Cooperation Is What Makes Us Human

…For decades [Michael] Tomasello has explored what makes humans distinctive. His conclusion? We cooperate. Many species, from ants to orcas to our primate cousins, cooperate in the wild. But Tomasello has identified a special form of cooperation. In his view, humans alone are capable of shared intentionality—they intuitively grasp what another person is thinking and act toward a common goal, as the subway rescuers did. This supremely human cognitive ability, Tomasello says, launched our species on its extraordinary trajectory. It forged language, tools, and cultures—stepping-stones to our colonization of every corner of the planet.

In his most recent research, Tomasello has begun to look at the dark side of cooperation. “We are primates, and primates compete with one another,” Tomasello says. He explains cooperation evolved on top of a deep-seated competitive drive. “In many ways, this is the human dilemma,” he says…

Tomasello began his research career at Emory University, working with apes at the Yerkes primate center. He acknowledges that chimpanzees, like humans, manage complex social lives, solve problems flexibly, and create and deploy tools. Nonetheless, “I take it as given that something is different,” he says. “Humans are doing something on a different level”…

At the Yerkes primate center, Tomasello adopted an experimental method that he would develop throughout his career: systematically comparing the cognition of great apes and young children in head-to-head tests. Since the use of language is an obvious difference between humans and chimps, he began by looking at the precursors of speech. Great apes often communicate with gestures. Babies point before they talk. Presumably our hominid ancestors also gesticulated before they developed language. So Tomasello focused on pointing, devising dozens of studies to explore how and when chimps and children point.

He found a major difference between the two species. By the time a baby begins to point, at about nine months of age, she has already made several sophisticated cognitive leaps. When she points at a puppy and looks at you, she knows that her perspective may be different from yours (you haven’t noticed the pup), and she wants to share her information—doggie!—with you…

h/t Evolving Economics

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