ONE What Do Capuchin Monkeys Tell Us about Cooperation?

Sarah F. Brqsnan

Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but working together with one’s group mates can be an efficient way to increase fitness. Cooperation is common, for example, among capuchin monkeys. These monkeys are not only willing to help others obtain resources, but are more likely to share with individuals who help them. Cooperation can be risky, however, and not surprisingly capuchins are much less likely to cooperate when a partner is able to monopolize the reward. However, they also pay attention to the partner’s behavior; monkeys that share with their partners promote successful cooperation, and thus actually receive more benefits over the long term than those who always claim the best rewards for themselves. The ability to recognize inequity may be a mechanism by which the monkeys determine which partners are the best collaborators. The study of capuchin monkeys can tell us quite a lot about how, when, and with whom to cooperate, perhaps providing insight into the design and implementation of our own human cooperative institutions.

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Human beings are not the only animals that act as if they are mindful of the needs of others. Although often the focus is on those qualities that supposedly set humans apart from the rest of the animals, many organisms, including both human and nonhuman primates, act in ways that seem to serve “the greater good.” From sounding the alarm when a predator is sighted to sharing food with another who has none, many socially oriented animals—humans included—contribute to others’ welfare. While the mechanisms leading to these behaviors undoubtedly differ across species, the outcome remains the same; one individual is benefitted by the actions of another. By studying the nature of such cooperative and prosocial behaviors in primates, researchers can provide an enhanced understanding of their evolutionary function. This chapter considers the many ways that contributing to collective outcomes can enhance the fitness of the individual, and how difficult cooperation can be to maintain.

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