In a new book featured in the article “Humans Naturally Cooperative, Altruistic, Social”, Robert Sussman, Ph.D. and C. Robert Cloninger, MD claim that humans and other primates are inherently altruistic and that cooperation serves its own purposes, unrelated to competition. Their claim, while intriguing and attractive to most peace loving people, should incite great discussion and debate, and needs to be scrutinized carefully. Scrutiny is not something reserved for claims that we don’t agree with, but rather, needs to be the standard for all scientific claims.

In this case, the authors are making a claim that flies in the face of much of what we understand about human and non-human primate behavior and evolutionary theory. Altruism is a difficult concept to quantify in human populations, let alone non-human animals. I will mention altruism below, but first, I will focus on cooperation.

Cooperation is an important behavior in many social species, however, it is not as common as many believe. In the world of behavioral studies cooperation requires that two or more individuals act together to accomplish a task or goal, the result of which is that both gain more than they would have by acting alone. Female lions appear to cooperate when hunting, because they work together to bring down prey and are more successful hunting in prides than alone. Similarly, male chimpanzees cooperate to defend territories through group boundary patrols, the result of which is males being more successful than if they were to patrol alone [a behavior that could get them killed].

In the case of humans, cooperation is commonplace. On that point the authors and I agree on what the data indicate. We see cooperation in everything from communal farming and child-rearing, to modern day warfare, to baseball and other competitive sports. Humans are excellent cooperators, especially when compared to other animals. Through language, loyalty and a reliance on each other, we have become supreme cooperators.

The point where the authors and I diverge is in the conclusions we draw from the data. According to Sussman and Cloninger cooperation exists for its own sake, and is natural for humans and other primates. They claim that cooperation is not a by-product of competition, but rather that animals cooperate for cooperation’s sake. This largely ignores a wealth of data showing that cooperation is a strategy adopted by animals, including humans, that allows the cooperators to more effectively exploit their respective ecological niches and survive and reproduce at higher rates, than would otherwise be possible. In other words, cooperation allows individuals to more successfully compete for resources.

One of the difficulties in testing this idea in humans is that humans everywhere cooperate, a lot, and it’s hard to run an experiment where the subjects don’t cooperate. This supports the first position of Sussman and Cloninger, humans appear to “naturally” cooperate. This is nothing new, or surprising.

We have seen humans cooperating over the course of history, so many times that it doesn’t even make sense to cite individual cases. We have also seen that in those cases both parties, invariably, benefit from their cooperative actions. If both parties benefit, the behavior is seen as mutualistic and there is no need to invoke any special level of selection for the behavior. However, if those behaviors are one-sided in nature, resulting in the recipient receiving a benefit, while the provider suffers a cost, they are altruistic and need further explanation.

Almost fifty years ago Hamilton provided one possible explanation for seemingly altruistic behaviors, by pointing out that if genetic relatives live together in social groups, they should act preferentially toward one another. Kin selection has been supported in populations ranging from sickle-back fish, to ground squirrels to humans [think of the Bush and Kennedy political dynasties in the US] and has been recognized as an important factor in evolution.

Nearly forty years ago, Robert Trivers gave us one explanation for what appear to be one-sided cooperative behaviors, or altruism, reported for people worldwide. He introduced the term reciprocal altruism, which applies to both humans and non-humans, and states that if animals [including humans] have long-term social interactions that allow them to receive reciprocation of a cooperative or altruistic behavior consistently enough, they should be willing to cooperate, even if an immediate payoff is not obvious. His hypothesis has been supported over and over in numerous animal and human studies [think of political contributions by big oil].

While these two hypotheses explain much of the altruistic behaviors we see in the natural world, they do not explain them all. We still don’t know everything about altruism or altruistic behaviors, including the biochemical and psychological benefits received by the individuals providing the seemingly altruistic behaviors. One clue may be the fact that hardly anyone, anywhere feels bad when they do something for someone else. Instead, people everywhere appear to get a chemical rush out of acting cooperative and altruistic – it makes them happy. This may give an indication of the importance of those behaviors in our evolutionary past. It may be that it was so important for our ancestors to cooperate, even when their chances of immediate payoff were low, that selection favored those individuals who acted cooperatively, and they were inspired to do so because it felt good. This is somewhat like the reason that sex feels good. The short answer is: because in the evolutionary past, those who had more sex had more offspring, and those who got an immediate payoff through feeling good had more sex.

While intriguing, Sussman and Cloninger’s new book is really one of philosophy, not scientific inquiry. Their philosophy appears to be that resources are not limited, and that all organisms everywhere, do not have to compete for those resources. Much like the current rhetoric coming from one side of the debates over the economic crisis, they seem to think that resources are unlimited and that there need not be competition for those resources. This is the position one is led to if they carry out the two separate logics of: “I want everyone in America to be rich.” (Mitt Romney, 2011) and “Cooperation isn’t just a byproduct of competition, or something done only because both parties receive some benefit from the partnership, rather, altruism and cooperation are inherent in primates, including humans.” (Sussman, 2011).

Neither position is tenable if the once agreed upon fact of limited resources is recognized. For his part, Romney was pandering to the pressures exerted by the public and media over a position of not taxing corporations and wealthy individuals to shore up our economic woes. Sussman’s position, on the other hand stems from what appears to be a philosophical divide. Competition is one of the central tenets of evolutionary theory. Resources are limited for every population of animals throughout the world, resulting in competition for those resources. It is through competition that individuals are selected upon by natural forces and potential mates for their differing characteristics or traits.

It follows that it is only because they have to compete for resources that animals, including humans, cooperate and act altruistically.

I think a far more interesting question at this point, is when and why did cooperation become so intrinsically embedded in what we do as a species?