Tuesday, February 18, 2020

We Are The Cooperative Animal

Two-year-olds might come to school for the toys or for Teacher Tom, but by the time they're four or five, most kids come to school to play with the other kids.

Humans are the most cooperative of all animals even if it sometimes doesn't seem like it. We're in awe of a bee hive, for instance, as we observe these mere insects managing their bee society, but humans are so adept at cooperating that we don't have to see, know, or even like one another in order to, say, send an overnight package from Seattle to Saigon, a process that involves thousands of humans working together to make it happen. While other animals certainly cooperate with one another, humans cooperate on a massive, even global scale.

As Yuval Noah Harari illustrates in his book Sapiens, our species has managed to leap frog normal evolutionary timelines through our development of language and the capacity to engage in counterfactual thinking (the ability to imagine something that doesn't exist) both individually and collectively. By all rights, we should be middle-of-the-food-chain apes, but by working together, creating a world in which we are instead apex predators, we have surpassed lions and sharks in a shockingly short time in evolutionary terms. As a result, we find ourselves at the top of the food chain, but without the bold fearlessness of animals that got that way via old fashioned biological evolution. There's a part of us that remains a nervous, always on the look out, eat or be eaten ape.

All mammals, at least to a degree, are social animals, of course. Dogs and cats for instance are so skilled that their abilities cross species lines as they become members of our otherwise human families. Birds do it too. People who have reptiles as pets report the same thing. The need for social skills is so common across the animal kingdom that it's tempting to think it comes naturally, but anyone who has tried to foster a dog that has been abused or kept in isolation without the opportunity to interact normally with other beings understands that they will be deficient in the social skills necessary to connect and cooperate, and will therefore struggle to become a member of any "pack."

Scientists tell us that we are born with our potential to cooperate, but that potential must be activated, and it is activated through play. "The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain," says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. These changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood allow humans to develop their executive functions, which are essential to regulating emotions, planning ahead, and problem solving, the building blocks of those all-important social skills. Washington State University researcher Jaak Panksepp says, "The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways."

Time and time again, we find that those who succeed in life -- and by that I mean real success as measured by things like enjoying good relationships with family and friends, having engaging, meaningful work to do in the world, and feeling overall satisfaction in life -- are those who possess the strongest social skills: the ability to connect with others, to work well with them, to negotiate and agree, and to cooperate. This kind of success has never been connected with having the highest grades, doing the most homework, or passing all the tests. Indeed, even if success is defined simply by the ability to make a lot of money, the social abilities that are activated by play are essential because, after all, our entire economic system is based upon our incredible human ability to cooperate.

As I watch children play, as they wrestle, bicker, and agree, they are doing the work of humanity. For better or worse, we are the cooperative animal. It is this ability to cooperate that has brought us all that is good about humans and all that is bad. For every instance of coming together to feed the hungry, for instance, there is a counter instance of humans cooperating to commit genocide. We have worked together to end deadly diseases only to turn around and work together to massively pollute the planet. This instinctive capacity to cooperate is where both the light and dark in us reside: our demise and our salvation.

Children instinctively come together to play with one another, to activate the connections between their neurons, to develop the skills that will allow them to be full participants in the journey of humanity. As important adults in the lives of children, our job is to create a free, safe enough, and lovely environment in which they can develop these essential skills. But it is all for nought if we don't also strive, every day, to role model the change we want to see in the world, because that's the way we "teach" them how to use these incredible cooperative super powers to create light instead of darkness.

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