The cooperative ape

Its an easy thing to forget when the media is fanatical about telling us how people are always being nasty to each other, but humans are actually a very cooperative species. We work together to achieve things we could not alone, and have done for millions of years.

In fact, much of this niceness is not even directed at relatives, an obvious way that natural selection would favour this behaviour. We are regularly nice to people we may never see again (holding the door for strangers), or to those who could not help us (giving charities lose change), which seems odd.

“gee thanks mister”


Recently Victoria Lee brought to my attention a study about how people help others in supermarket checkout queues. Simply, when shoppers have lots of items they were more likely to let a stranger with a single item skip ahead of them in the queue, saving this person waiting time but increasing their own. This effect was weaker if the stranger was carrying beer rather than water, perhaps as they appear less wholesome. More info here, and here. This just shows we have this tendency to be cooperative


My favourite example of this is Wikipedia. You all know it, have used it to look something up down the pub and are doubtful of its accuracy. Yet, quite impressively, various studies find its accuracy level nearly as good or as good as other, more prestigious sources (e.g. this, and this). Yet this is something that is compiled, for free, by the general public. When they feel like it. With no offered reward nor tangible benefit to them. And I think that’s beautiful.


Essentially, we threw opened the doors to the internet using section of humanity, without restriction and declared “What shall we tell people?”. Overwhelming the answer appears to be “The Truth!”. It in fact brings us incredibly close to the barmy sounding travel guide “The Hitchhker’s Guide to the Galaxy” with its knowledge of all lands and all things. That seemed mad when I first read the book as a child, but now we pretty much have it whenever we can access the internet!

Bet you could 3D-pint this cover…

At a stroke that is a wonderful example of the general tendency of humans to be cooperative, to be nice to each other, and for doing things for the sake of doing them well. And that makes me very happy indeed.


So happy I might even donate to Wikipedia. Because it would be a great shame for this wonderful monument to human cooperation to fail because the people it was benefiting didn’t really appreciate it.

Got that Friday feeling yet?

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