Altruism Made Us Human

Contrary to some theorists, humans don’t do each other favors just to get them in return

Douglas Rushkoff
Dec 11, 2019 · 2 min read
Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Thanks to organic social mechanisms, humans became capable of pair bonding, food sharing, and even collective childcare.

Our survivability increased as we learned how to orchestrate simple divisions of labor, and trusted one another enough to carry them out.

The more spectacular achievement was not the division of labor but the development of group sharing. This distinguished true humans from other hominids: We waited to eat until we got the bounty back home. Humans are defined not by our superior hunting ability so much as by our capacity to communicate, trust, and share.

Biologists and economists alike have long rejected social or moral justifications for this sort of behavior. They chalk it up instead to what they call “reciprocal altruism.” One person does a nice thing for another person in the hope of getting something back in the future. You take a risk to rescue someone else’s child from a dangerous predator because you trust the other parent to do the same for your kid. In this view, people aren’t so nice at all; they’re just acting on their own behalf in a more complicated way.

But contemporary research strongly supports more generous motives in altruism, which have nothing to do with self-interest. Early humans had a strong disposition to cooperate with one another, at great personal cost, even when there could be no expectation of payback in the future. Members of a group who violated the norms of cooperation were punished. Solidarity and community were prized in their own right.

Evolution’s crowning achievement, in this respect, was the emergence of spoken language. It was a dangerous adaptation that involved crossing the airway with the foodway, making us vulnerable to choking. But it also gave us the ability to modify the sounds that came from our vocal folds and make the variety of mouth noises required for language.

While language may have been driven by the need for larger, more complicated social structures, think of the immense collaborative act that developing a language required from its speakers. That multigenerational exercise alone would change the fabric of society and its faith in a cooperative enterprise.

This is section 12 of the new book Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff, which is being serialized weekly on Medium. Read the previous section here and the following section here.

From Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff. Copyright © 2019 by Douglas Rushkoff. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Douglas Rushkoff

Written by

Author of Team Human, Present Shock, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast

Team Human

Team Human is a manifesto — a fiery distillation of preeminent digital theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s most urgent thoughts on civilization and human nature.

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