Why do Humans Cooperate?

Many of the Stage’s readers will be familiar with the work of “Pseudoerasmus,” currently the internet’s best blogger working on both economic development and macro-history. His most recent post is titled Where do Pro-Social Institutions Comes From?  I strongly urge you read it. In essence, Pseudoerasmus’s post tries to answer two questions: 

  • Why do humans cooperate?
  • Why do some human communities cooperate better than others? 

These questions recognize that the prosperity of modern times has happened because humans were able to effectively coordinate the efforts of incredibly large groups of people.  The disparities in peace and in plenty that divide the developed from the developing reflect this. As Pseudoerasmus notes:

the real institutional difference between developed and developing countries is actually a “social capital” gap: there are just many more coordination failures in developing countries. Never mind countries torn by civil war. Never mind countries where the kleptocrat with a monopoly of violence does not even bother to hide his plundering. Even the political systems of minimally functioning democratic societies are still organised de facto according to segmentary lineages, with clan- and tribe-based political parties campaigning to distribute to their members the spoils of the public treasury. In societies without clans and tribes, the distributive conflict in politics is played out along ethnolinguistic or caste divisions. But even in some relatively homogeneous societies, political parties are often a system of N-party competitive distribution of public spoils, with only nominal ideological differences between the parties. Greece is an upper-middle-income country and it’s still like that. [1]

To understand where this “social capital gap” comes from one must range across institutional and development economics, human behavioral ecology (i.e., useful anthropology), sociology, game theory, political economy and public choice theory, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, cross cultural and social psychology, cultural evolution theory, and economic, institutional, and social history. To his credit, Pseudoerasmus does just that. The result is long (60+ citations) and tad dry (though not too technical for anyone who reads this blog to understand), but immensely important. It is certainly the most important blog post I have read this season, and is in the running for best essay of the year. If social scientists and historians working on these issues take this post seriously, they will have found an entire research program laid out before them. 

I have a few thoughts on some directions this program will take. They are posted in comments thread to the main essay. Thoughts on the question I raise (why do some human communities lose the ability to cooperate) or the essay’s other contentions are welcome in the comments thread here or over at the original post. 


[1] Pseudoerasmus. “Where do Pro-Social Institutions Come From?” Pseudoerasmus (4 October 2015)

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Thanks for the endorsement ! But do note, as I cite in the post itself, the idea that intelligence and patience matter to cooperation is one of the many themes covered in Garett Jones's forthcoming book The Hive Mind. I haven't read it since it's not out yet but I've read his papers and those have influenced my thinking. What I tried to do in the blog post is give an overview of the very large literature on cooperation in a way which matters to my interests in economic history & development — an idiosyncratic literature survey, if you will.

PseudoE, the strength of your post, I think, really does not lie in its conclusions, but in its accessible presentation of the reams of research that most people are not aware of, nor indeed ever explicitly think about. Your introduction to and assessment of all of these strands of thought is fair, but more importantly, quite readable for anyone who has the patience to sit down read it in full. It also makes your own set of conclusions–yours and Jones it seems–quite a bit stronger.

It is a good post.