Only Collaboration Can Save Our Species

Posted · Add Comment

Let me start with my premise. It’s bold enough to warrant an opening salvo, a shot across your Homo sapiens brow.

Modern human beings are still evolving. And our evolution will depend on that relatively recent part of our brain that enables us to collaborate. We are now in charge of our evolution. Our evolution as a species depends on how well we learn to collaborate.


Human evolution. We know that we as a species — genus homo — began our evolutionary trek around 2.3 million years ago as Homo habilis. That makes us a relatively young species. Looking back at our family tree, we morphed through the following notable anatomical changes:

Homo habilis
Homo heidelbergensis
Homo neanderthalensis
Homo rhodesiensis
Homo rudolfensis
Homo sapiens idaltu
Homo sapiens (That’s us.)

The evolution of the human brain and our intelligence — called “encephalization” — has been driven by our increasing need to solve social problems. As we moved from the small group of hunters to the larger tribe of gatherers, and then into the even bigger cooperative of farming communities, human society became more complex. More complexity meant there were more social problems to solve, and more social problems to solve meant more opportunities to collaborate.

In an earlier post, I wrote the following:

What amazing function did the brain need to perform to justify a complete redesign in a mere 200,000 years? What was so important to our survival as a species that we underwent a total overhaul that doubled the size of our brain?


The answer is fascinating: imagination. The brain became a powerful ‘experience simulator.’ It allowed us to imagine what something would be like before we tried it.


As I was listening to Dan Gilbert and his TED presentation, I realized that collaboration is one of the main reasons we developed imagination and use it to do more collaboration. We moved from imagining, ‘How big is the universe?’ to imagining, ‘How do we work together to build a spaceship to get to the moon?’


So, collaboration seems to be one of the main reasons we developed imagination. In other words, we became Homo Sapiens because we had a better brain that could imagine how to collaborate, and because we could imagine how to collaborate we became better Homo Sapiens.


Back to my opening statement: We are now in charge of our evolution. Our evolution as a species depends on how well we learn to collaborate as a species. Collaboration has become our number one survival skill. If we can learn to better collaborate as a species we will not only survive, we will thrive. If not, we go the way of the Raphus cucullatus, aka the Dodo bird.

Source: “The surprising science of happiness,” TED presentation by Dan Gilbert, Feb. 2004
Images of human craniums and Dodo are from Wikipedia.