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Selfish Apes,
The origins of human cooperation

If someone asked you, “What At the intersection of evolutionary

distinguishes humans from anthropology, psychology, and biology,
their nearest primitive relatives- this groundbreaking research has large
-apes?” you might be drawn to one of implications concerning what it means to be
the following distinctions: in comparison human.
to humans, apes are quadrupedal, they are
hairier, and they have shorter legs. Aside It’s Mine, It’s Mine
from these physical differences, recent Tomasello focused his research on three
research has found key differences in the sets of processes involved in collaboration:
basic behaviors of the two species. coordination and communication, tolerance
and trust, and norms and institutions.
Last October, Dr. Michael Tomasello, In humans he studied collaborative
developmental psychologist and Co- activities in which there were joint goals,
Director of the Max Planck Institute for mutual knowledge, and inter-dependent,
Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, coordinated roles. He and his colleagues
Germany, delivered a lecture entitled also studied large amounts of video footage
“Phylogenetic Origins of Human comparing the behaviors of young children
Collaboration” at Stanford as part of the and apes in potentially collaborative
Tanner Lectures on Human Values, a multi- activities in order to determine whether
university lecture series in the humanities. apes cooperate in the same way as humans
Tomasello found that while humans are do.
altruistic and subscribe to institutionalized
norms that support cooperation, apes do Tomasello presented a video from a study
not. Although apes appear to work in groups by Warneken et al. in which a ping-pong
just as humans do, they are mutualistic ball was thrown down a tube from an adult
rather than altruistic—individual apes will to a young child. When the ping-pong ball
work with others to benefit themselves was dropped by the adult, the child went
individually rather than due to some out of the way to put the ball back in the
inherent concern for the wellbeing of other hand of the adult. The child also displayed
apes. immediate role reversal, leaving his side of


“We believe that whereas apes understand

that what the other is doing as an individual
agent, they have neither the intentions nor
motivations to form with others joint goals” –
Michael Tomasello
the tube to become part of the process of nor motivations to form with others
pushing the ball down the tube instead of joint goals,” claims Tomasello. From his
receiving it. The child took great joy in the research, Tomasello concludes that apes
collaboration and recognized that there was do not possess “shared intentionality,”
a joint goal in this activity: both the child the motivation to participate with others.
and the adult were trying to play the game. Part of this difference is explained by the
idea that humans do not live in a solely
When Warneken et al. conducted this same physical world like apes, but rather, in an
experiment on a human-raised ape named institutionalized world. Tomasello found
Annette, she would pick up the ball but that humans undergo distinct psychological
then would continue to play with it. She just processes, which have enabled us to
started rolling around without the ball and build this institutionalized world, but he
did not collaborate. Tomasello reasons that it also acknowledges that these underlying
was not because the activity was cognitively psychological processes are “far from
difficult, but rather, because the chimp understood.”
simply regarded the activity as a game and
was not interested in the collaboration. Tomasello explains the division of labor
with joint goals by reasoning that human
Another study involved two individuals infants understand activities from a bird’s
working together to retrieve food from eye view with the overarching goals in mind.
a chamber; to obtain the food, they had In contrast, apes do not understand role
to pull on two sticks supporting a bar reversal as they do not cognitively take into
on which the food was placed inside the account the entire system of tasks being
chamber. Children would help each other done. To explain this difference, one study
retrieve the food even if it was placed correlated the size of the sclera, the white
closer to one child, while chimps would envelope of the eye, to the joint nature of
not help each other or share unless the the activity. The human sclera is much larger
food was placed directly between them. than that of apes. Whereas chimpanzees
Tomasello reasons that in order to explain follow each other’s head directions to the
this difference evolutionarily, there had to determine the general directions in which
have been an initial divergence from this they are gazing, human infants rely more on
pattern of low food sharing and no food eye direction, suggesting that they may be
offering. These experiments suggest that more specifically in tune with each other’s
humans are tolerant of each other, consider joint goals and the division of labor.
others trustworthy and engage in obligate
cooperation. In order to connect these suppositions on
collaboration with his generalized finding
Other videos in the experiment focus that humans possess a special type of
on studying early child development to “cultural intelligence,” Tomasello studied the
examine the social norms that impacted this responses of the two species in different
collaborative behavior. interactive scenarios. By comparing the
proportion of correct responses versus
Exploring Cultural incorrect responses in each scenario, he

Intelligence could determine those domains wherein

apes and humans share the greatest
“We believe that whereas apes understand Credit:
correlation. His findings show that
that what the other is doing as an individual
chimpanzees have fewer correct responses
agent, they have neither the intentions

volume VIII 45

While altruism is an important human

characteristic, it is not the main factor
determining how humans operate together.
in social and cultural scenarios, but that Tomasello says, “I believe that what
the groups are roughly equal for physical is happening is the following: the
scenarios. chimpanzees are actually finding optimal
positions from which to hunt and the prey
Distinguishing the ends up being surrounded.” He explains

Human Way of Life that they are engaged in a group activity

in “I” mode, not “we” mode as humans
While altruism is an important human
are. Because collaboration establishes
characteristic, Tomasello asserts that it
institutionalized norms in humans but does
is not the main factor determining how
not exist for chimps, it explains, in part,
humans operate together. Collaboration, on
why the human way of life is so much more
the other hand, has played a major role on
complex than that of chimps.
shaping many modern cultural institutions.
Overall, Tomasello reasons that collaborative
Consider people standing in line at a
activities that involve mutual knowledge,
store. Humans understand shopping and
conformism, and symbolism have helped
are aware of the rights and obligations
create our institutional culture. Thus, while
that exist within the store: objects are
apes and humans possess almost identical
private property, money is a trusted form
intelligences in regards to space, quantities,
of exchanged value, and standing in line
and causalities, chimpanzees show less
is the proper way to wait one’s turn. In
cultural and social intelligence, explaining
comparison, chimpanzees obtain their food
the differences in collaboration, role reversal,
through foraging, and they do not follow
and institutionalized norms.
these institutionalized procedures.

Tomasello cites a study on what is known

to be one of the most complex activities of Collaboration, on
chimpanzees—hunting in the Ivory Coast—
to contrast the potentially collaborative
the other hand, has
activities in which chimps do engage. In
this scenario, there is one
played a major role
driver chimpanzee on shaping many
that chases the prey in
a certain direction while others modern cultural
block the prey on the sides from changing
directions. Although this might seem to institutions.
indicate collaboration, Tomasello questions
whether this vocabulary is appropriate. Are
the chimps really collaborating, or is this To Learn More
simply an example of humans imposing the For a list of upcoming events in ethics and
norms with which we are familiar on our society visit http://ethicsinsociety.stanford.
nearest phylogenetic relatives?