If Humans Evolved to Cooperate, Why Is Cooperation So Hard?

Interview by Jill Suttie: “Humans have a long history of cooperating together, which has helped us survive and thrive for hundreds of thousands of years in places around the world. But we don’t always cooperate well, even when doing so could help us overcome a worldwide pandemic or solve our climate crisis. The question is why?

In Nichola Raihani’s new book, The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World, we find some answers to this question. Raihani, a professor of evolution and behavior at University College London, provides an in-depth treatise on how cooperation evolved, noting its benefits as well as its downsides in human and non-human social groups. By taking a deeper dive into what it means to cooperate, she hopes to illuminate how cooperation can help us solve collective problems, while encouraging some humility in us along the way.

Greater Good spoke to Raihani about her book. Below is an edited version of our conversation….

JS: Are you optimistic about us being able to cooperate to solve big world problems?

NR: I feel we definitely can; it’s not out of the realm of possibility. But having watched how the response to the pandemic has played out so far emphasizes that it won’t be easy.

If you think about it, there are many features of the pandemic that should make it way easier to effectively cooperate. There’s no ambiguity about it being an active disease; most people would like to avoid catching it. The economic incentives to tackle it are aligned with mitigation strategies, so if we managed to solve the pandemic crisis, the economy would recover. And the pandemic isn’t some future generation’s problem; it’s all of our problem, here and now. So, compared to the climate crisis, a pandemic should be much easier to focus people’s minds on and get them to organize around collective solutions.
And yet our response to the pandemic so far has been rather parochial and piecemeal. Think about the way vaccines have been distributed around the world. We are really interdependent, and we’re not going to get out of the pandemic until we’re all out of the pandemic. But this doesn’t seem to be the thinking of various governments around the world.
So, when you think about climate change, even though it’s increasingly a here-and-now issue, it’s still something we don’t treat as a collective problem. The economic costs of climate action are perceived by many to be greater than the costs of organizing collective action. And, since not all countries will experience the cost of climate change in the same way or to the same extent, there is a disparity of concern around climate change that makes it difficult to tackle it.

Having said all that, I think there is still room for optimism. The pandemic has shown us that the vast majority of people are willing to accept massive constraints on their lifestyle to help produce a collective outcome that we all desire. It has also shown us how quickly some of the tipping points in behavior can be achieved, when the situation demands it. Over the course of six months, a vast proportion of the country’s workforce has transitioned to remote working—a behavioral shift that, under normal circumstances, might have taken a decade.

We now need to find those similar tipping points in our response to the climate crisis, and we are starting to see signs that they might appear. To give just one example, the proportion of renewable energy that was cheaper than fossil fuels doubled in 2020, and 62% of renewable energy options were cheaper than fossil fuels. This aligning of economic and ecological incentives helps to reveal the path we might take to tackling the climate crisis. And, although it sounds a little perverse, the fact that rich Western countries are increasingly experiencing the negative impacts of climate change themselves might also help to focus the minds of leaders to take action….(More)”.