Friday, March 11, 2011

"How Humans Moved Away from Apes"

Nicholas Wade in the March 11 New York Times reports that a study to be published today in the journal Science helps to strengthen the foundation for an increasingly popular view that "cooperative behavior, as distinct from the fierce aggression between chimp groups, was the turning point that shaped human evolution." Related to this finding is another increasingly well supported claim that cooperation combined with social learning - the capacity of humans to learn from others by watching them and interacting productively with them - was a decisive factor in the evolution of human societies. To put it another way, long before Facebook, social networks were shaping human behavior and technological progress.

The thing this article doesn't mention is what happened between now and then. Why did it take this long for cooperation and social learning to become the new basic skills of the 21st century when they were so fundamental to human development 5 million years ago? Yup. According to economists Murnane and Levy (1996) in their book The New Basic Skills, the ability to work well in groups, sometimes called cooperative learning, is one of the essentials that all businesses demand when hiring employees. But schools apparently weren't aware of this because it is a "soft" skill instead of a hard skill like doing math or giving PowerPoint presentations.

So let's get this straight. Apparently, the evidence is building that cooperation and social learning are what set humans apart from chimps and other animals. These behaviors are part of our make-up as human beings. And yet it takes a couple of highly trained late 20th century economists to teach us that these skills need to be taught more conscientiously by kindergarten teachers, who until recently had always assumed that such skills were the whole point of kindergarten! Indeed, it seems to me that the very capitalism that promoted competition, individualism, and productive selfishness for hundreds of years has now come around to the view that we had it all wrong, that cooperation and social learning are what we really need. I find that conclusion both bizarre and confusing.

So let me propose an alternative view that is one part absurd and one part unapologetically radical. Capitalism, particularly in its greedier and more corporate forms, is contrary to human evolution and has caused us to go against our basic natures. And until we develop a form of capitalism that is more cooperative, social, and, well, compassionate, there will not only continue to be a disconnect between education and the so-called demands of the corporate economy, but a lot of unhappy and unfulfilled people whose basic, cooperative natures are being denied.

1 comment:

  1. Let me suggest that the cause of the long delay in realizing the critical importance of cooperative learning and social empathy is the rise of monotheism and the loss of the feminine in western development. When gods ceased to be the embodiment of the earth and became the angry, all powerful God the Father, we entered a dark tunnel of oppression that we have yet to exit.