Humans Naturally But Rarely Cooperative

A recent press release from Washington University in St. Louis touts a new book, Origins of Altruism and Cooperation, edited by anthropologist Robert Sussman: “The book’s authors argue that humans are naturally cooperative, altruistic and social, only reverting to violence when stressed, abused, neglected or mentally ill.

Because stress, abuse, neglect, and illness are fairly good descriptors of the human condition, all that natural goodness is rarely expressed. It might be more accurate to say if we could eliminate stress, abuse, neglect, and illness, people would be nicer and more cooperative. This is either stating the obvious or a tautology; I’m not sure which.

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6 thoughts on “Humans Naturally But Rarely Cooperative

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    Lawrence H. Keeley, in ‘War Before Civilization’, identifies two categories of ‘peaceful savages’: Small tribes that are geographically isolated from other tribes (granting the stress reduction of few or no attacks from the outside?), and small tribes of refugees from a devastating attack which killed many and drove the survivors off their traditional homeland. (shock and resignation? Lower stress, perhaps now having nothing left to protect?).

  2. Cris Post author

    A good book, for sure. He doesn’t use the term “savages” does he?

    My sense is that there probably weren’t many isolated small tribes in human history, if only because they wouldn’t last long without a lot of inbreeding or simply due to disaster(s) which can be catastrophic for small groups. For earlier hominins, neighboring groups would have included other hominins, and my guess is that they probably were competitors and not peaceful.

    It sounds like we agree that a stress-free lifestyle has been exceptionally rare in human history. If we use Sussman’s assertion as a guide, this would mean that humans haven’t had much opportunity to be altruistic and cooperative.

    Sussman has been on a “peace and love” mission over the last few years, and his book “Man the Hunted” is a perfect example of this. While I laud his efforts, it seems that his ideology is getting in the way of his science.

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    The term pops up a couple times (Sub title: ‘Or the Myth of the Peaceful Savage’). He finds a few examples, as in California where ranges of valleys provided semi-isolated habitats, and some island communities.

  4. J. A. Le Fevre

    Keeley also notes that the most revered individuals were the peace makers/keepers, not the most successful fighters.

  5. Cris Post author

    Not sure how he would know this, but if he is using ethnographic analogies his observation would be correct in some times and some places but very wrong in other times and other places. It is hard to generalize about these kinds of things.

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