The Evolution of Cooperation, with Nichola Raihani

We are Homo Cooperans - our capacity to cooperate is our ‘killer app’. Biologist Nichola Raihani joins Turi to explain the evolutionary history of cooperation, its benefits and dangers, and what lessons we can draw for democracy today.

S2 E23: The Evolution of Cooperation

“Every multicellular being is a collective that operates as a whole - the individual is an ‘invention’ of evolution”

Cooperation is at work up everywhere - from our ‘selfish’ genes working together in the genome, through to the democratic societies that regulate our collaboration.

Cooperation is what distinguishes us most strikingly from our evolutionary cousin, the Chimpanzee. It is what allowed us safely to descend from the tree canopy into the savannah. It is what defended us from tyrants, helped us build agrarian societies, and forms the basis of our sense of justice and morality.

But cooperation has a dark side: we collaborate to better compete. How we regulate that dark force is key to our survival.

“Collaboration is the essential ingredient of and largest threat to our success”

Listen to Nichola explain:

  • The biological evolution of cooperation in humans
  • How we compare with other great collaborators: bees, ants and birds
  • The evolution of society: from egalitarian to feudal to democratic
  • Why loneliness is physiologically harmful
  • When cooperation becomes murderous
  • Why evolution gave us the Tragedy of the Commons
  • How the invention of Institutions changes the rules of the evolutionary game

Works cited include:

Read the Full Transcript

Nichola Raihani

Nichola Raihani is a professor in Evolution and Behaviour at UCL, where she leads the Social Evolution and Behaviour Lab. She is the author of The Social Instinct: how cooperation shaped the world

On Opinion is a member of The Democracy Group, a network of podcasts that examines what’s broken in our democracy and how we can work together to fix it.

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This page was last edited on Wednesday, 16 Jun 2021 at 09:47 UTC