Sunday, May 23, 2021

Large-scale cooperation in ancient fission-fusion societies

Robert Boyd, Peter J. Richardson, Large-scale cooperation in small-scale foraging societies, preprint:

Abstract: We present evidence that people in small-scale, mobile hunter-gatherer societies cooperated in large numbers to produce collective goods. Foragers engaged in large-scale communal hunts, constructed shared capital facilities; they made shared investments in improving the local environment; and they participated in warfare, alliance, and trade. Large-scale collective action often played a crucial role in subsistence. The provision of public goods involved the cooperation of many individuals, so each person made only a small contribution. This evidence suggests that large-scale cooperation occurred in the Pleistocene societies that encompass most of human evolutionary history, and therefore it is unlikely that large-scale cooperation in Holocene food producing societies results from an evolved psychology shaped only in small group interactions. Instead, large scale human cooperation needs to be explained as an adaptation, likely rooted in the distinctive features of human biology, grammatical language, increased cognitive ability, and cumulative cultural adaptation.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

I've written several posts that speak to this:

Two of those are based on my reading of Mark Moffett's The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall, Basic Books, 2019. Of particular interest is his discussion of fission-fusion societies, societies that temporarily band together (for a hunt, for a season) to accomplish big(er) things, and then disperse into smaller bands. Moffett, who studied under E.O. Wilson, takes a cross-species look at cooperation. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in the limits of society. I've collected my thoughts about the book in this working paper:  

Reading Mark Moffett's The Human Swarm,

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