It is the power to think beyond what is here and now in order to see and feel and know something — an idea, a vision, a necessity, a possibility, a truth — that is not immediately present to the senses, and then to invest, wholly and authentically, in that “something” so that it becomes one’s reality. The point is that beliefs and belief systems permeate human neurobiologies, bodies, and ecologies, and structure and shape our daily lives, our societies, and the world around us. We are human, therefore we believe, and this book tells us how we came to be that way.

Shermer and Fuentes also discuss:

– what it means to “believe” something (belief in evolution or the Big Bang is different from belief in progressive taxes or affirmative action),
– evolution and how beliefs are formed…and why,
– evolution of awe, wonder, aesthetic sense, beauty, art, music, dance, etc. (adaptation or exaptation/spandrel?),
– evolution of spirituality, religion, belief in immortality,
– Were Neanderthals human in the “belief” sense?
– human niche and the evolution of symbolism/language,
– evolution of theory of mind,
– how to infer symbolic meaning from archaeological artifacts,
– components of belief: augmented cognition and neurobiology, intentionality, imagination, innovation, compassion and intensive reliance on others, meaning-making,
– dog domestication and human self-domestication,
– Göbekli Tepe and the underestimation of ancient peoples’ cognitive capacities,
– the development of property, accumulation of goods, inequality, and social hierarchy,
gender role specialization,
– monogamy and polyamory, gender and sex, and continuum vs. binary thinking,
– violence and warfare,
– political and economic systems of belief, and
– love as belief.

Agustín Fuentes is a Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. He is an active public scientist, a well-known blogger, lecturer, tweeter, and an explorer for National Geographic. Fuentes received the Inaugural Communication & Outreach Award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the President’s Award from the American Anthropological Association, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“Why Social Distancing Feels So Strange” By George M. Leader [Sapiens]

“Why Social Distancing Feels So Strange

Humans are wired through millions of years of evolution to be social creatures. Faced with the COVID-19 virus, can we stay connected at a distance?

George M. Leader is a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at The College of New Jersey.


Why does intentionally avoiding physical interaction with other humans during our daily routine feel so strange? The answer may lie in millions of years of behavioral and cultural evolution.

Since our evolutionary split from chimpanzees around 7 million years ago, humans have become increasingly dependent on complex social cooperation to survive and thrive. People sometimes think of humans as fundamentally selfish or violent, but anthropological research shows that we have evolved to work cooperatively and live in supportive communities.

Some of the earliest evidence for the importance of cooperative behavior in our species comes from a surprising event: the evolution of walking on two legs. Among the earliest evidence of bipedalism in the hominid linage is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, an upright ape-like primate from Chad dating to about 7 million years ago.

There are plenty of possible reasons for why our ancestors began to stand upright: It might have helped them regulate their body temperature, decrease their exposure to natural radiation from the sun, or increase their range of sight to watch for predators, among other reasons. But one hypothesis proposed by American biological anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy in 1981 suggests that our ancestors freed up their hands for food sharing, specifically so that a male could carry food back to a female raising their young. This type of social cooperation is much more difficult for quadruped knuckle-walkers like chimpanzees.


By about 1.9 million years ago, around the time of the appearance of Homo erectus, cooperative behavior may have greatly increased again. By this time, females were facing significant challenges giving birth: Their upright bodies had a hard time delivering big-brained babies. This physical burden might have prompted dramatic shifts in hominin social structures, with a bigger division of labor between males and females, and additional collaboration between childrearing females.

Along with this change in society seems to have come stronger social supports within these communities. Physical evidence for this can be found in the femur of an 800,000-year-old H. erectus from Java. The femur was badly broken—an injury that almost certainly means a quick death for someone trying to live alone. But, incredibly, this fracture healed. That means the injured hominin received an enormous amount of support from their social group. Our ancestors really took care of one another.


As a result of humanity’s evolution for social tendencies, we have a problem: loneliness. This feeling may act as a driver to pull people back together, much as thirst makes people drink and hunger makes people eat. But it has negative consequences too.

People who perceive themselves as being without social support, living in a world without beneficial social interaction, can become irritable and depressed. Lonely people—and animals—tend to adopt more selfish behaviors, putting their own needs first. The more a human thinks there is a lack of beneficial social interaction around them—in other words, the lonelier they feel—the more they adopt these behaviors.

The consequences of isolation and the ensuing selfish behaviors can be high. Persistent loneliness can reduce our capacity to look after ourselves and even harm our physical health. According to one 2018 study, loneliness in people is associated with a 26 percent increase in the chance of premature death.


But can we entirely override our long-programmed interactive cooperation and replace it with distant cooperation? Will virtual interaction be a suitable replacement in fulfilling the need for physical interaction? It remains to be seen.”

“Isabel Behncke: “El pánico al contagio, a lo infeccioso, es uno de nuestros miedos más atávicos” [La Tercera]

“Isabel Behncke: “El pánico al contagio, a lo infeccioso, es uno de nuestros miedos más atávicos”


La primatóloga chilena, eminente por sus investigaciones en el Congo acerca del comportamiento social de los bonobos, afirma que la biología evolutiva puede ayudarnos a comprender tanto las causas de la pandemia como la manera en que reaccionamos a ella. Doctorada en Oxford y hoy miembro del Centro de Investigación de la Complejidad Social de la UDD, Behncke propone enfrentar la crisis con “ojo de ecólogo”. Nos serviría para pensar mejor -y moralizar menos- sobre los sacrificios que debemos elegir para mitigar distintas fuentes de sufrimiento.


La discusión actual sobre las zoonosis −las enfermedades que pasan de animales a humanos−, y que si el virus provino de un murciélago o de un pangolín, y que no puede haber mercados de fauna silvestre como el de Wuhan, tiene que ver con advertencias que se venían haciendo hace rato sobre el consumo de biodiversidad y la salud de los ecosistemas. Y si seguimos destruyendo los hábitats naturales, hay muchos animales más para futuras zoonosis. Esta pandemia, ciertamente, no va a ser la última.


La cuenta gigantesca que vamos a pagar ahora es el precio de no entender cómo funcionan esas barreras. Quizás porque ya no nos sentíamos parte de la red de la vida que compartimos con otros seres. Como dice Harari en el título de su libro, nos veíamos pasando de animales a dioses. Ya estábamos pensando en Marte, nos íbamos de acá. De algún modo, perdimos el respeto por nuestra casa. Y ha sido muy impresionante que un simple virus nos devuelva a la naturaleza en tan pocas semanas. Gastamos trillones de dólares en sistemas de defensa y nos tiene de rodillas una hebra de ARN.


Es que ahí hay una ironía profundísima: el virus nos obliga a ir en contra de lo que somos para poder protegernos de él. En ese sentido, uno podría decir que este es un virus brillante. A mí me tocó vivir en el Congo lo del ébola, que era mucho más mortífero, pero no tan contagioso, por su método de transmisión. El Covid-19, al matar poco y no tan rápido, se aprovecha muy bien de nuestro comportamiento social. Es como si dijera: “Yo sé que estos animales son incapaces de no interactuar entre ellos durante 14 días, están hechos para eso, así que me voy a quedar aquí piola y dejarlos hacer lo que siempre hacen para pasarme de un humano a otro”. Es un gran estratega, por lo menos. Y otro aspecto que la biología evolutiva puede ayudar a entender son los fenómenos de contagio a través de redes de interacciones. No solo de contagio biológico, también de ideas y de emociones. Como el pánico.


¿Dirías que la competencia entre la razón y el pánico pone a prueba qué tan sapiens somos en estas circunstancias?

Es que la dicotomía entre emoción y razón no nos ha servido de mucho, porque ser sapiens también es tener emoción, no las puedes disociar. Y si bien hay que decir con mucho énfasis que, por favor ,no cedamos al pánico, porque nos cierra cognitivamente y trae consecuencias graves, reconocer el rol del miedo en nuestra historia es útil para entender lo que nos está pasando. El miedo existe porque ha servido para algo. Y el pánico al contagio, a lo infeccioso, es uno de nuestros miedos más atávicos. En parte, estamos vivos porque tenemos ancestros que alguna vez vieron a alguien muy enfermo y dijeron “uy, qué horror”, y se alejaron. O sea, es muy comprensible que el coronavirus nos aterre más allá del cálculo racional. Porque si fuéramos tan sapiens, tendríamos una planilla Excel en la cabeza que nos diría que es mucho más probable morir de enfermedades cardiovasculares. Y les tendríamos terror a las hamburguesas. Pero como arrastramos miedos atávicos, no tenemos los miedos bien calibrados. Les tenemos más terror a los aviones que a los autos, lo que estadísticamente es absurdo. Y le tenemos miedo a la sangre, a las arañas, a las culebras, mucho más que a un auto. Así que sentir este pánico al contagio es un poco inevitable. Pero tenemos que ser conscientes de él y regularlo, porque darle rienda suelta es peligroso.


La experiencia, al menos, dice que las épocas de desastres muestran lo mejor y lo peor de la naturaleza humana. Lo que pasa es que la dicotomía entre cooperación y conflicto también es un poco engañosa. Las sociedades operan en muchos niveles de organización −el individuo, la familia, el barrio, la empresa, la nación, la sociedad global, etc.− y los ecólogos te van a decir que, para observar los fenómenos de la naturaleza es clave entender que en todos esos niveles hay cooperación y conflicto al mismo tiempo. Tú mismo eres un ecosistema -en tu cuerpo hay más bacterias que células humanas− dentro del cual hay muchos conflictos. Ahora, lo que sí tiende a ocurrir ante amenazas graves es que aumenta la cooperación en los niveles altos, los grandes bandos se agrupan. Y en las últimas semanas han surgido ejemplos de cooperación a gran escala, de coordinación colectiva, bastante interesantes. ¿Cuándo fue la última vez que la humanidad se agrupó bajo un mismo propósito, con la mayor parte de los humanos al tanto de eso? Pero también han saltado a la vista los conflictos de interés. Y la polarización política, por supuesto. Yo creo que nos serviría mucho, para tener una conversación más amigable, observar lo que está pasando con ojo de ecólogo, viendo sistemas complejos en acción.


Jonathan Haidt, un psicólogo social al que es muy interesante seguir, cree que ahora vamos a cooperar más porque en los desastres aparece lo mejor de las personas, pero también está diciendo que estas situaciones incrementan el moral disgusto, el asco moral. Así como los miedos atávicos, la emoción del asco es parte de nuestro repertorio evolutivo. Y existe el asco físico ante lo que percibimos como cochinada, como las fecas, pero también tenemos asco moral, y eso es lo que está aflorando en muchas de estas peleas. Hay gente que dice “usted es un asco, quiere salvar la economía y no le importa la vida”, o al revés, “usted piensa en los enfermos, pero no le importa la cantidad de gente que va a quedar sin sustento, qué aberración”. Ese sentimiento de repulsión moral es muy humano.”

Learning from Animals by Antoine Doré & Jérôme Michalon | About: Dominique Guillo, Les Fondements oubliés de la culture. Une approche écologique, Seuil, 2019 [La Vie des Idées]

“Learning from Animals

About: Dominique Guillo, Les Fondements oubliés de la culture. Une approche écologique, Seuil


by Antoine Doré & Jérôme Michalon, 19 March

translated by Michael C. Behrent



Neither the social sciences nor the natural sciences are currently invested in studying the cultural relations between humans and animals. If we are to understand them, we must reconsider all our categories, and free ourselves once and for all from the nature-culture divide.

To use the relationship between humans and animals to rethink culture: this is the goal of Dominique Guillo’s book. A sociologist and research director at the CNRS, Guillo offers a structured and thorough synthesis of more than a decade of research. A specialist in the history and epistemology of social sciences as they relate to life sciences, Guillo maintains that the way in which these two disciplinary domains have approached culture suffers from an identity bias, which prevents them from conceiving of the existence of cultures constructed by and between different animal species.

The identity bias diagnosis

Guillo devotes the book’s first three chapters to establishing this epistemological diagnosis. He gets the ball rolling with the natural sciences (behavioral ecology, ethology, and neo-Darwinian biology), in a first chapter that proposes a highly pedagogical synthesis of research from the past forty years on animal sociability and culture. First, we encounter the neo-Darwinians’ unusual definition of the social (i.e., behavior that seeks to perpetuate the genes of individuals other than their producers); then, an ethological definition of culture understood as a set of traits transmitted by social learning, rather than by the genetic mechanisms of natural selection.


Guillo thus calls for a better connection between the social and the natural sciences, as they seem to suffer from the same problem: their inability of studying culture except in terms of animal groups belonging to the same species (whether human or non-human). They suffer from a tropism or identity bias, apparent both in their research’s focus (intraspecific and intragroup relationships) and results (culture takes place solely between similar entities and accentuates their similarities to one another). Thus, according to Guillo, these “classic” approaches to culture proceed from (i.e., postulate) and produce (i.e., accentuate) shared identity. In a world in which understanding the interdependence of creatures as different as earthworms, whales, and molecules is becoming more and more crucial, identity bias constitutes a major epistemological obstacle.


This diagnosis of a forgetting of culture’s foundations, which is itself based on several omissions, is accompanied by over-adherence to the epistemology of the behavioral sciences. The sole definition of culture used and discussed in this book is borrowed from this discipline, as is Guillo’s key concept (social learning) and the regular appeal to “parsimony.” Furthermore, it is the social sciences rather than the behavioral sciences that the author holds responsible for the impossibility of a synthesis in the study of interspecific cultures. In contrast to what they assert, the social sciences are most inclined to validate the nature-culture dualism and the boundaries between disciplines, whether because of ideology or disciplinary loyalty. Conversely, sociobiology, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary psychology, by considering humans as one living being among others, abolish the frontiers between these dualisms and appear, in Guillo’s account, as progressive theories, while the social sciences are noticeable only for their conservatism. He notes, for example, that by restricting cultural phenomena to identity, the social sciences risk fueling the rise of “’identitarian’ political discourses” (p. 302).”

“What can we learn from bonobos and chimpanzees?” [Takeshi Furuichi. Bonobo and Chimpanzee, 2019]

From EurekAlert:

“What can we learn from bonobos and chimpanzees?

A personal account of bonobo and chimpanzee behaviour by a renowned Japanese primatologist explains what and why we should learn from our closest relatives


Those who are not familiar with bonobos and chimpanzees may have trouble telling the two species apart: they look alike and they live in similar habitats. In fact, it wasn’t until 90 years ago that experts realised that bonobos and chimpanzees were different species. In his book, Bonobo and Chimpanzee, Takeshi Furuichi describes his observations of both species’ behaviour while drawing parallels between humans, bonobos and chimpanzees in an attempt to find solutions for the peaceful coexistence of human beings.”

More here: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-12/s-wcw120919.php


“Bonobo and Chimpanzee: The Lessons of Social Coexistence (Primatology Monographs)

Takeshi Furuichi

Springer, 1st ed. 2019

This book describes the similarities and differences between two species, bonobos and chimpanzees, based on the three decades the author has spent studying them in the wild, and shows how the contrasting nature of these two species is also reflected in human nature.

The most important differences between bonobos and chimpanzees, our closest relatives, are the social mechanisms of coexistence in group life. Chimpanzees are known as a fairly despotic species in which the males exclusively dominate over the females, and maintain a rigid hierarchy. Chimpanzees have developed social intelligence to survive severe competition among males: by upholding the hierarchy of dominance, they can usually preserve peaceful relations among group members. In contrast, female bonobos have the same or even a higher social status than males. By evolving pseudo-estrus during their non-reproductive period, females have succeeded in moderating inter-male sexual competition, and in initiating mate selection. Although they are non-related in male-philopatric society, they usually aggregate in a group, enjoy priority access to food, determine which male is the alpha male, and generally maintain much more peaceful social relations compared to chimpanzees.
Lastly, by identifying key mechanisms of social coexistence in these two species, the author also seeks to find solutions or “hope” for the peaceful coexistence of human beings.

“Takeshi Furuichi is one of very few scientists in the world familiar with both chimpanzees and bonobos. In lively prose, reflecting personal experience with apes in the rain forest, he compares our two closest relatives and explains the striking differences between the male- dominated and territorial chimpanzees and the female-centered gentle bonobos.”

Frans de Waal, author of Mama’s Last Hug – Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves (Norton, 2019)”