Earning Trust

The ability to project forward into the future may have been crucial for the development of the kinds of social relationships that constitute human society. This section builds on the idea that humans evolved to create culture.

Cooperation and competition are two basic ways that creatures can relate to each other. They are not on a par, however. Competition is much older and more fundamental, in evolutionary terms. It was the emergence of cooperation that may have depended on becoming able to forecast the future.

In A Natural History of Human Thinking, Tomasello (2014) pointed out that most of the great apes have very sophisticated, effective minds for dealing with competition, but not for cooperation. Nonhuman apes understand competition instinctively and become highly skilled at anticipating what rivals are doing. The idea that strangers might want to cooperate with them, however, does not come naturally. That is the human innovation.

Cooperation, however, requires considerably more mental competence than competition. Prospection is also needed.

Because hunting is an important source of food and presumably something that both humans and other primates engaged in, consider competitive versus cooperative hunting. In a competitive mindset, hunters see each other as rivals seeking the same prey. That makes group hunting a bit more complicated than solitary hunting, but not by much. Other hunters represent simply one more way that one's hunt can be thwarted.

Cooperative hunting requires considerably more in the way of mental processing and social competence. Cooperative hunters understand that they are working together, performing different roles to produce a joint result. Presumably they must understand that this leads to sharing the prey.

Tomasello (2014; Tomasello & Call, 1997) points out that nonhuman primates do engage in group hunts, yet each ape or chimp is really out for him- or herself. Primates participate in the group hunt because doing so presents them with opportunities for individual gain, not because the hunters make a pact to perform complementary roles and then share the proceeds. There is no pact and no real sharing, although when one makes a kill, the others do come over to help themselves by grabbing what they can.

Something like cooperation can emerge from purely selfish, competitive creatures. Tomasello (2014) gives the example of what happens when a group of chimps spots a monkey and give chase, hoping to catch and eat it. If the monkey runs up a tree, the chimp closest will go after it. A chimp at the far end of the group knows it will not be the first one to reach the monkey, so there is no point in trying. Instead, it might block off a possible escape route. Human groups may do this, so that all escapes are blocked, but that is based on an agreement to share the prey, regardless of who makes the kill. The chimp guarding the escape route has no such guarantee. If the monkey comes its way, it will kill it and start eating the best parts as fast as it can. If the monkey doesn't come near, the chimp has no claim, but it can make its way over to where another member has killed the monkey and try to grab a few bites.

When early human ancestors began to develop cooperation, it proved much more effective than the pseudo-cooperation of the chimp group hunt. Cooperation, however, involves risk and vulnerability. If you agree to stand guard to block off a possible escape route and the prey does not come your way, you have still contributed to the success of the hunt, and presumably the others have agreed to share the meat regardless of who makes the kill. The hunter who does make the kill might not share, in which case your standing guard was a fool's errand (despite its contribution to making the kill). You performed a role in the system based on trust that the rewards would be shared, and others betrayed your trust.

Trust is an important foundation of cooperation in particular and culture in general. Trust is inherently prospective: It is about the future. Trust is a matter of expecting that someone will at some point in the future do what is good for you rather than what might bring that person some benefit or advantage then. Trust is an expectation. The development of trust as a moral foundation of human culture likely depended on the ability to think about the future, usually far beyond the next 5 or 10 minutes.

The chimps can perform their quasi-cooperative roles without any agreements or expectations. As Tomasello (2014) explains, each one is simply out for itself, even though that leads some to play complementary roles. But an agreement to share the spoils—common among human groups, but absent in all other primates—invokes a shared understanding of the future, indeed of an event that is not yet in sight. Blocking an escape route can be improvised on spur of the moment, as the chimp sizes up its own best chances for catching the monkey given that others are already in hot pursuit. In contrast, agreeing to share the spoils at the end of the hunt is something that presumably happens before the hunt starts, thus requiring more prospection.

And cooperation may push for even longer time frames. As Tomasello (2014) explains, if the group flourishes by means of cooperation (as early human groups presumably did), then each person's success depends partly on inducing others to cooperate. You have to worry about whether others will want to cooperate with you, not just today but in the long run into the indefinite future.

Consider the group hunt from the perspective of the successful individual. Among the chimps, there is no question what to do. The one who made the kill is the fortunate one and so eats as much as it can, before the others arrive to dig in. There is no thought of waiting till all are present and then sharing the food equally, like a suburban family meeting to enjoy dinner together.

In a cooperative human hunt, if you made the kill, you would have reached some kind of understanding with the other hunters that sharing is expected. You would likely be tempted to break that agreement. After all, you would be hungry, and the food would be in your possession. What's to restrain you? Why wouldn't you eat all you can and leave the others to fend for themselves?

The drawback of that selfish strategy is that others will soon stop cooperating with you. Betraying trust brings an immediate gain but carries significant long-term costs. If you alienate all potential cooperators by such acts, you may end up losing the benefits of cooperation, and that loss could prove fatal. (Remember that early hunter-gatherers did not have the luxury of the modern city dweller, with thousands of other people nearby, so that any lost cooperator can be replaced with an endless stream of others. Early humans lived in small, stable groups, so it was vital to stay on good terms with most members of the group.)

In short, cooperators have to worry about their reputations in ways that competitors do not. Cooperation greatly improved the effectiveness of human groups, but living in a cooperative environment enhances the importance of prospection. One's reputation as a trustworthy partner is sustained by resisting the temptations to do the selfish act of betraying others for one's own immediate advantage. The here-and-now benefits of betrayal must be resisted for the sake of one's future attractiveness to other potential cooperators.

Reputation extends the self into the future. Roberts (2002) concluded that hardly any animals are capable of thinking more than a few minutes ahead. But a reputation is something that extends days, months, even years into the future. The emergence of the self as a moral agent probably required a mental capability for imagining the future and adjusting current behavior on that basis. The chimp hunter who captures the prey commences to devour all it can, as fast as it can. The human hunter waits to eat until the others have arrived and the food can be shared, as agreed. Waiting is costly and would reduce your own consumption for the moment, but you would do this based on anticipating that on other occasions, when other members of the group make the kill, they would wait and share with you.

Thus, human social life was able to take off in new, highly profitable directions because of prospection. Being able to understand how others will treat you in the future based on how you behave right now was extremely helpful, if not indispensable, for the evolutionary emergence of human cooperation.

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