Article

The evolutionary origin of human hyper-cooperation

  • Nature Communications 5, Article number: 4747 (2014)
  • doi:10.1038/ncomms5747
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Abstract

Proactive, that is, unsolicited, prosociality is a key component of our hyper-cooperation, which in turn has enabled the emergence of various uniquely human traits, including complex cognition, morality and cumulative culture and technology. However, the evolutionary foundation of the human prosocial sentiment remains poorly understood, largely because primate data from numerous, often incommensurable testing paradigms do not provide an adequate basis for formal tests of the various functional hypotheses. We therefore present the results of standardized prosociality experiments in 24 groups of 15 primate species, including humans. Extensive allomaternal care is by far the best predictor of interspecific variation in proactive prosociality. Proactive prosocial motivations therefore systematically arise whenever selection favours the evolution of cooperative breeding. Because the human data fit this general primate pattern, the adoption of cooperative breeding by our hominin ancestors also provides the most parsimonious explanation for the origin of human hyper-cooperation.

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Acknowledgements

We thank all zoos, institutions and private owners listed in Table 1 for letting us conduct the experiments with their animals, in particular Elsa Addessi and Elisabetta Visalberghi, as well as everybody involved in helping building the apparatuses and handling the animals, in particular Heinz Galli, Thomas Bischof, Leandro Fornito, Mario Kulmer, Mario Natalucci, Koen Peters and Rebecca Stessl. We are grateful to the comments on an earlier draft by Charles Efferson, Adrian Jaeggi, Sonja Koski, Maria van Noordwijk and Michèle Schubiger. This project was supported by the Swiss National Founds project 310030-13083 to the first author.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Anthropological Institute and Museum, University of Zurich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, 8057 Zürich, Switzerland

    • J. M. Burkart
    • , C. Finkenwirth
    • , K. Isler
    • , Z. K. Kosonen
    • , E. Martins
    • , E.J. Meulman
    • , R. Richiger
    • , K. Rueth
    • , B. Spillmann
    • , S. Wiesendanger
    •  & C. P. van Schaik
  2. Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, 64 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6PN, UK

    • O. Allon
  3. Department of Comparative and Developmental Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, 04103 Leipzig, Germany

    • F. Amici
  4. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, German Primate Center, Kellnerweg 4, 37077 Goettingen, Germany

    • C. Fichtel
  5. Institute of Zoology, University of Graz, Universitätsplatz 2, 8010 Graz, Austria

    • A. Heschl
  6. Institute of Biology, University of Neuchâtel, Emile-Argand 11, 2000 Neuchâtel, Switzerland

    • J. Huber

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Contributions

J.M.B. and C.P.v.S. designed research; J.M.B., O.A., C.Fin., C.Fic., A.H., J.H., Z.K.K., E.J.M., E.M., R.R., K.R., B.S. and S.W. performed research; J.M.B., K.I. and C.P.v.S. analysed data; J.M.B. and C.P.v.S. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. M. Burkart.

Supplementary information

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  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1-6, Supplementary Tables 1-8, Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Methods and Supplementary References

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