Evolution in reverse?

By Bernadette Meaden
July 5, 2013

A recent episode of Horizon on BBC2 asked the fascinating question, ‘What makes us human?’ Professor Alice Roberts considered why human babies are born helpless, whilst other animals have offspring with information hard-wired into their brain, and so are able to fend for themselves very quickly.

It concluded that children are necessarily born without many skills, but with a far greater capacity to learn from other people, socialise and adapt to the culture around them, and that is what separates humans from animals.

The programme showed various experiments and scientific evidence to make its point, but one experiment in particular stood out for me. Two chimpanzees were set a task which, if they completed it successfully, would reward them with food. They had to consciously co-operate to complete the task. However, it was possible for one chimpanzee, despite its efforts, to make a mistake and lose its reward. The ‘winner take all’ nature of the experiment meant that one of the pair could make off with everything, leaving its partner empty-handed: and it duly did.

The scientists repeated the experiment with two and three year old children, and the results were remarkably heartwarming. When two children co-operated in a task but were not rewarded equally, they almost always shared their reward. One could almost see the ‘winning’ toddlers thinking ‘That’s not fair’ and deciding to share with their partner.

The programme makers didn’t draw any great political, economic, or moral conclusions from this experiment, but it did speak volumes. The chimpanzees were equally able to complete the task, but what they lacked was a sense of fairness. Very young human children, on the other hand, had a sense of justice, and were prepared to give up some of their reward to their partner to maintain fairness.

What made the children different from the animals in this case was not necessarily intelligence, but a moral sense, and altruism. It seems that evolution has taught us that sharing goods fairly is probably more conducive to our survival as a species than selfishness and greed.

How unfortunate then, that our political and economic leaders are taking us in the opposite direction, advocating competition over co-operation wherever possible, and making role models of those who are most inclined to grab as big a share of our natural resources as possible for themselves. One could ask, is the prevailing political philosophy a form of Evolution in reverse?


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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