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Survival of the ... Nicest? Check Out the Other Theory of Evolution

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  • MD Kini
    ** Survival of the ... Nicest? Check Out the Other Theory of Evolution By Eric Michael Johnson A century ago, industrialists like Andrew Carnegie believed that
    Message 1 of 1 , May 6, 2013
      Survival of the ... Nicest? Check Out the Other Theory of Evolution

      By Eric Michael Johnson

      A century ago, industrialists like Andrew Carnegie believed that Darwin’s
      theories justified an economy of vicious competition and inequality. They
      left us with an ideological legacy that says the corporate economy, in
      which wealth concentrates in the hands of a few, produces the best for
      humanity. This was always a distortion of Darwin’s ideas. His 1871 book The
      Descent of Man argued that the human species had succeeded because of
      traits like sharing and compassion. “Those communities,” he wrote, “which
      included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish
      best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Darwin was no economist,
      but wealth-sharing and cooperation have always looked more consistent with
      his observations about human survival than the elitism and hierarchy that
      dominates contemporary corporate life.

      Nearly 150 years later, modern science has verified Darwin’s early insights
      with direct implications for how we do business in our society. New
      peer-reviewed research by Michael Tomasello, an American psychologist and
      co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in
      Leipzig, Germany, has synthesized three decades of research to develop a
      comprehensive evolutionary theory of human cooperation. What can we learn
      about sharing as a result?

      Tomasello holds that there were two key steps that led to humans’ unique
      form of interdependence. The first was all about who was coming to dinner.
      Approximately two million years ago, a fledgling species known as *Homo
      habilis* emerged on the great plains of Africa. At the same time that these
      four-foot-tall, bipedal apes appeared, a period of global cooling produced
      vast, open environments. This climate change event ultimately forced our
      hominid ancestors to adapt to a new way of life or perish entirely. Since
      they lacked the ability to take down large game, like the ferocious
      carnivores of the early Pleistocene, the solution they hit upon was
      scavenging the carcasses of recently killed large mammals. The analysis of
      fossil bones from this period has revealed evidence of stone-tool cut marks
      overlaid on top of carnivore teeth marks. The precursors of modern humans
      had a habit of arriving late to the feast.

      However, this survival strategy brought an entirely new set of challenges:
      Individuals now had to coordinate their behaviors, work together, and learn
      how to share. For apes living in the dense rainforest, the search for ripe
      fruit and nuts was largely an individual activity. But on the plains, our
      ancestors needed to travel in groups to survive, and the act of scavenging
      from a single animal carcass forced proto-humans to learn to tolerate each
      other and allow each other a fair share. This resulted in a form of social
      selection that favored cooperation: “Individuals who attempted to hog all
      of the food at a scavenged carcass would be actively repelled by others,”
      writes Tomasello, “and perhaps shunned in other ways as well.”

      This evolutionary legacy can be seen in our behavior today, particularly
      among children who are too young to have been taught such notions of
      fairness. For example, in a 2011 study published in the journal Nature,
      anthropologist Katharina Hamann and her colleagues found that 3-year-old
      children share food more equitably if they gain it through cooperative
      effort rather than via individual labor or no work at all. In contrast,
      chimpanzees showed no difference in how they shared food under these
      different scenarios; they wouldn’t necessarily hoard the food individually,
      but they placed no value on cooperative efforts either. The implication,
      according to Tomasello, is that human evolution has predisposed us to work
      collaboratively and given us an intuitive sense that cooperation deserves
      equal rewards.

      The second step in Tomasello’s theory leads directly into what kinds of
      businesses and economies are more in line with human evolution. Humans
      have, of course, uniquely large population sizes—much larger than those of
      other primates. It was the human penchant for cooperation that allowed
      groups to grow in number and eventually become tribal societies.

      Humans, more than any other primate, developed psychological adaptations
      that allowed them to quickly recognize members of their own group (through
      unique behaviors, traditions, or forms of language) and develop a shared
      cultural identity in the pursuit of a common goal.

      “The result,” says Tomasello, “was a new kind of interdependence and
      group-mindedness that went well beyond the joint intentionality of
      small-scale cooperation to a kind of collective intentionality at the level
      of the entire society.”

      What does this mean for the different forms of business today? Corporate
      workplaces probably aren’t in sync with our evolutionary roots and may not
      be good for our long-term success as humans. Corporate culture imposes
      uniformity, mandated from the top down, throughout the organization. But
      the cooperative—the financial model in which a group of members owns a
      business and makes the rules about how to run it—is a modern institution
      that has much in common with the collective tribal heritage of our species.
      Worker-owned cooperatives are regionally distinct and organized around
      their constituent members. As a result, worker co-ops develop unique
      cultures that, following Tomasello’s theory, would be expected to better
      promote a shared identity among all members of the group. This shared
      identity would give rise to greater trust and collaboration without the
      need for centralized control.

      Moreover, the structure of corporations is a recipe for worker alienation
      and dissatisfaction. Humans have evolved the ability to quickly form
      collective intentionality that motivates group members to pursue a shared
      goal. “Once they have formed a joint goal,” Tomasello says, “humans are
      committed to it.” Corporations, by law, are required to maximize profits
      for their investors. The shared goal among corporate employees is not to
      benefit their own community but rather a distant population of financiers
      who have no personal connection to their lives or labor.

      However, because worker-owned cooperatives focus on maximizing value for
      their members, the cooperative is operated by and for the local community—a
      goal much more consistent with our evolutionary heritage. As Darwin
      concluded in The Descent of Man, “The more enduring social instincts
      conquer the less persistent instincts.” As worker-owned cooperatives
      continue to gain prominence around the world, we may ultimately witness the
      downfall of Carnegie’s “law of competition” and a return to the
      collaborative environments that the human species has long called home.

      *Eric Michael Johnson wrote this article for How Cooperatives Are Driving
      the New Economy<http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/how-cooperatives-are-driving-the-new-economy/how-cooperatives-are-driving-the-new-economy>,
      the Spring 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Eric is a doctoral student in the
      history of science at the University of British Columbia. His research
      examines the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics.*

      This article was published at NationofChange at:
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