Book Review from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
Why We Cooperate. By Michael Tomasello: MIT Press
Young children are cooperative and helpful. At the age of eighteen months, almost all children will try to help an adult they have just met, for instance by opening a cupboard door if the adult’s hands are full. This is one of the findings from experimental studies carried out with colleagues that Tomasello, a psychologist, reports in this short but informative volume.
Before they can be helpful like this, a child has to be able to perceive what another person wants to do, and to have the altruistic motive to help. Assisting others in this way seems to emerge naturally, before children have been trained by parents to behave in this manner. Moreover, concrete rewards undermine this helping, rather than stimulating it.
Helping is only one of three kinds of altruistic behaviour. The second is informing others by providing and sharing information, which children do naturally at twelve months (lying comes much later, and assumes pre-existing trust and cooperation). The third kind is sharing goods such as food, which again young children do in a reasonably generous way. Children are far more cooperative than chimpanzees, who do try to help humans in experimental situations but are less keen to share food or to inform fellow chimps.
From the age of around three years, children become more discerning in their altruism. For instance, they may share more with someone who was previously nice to them, or are more helpful to those who help others. The eventual outcome will be mutualism, where we all benefit from working together towards a common goal. Underlying this is a sense of ‘we’, a sense which is uniquely human.
If our closest primate relatives, then, do not cooperate to anything like the extent that humans do, the question arises as to how and why this cooperativeness arose. Answers here must be less definitive, but Tomasello sees cooperative foraging for food as playing an essential role in making us, in his terminology, ‘obligate collaborators’.
So in answer to claims that it is ‘human nature’ to be competitive, just say that no, we are by nature cooperative beings.