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The things we do: What the World Humanitarian Summit says about human nature

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Discussions of who mankind is usually begin with stories of small bands of hunter-gatherers roaming the savannah and struggling for survival under the African sun, of great feats of strength at the Olympics, or of monumental hurdles overcome to land on the moon.  They do not usually start like this: hundreds gather in a Mediterranean city to schmooze and discuss the fate of millions of others.  But this event is a quintessential story of who we are as human beings.  The World Humanitarian Summit demonstrates the very human characteristics of cooperation and competition.

Michael Tomasello, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and author of Why We Cooperate, has explored the distinctiveness of human nature for decades.  He and his colleagues suggest that one of the defining characteristics of humans is that we cooperate.  Many species, from ants to dolphins and primates, cooperate in the wild, but Tomasello has identified a special form of cooperation that is truly human. In his view, humans alone are capable of shared intentionality—the ability to intuitively understand what another person is thinking and act toward a common goal.