Innate Cooperation

A new book by Michael Tomasello, Why We Cooperate, presents evidence that babies are born to be social and to help others. Tomasello argues that helping others is genetic, rather than learned. This is an important contribution to the “altruism” debate–why would a rational (i.e. self-interested) person expend energy helping someone else? The standard answer (of the rational choice/microeconomist paradigm) has been that helping is a social norm that emerges because, over time, helping someone else ultimately results in a gain for the helper. And once the social norm emerges, children learn it during socialization.

Tomasello’s book presents data showing that infants as young as 18 months old try to help others. For example, if they see an unrelated adult who needs help picking up a dropped object, they help right away. From the age of 12 months, if an adult pretends to have lost an object that the child can see, the child will point to the object. Eighteen or twelve months is too early for such behavior to have been learned from parents. As another piece of evidence, Tomasello reports that children don’t begin to help more after they’re rewarded for helping–which suggests it’s not influenced by training.

Tomasello also talks about research into how helping behavior evolves as children get older. When they’re three, they begin to get more selective; they’re nicer to another child who was just nice to them. And, they begin to expect other children to follow the same norms of helpfulness.

This argument seems to support the theory that helping behavior was selected for during evolution, which is consistent with the rational choice models of altruism. Regardless of the mechanism, I’m glad that we’re all this way!

9 thoughts on “Innate Cooperation

  1. I had to baby sit my 3 yr old niece. We were left alone in the house. I was playing with her when I felt I had a hard time breathing, tears were already forming in my eyes. I thought, I needed my inhaler. My niece saw me, instinct told her to look for that blue thing I always put in my mouth whenever I had asthma attack. I did not tell her to do that. She just knew. Now I know why. Thanks for this post.

    1. Wow, that is an amazing story! Impressive act by your niece. The researchers might say that, by the age of three, helpful acts may have begun to be learned from training by and informal observation of the parents, so Tomasello’s studies of 12 and 18 month olds are particularly important because that’s likely to be too early for any explanation other than genetics. And of course, if you’re born predisposed to be helpful then you can learn it from your parents much more quickly, so that by the age of three you’re ready to make a difference in someone’s life!

  2. I think altruism is far more widespread in society than is commonly realised and the (mis-) perception is probably related to the dominance of traditional economistic views of society, particularly in recent years when the market capitalist model was essentially triumphant. It’s a pity since we might well end up having a distorted view of our capabilities to rise to pressing social and environmental challenges.

    1. Yes, clearly altruism is common and that can’t be denied. The question that social scientists try to answer is “Why?” Why would anyone be altruistic if it worked against their own self interest? I don’t think anyone denies that altruism is widespread; but I suspect you would argue that one would only ask the question “Why?” if they had this economistic misperception. The “selfish gene” argument of Richard Dawkins is that we are altruistic with our kins because we share genes with them. The game theorists who analyze the “iterated prisoner’s dilemma (IPD)” have demonstrated that altruism ultimately benefits the altruist. Now we have this innateness story of Tomasello, but we still would need to explain why such a genetic behavior would have evolved in humans: it must have had some survival value. What do you think?

  3. I think it might be straightforward. The survival value in altruism is in the difference between “helping” and “sacrificing”– being helpful does not necessarily run counter to the idea of self-preservation, as long as we’re not talking about extreme circumstances. Additionally, given the socialization level of various species and maternal instincts, it’s clear that evolution worked toward preserving the species and not just the individual. To me, it’s the hard-line economistic model that doesn’t fit, especially in how it’s applied.

  4. You’re referring to the “group selection” hypothesis, that the unit of selection might not be just the individual (or the gene, in Dawkins’ famous account) but might be the group. That’s a natural explanation for altruism, but from what I understand from my evolution colleague there is not much evidence that group selection happens. But there’s no evidence it DOESN’T happen and I have recently heard that some new studies have demonstrated group selection…Personally I’d be delighted to find evidence for group selection, because it would be empirical support for my own arguments (in sociological theory) for the existence of group-level properties that are not reducible to individual properties.

    1. It would seem like biology would be that evidence. I’m not in the field, but is there an individual benefit to procreation? Seems from my very-non-expert point of view that procreation and the creation of new life and the existence of evolution are evidence of built-in group selection.

  5. I would love to believe in group selection. But with regard to procreation, what little I know is that the evolution of sex occurred because it increased the fitness of individual organisms. Why sex evolved has long been a topic of research for biologists. For most of the history of life, species did not have different sexes, organisms reproduced by splitting or whatever. So the question is why would sex itself evolve? I too am not an expert, but I believe the standard answer is that sex increases the rate of adaptation by providing more opportunities for mutation and variation.

    So then you might ask, why would anyone actually have sex with all of the energy expenditure or whatever? We do it because it feels good. But why did we evolve so that it felt good? Dawkins’ famous answer is that the unit of selection is the gene, and genes need to reproduce themselves. We are no more than the carrier of our genes. I don’t think that’s a universally held view in biology, but in any case no group selection is necessary to explain sex and procreation.

  6. Tomasello is interviewed and quoted in a great New Yorker magazine article (August 15 & 22, 2011, p. 71) about what makes human beings different from other apes, including extinct ones like the Neanderthals. Tomasello says “chimps do a lot of incredibly smart things. But the main difference we’ve seen is ‘putting our heads together.’ If you were at the zoo today, you would never have seen two chimps carry something heavy together. They don’t have this kind of collaborative project.”

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