How Natural Selection Actually Selected

Central to this book, we have proposed that being able to base one's behavior on the future rather than the past would be highly adaptive. Hence any evolutionary progress in mental capacity to better predict the future and adjust behavior accordingly would confer a big advantage in natural selection. In the simplest terms, creatures who acted on the basis of the past would not survive and reproduce as well as creatures who could base their actions on the future.

One can develop this argument in purely individual terms. An animal that can adjust its actions based on reasonably accurate expectancies would have an advantage over rivals whose actions were driven by the past. Over time, across a species, animals with better forecasting and prospecting abilities would survive and reproduce better than ones who were terrible at those tasks.

But perhaps that simple analysis misses a key dimension. Yes, predicting the future benefits and individual contingencies would be useful and adaptive. Human beings, however, work together. The evolutionary benefits of prospecting may come not just from solitary forecasts but also from group planning and committing.

After all, what pushed humankind to become able to rule over all other animals? It was not the prowess of individuals. A single human being is no match for a lion, tiger, bear, or any other large hunting animal. But groups of humans worked together to take over the world. To do that, they needed more than a capability of an individual brain to imagine and plan the future. They needed to do that together.

Most likely, we think, natural selection favored humans who could participate in families and other small groups that prospected together. They could make group plans and follow them. To do this, they needed not only to be able to project what could happen in the future but also to communicate those ideas to others, who could understand them. Members of the group might argue about which plan should be followed. To do that, they needed to share an understanding not just of the various possible sequences of future events but also of some criteria for favoring one plan over the alternatives.

Humans seem to approach strangers with an attitude of being wary but hoping to establish a relationship. For example, thousands of hours of research with the prisoner's dilemma game (based on a choice of whether to go for oneself or take a risk by cooperating with another person) have established that the most effective strategy is to start off cooperating but then reciprocate based on what the other person does (Axelrod, 1980; Axelrod & Hamilton, 1981). The initial cooperation shows the openness and it is necessary to make possible the establishment of a relationship.

Relationships benefit both parties in long run, but in the short run, there is advantage to be gotten from betraying trust, so you have to watch out for whether the other person might succumb to these temptations. The first or default plan when you meet someone is to form a cooperative relationship with that person (e.g., Rand, Greene, & Nowak, 2012; see also Dunning, Anderson, Schlosser, Ehlebracht, & Fetchenhauer, 2014). That can be quickly set aside if there is anything negative about him or her. One acts in the present based on what one thinks the future will hold.

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