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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.

Is Cooperation Natural or Learned?

Tomasello found that by the time human babies begin to point at things, at about nine months of age, they have already made several sophisticated cognitive leaps. Firstly, when they point at a puppy, they know that the perspective of their parents may be different from their own (their parents may not yet see the puppy), and, secondly, they want to share their experience with them. Pointing is an attempt to draw the attention of their parents, and it's also a request for a joint experience: they want their parents to look at the puppy with them.

In other experiments, Tomasello demonstrates that children as young as 12 months have no trouble understanding an adult pointing to a hidden reward because they recognize that the pointing is done for their benefit. To understand pointing, Tomasello speculates, one must form a “we intention,” a shared goal that two or more individuals undertake together. Humans are especially gifted in making shared intentions.  Young children work together and consider cooperation to be a reward in its own. When adults deliberately drop objects in Tomasello’s experiments, babies of 14 months will crawl over to pick them up and hand them back. Toddlers will also open doors for experimenters whose hands are full. They do so without being asked or rewarded. If someone is having trouble, they stop to help, and they share.

Cooperation and Game Theory

Game theory models, which forecast how people behave when their interests are in conflict, suggest that rational actors accused of a crime will defect and attempt to pin the crime on their partners. Yet, there are many situations in which people voluntarily chose to cooperate even with the threat of imprisonment.  A 2005 anthropological study of 15 societies, mostly traditional small-scale communities scattered around the globe who exhibited a wide variety of economic and cultural conditions, demonstrated that the predisposition for cooperation is potentially universal.  The researchers studied the behavior of these communities in Ultimatum, Public Goods, and Dictator Games and found that the established model of pure self-interest failed in all of the societies. They also found that group-level differences in economic organization and the structure of social interactions explain a substantial portion of the behavioral variation across societies: the higher the degree of market integration and the higher the payoffs to cooperation in everyday life, the greater the level of prosocial behavior expressed in experimental games.

Approaching game theory from another perspective, Simon D. Angus and Jonathan Newton model the evolution of the ability to undertake jointly intentional behaviour and show that this ability most likely evolved at a time when technological and cultural progress offered particularly high benefits to survival, such as during a period of significant environmental change.  In such a context, those groups that have the ability to cooperate and therefore innovate will prevail over those who cannot cooperate.  Here, cooperation and competition simultaneously shape human interaction.

The Emergence of Shared Intentions & the Advance of Cumulative Culture

The human dilemma
The science of cooperation acknowledges that humans still compete.  Wars still happen, economic markets still fluctuate, and some people still lose out.  Cooperation evolved on top of and in conjunction with our inherent competitive drive. This is the human dilemma: our minds are the product of competitive intelligence and cooperative insight, and our behavior blends friendly cooperation and competitive hostility.
From May 23-24, 2016, hundreds of world leaders will meet in Istanbul for the opening of the first World Humanitarian Summit, organized by the United Nations. They are gathering in response to social scientists and humanitarian workers who claim that 130 million people - more than ever before - need humanitarian aid worldwide and around 60 million people per year are being displaced by conflict. Our competitive spirit has, unfortunately, created the dire situation facing those in need of humanitarian support. The Summit has been criticized by some aid groups as little more than show. And while it is right to push world leaders to walk the walk (so to speak), it is nonetheless remarkable that so many world leaders are gathered to cooperate for the benefit of others. 

Yes, power and politics are at play, but I hope that, in the end, what stands out is our capacity for generosity and team work— key aspects of what it means to be human.

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