Funding for this site is provided by readers like you.
From the simple to the complex

Function by Level of Organization

Help Linked Module:  Primate Research Says Competition Not Driving Force

The Collective Intelligence of Human Groups

As the human species evolved, it had to struggle against adverse climatic and environmental conditions that exerted substantial selective pressures. In this struggle, the ability to help one another was especially valuable.

Even today, our friendships and our romantic, professional, and other relationships act as mutual assistance systems in which the selfish interests of the parties tend to converge or to complement one another. We live in a world of interdependence, and anything that anyone else can give us by way of information, services, or resources can help us. We therefore establish bonds that we cement through affectivity.


Such bonds are adaptations, just as aggression is, but in a context where we need other people. We all share our environment with other people who, like us, are seeking resources to ensure their survival. The distribution of these resources influences the kinds of relationships that we establish with these other people, or, in other words, our social organization.

Our social relations could even be described as nothing more than a sophisticated way of acquiring resources.

For example, just as an individual’s jaws and hands are tools that can be used to grasp food, a group of hunters that works together to catch a large animal is in a sense a sophisticated tool for the same purpose.

The following table shows just how much the relative scarcity or abundance of resources determines the form that a society takes.

In the Stone Age, when game was scarce, our ancestors quickly learned that cooperation and mutual assistance could increase their chances of a successful hunt.

In contrast, in some tropical regions, resources were so abundant that societies evolved that had little or no competition. Before contact with the West, some islands in the South Pacific really had no such thing as private property.

But when resources are limited–neither especially scarce nor especially abundant–then the likelihood of competition becomes greater. This was the case in the temperate regions where most of the world’s civilizations developed.

In practice, mutual assistance and competition often co-exist and shape our social relations simultaneously. Their relative importance is still a subject of much debate.

One thing is certain, however: whenever there is competition for resources, there are inevitably winners and losers. Thus, as soon as there is competition, social hierarchies quickly emerge.

In animals, physical attributes such as size and strength are what chiefly determine priority of access to resources.

In primates, and especially in human beings, higher rank in the social hierarchy results almost exclusively from gestures of support received in the past, and hence on social learning.

Tool Module: Primatology

  Presentations | Credits | Contact | Copyleft