Our closest living relatives — chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orang-utans, and gibbons — are extremely smart, but their particular form of intelligence is predicated on the fact that they can’t necessarily trust their neighbours.  Male chimps cooperate to hund for food or patrol their territory, but they also are obsessed with achieving social dominance within their group.  Female chimps also compete with one another to monopolise the best resources for themselves and their kin within the group.  A baby chimp can’t leave its mother to play with the other chimps; it might get beaten up or killed.

Modern human social life can get this dysfunctional.  Think of the arms races among superpowers, blood feuds in tribal societies, and bitter political disputes in which the only thing that matters is to beat one’s opponent.  The kind of reflection that Teilhard de Chardin had in mind comes to a screeching halt under these conditions, no matter how smart people remain in other respects.  For reflection to get started in the first place, there had to be an atmosphere of trust.

That atmosphere was not created by everyone suddenly becomes nice but by the ability to thwart the ambitions of others easily.  Christopher Boehm calls this “reverse dominance” in his book Hierarchy in the Forest.  In a typical primate dominance hierarchy, the meanest individual or coalition manges to intimidate the others and monopolise the resources.  In a typical small-scale human group, including hunter-gatherer societies around the world, the meanest individuals and coalitions are ridiculed, punished, expelled, or even executed unless they change their ways and fit in with the rest of the group.  We are an aggressively egalitarian species, and our passion for equality is manifested whenever we exist in small number with a relatively even balance of power among the members.

Equality is the requirement for a major transition.  As soon as individuals could no longer succeed at the expense of their neighbours, collective survival and reproduction became the primary means of natural selection.  Only then could our ancestors begin to share freely what they learned, develop an inventory of symbols with shared meaning, and otherwise make the transition from just another species with a fixed repetoire of behaviour to an open-ended evolutionary process.

Seeing cooperation as a precondition for reflection and reflection as a form of cooperation fits Teilhaird de Chardin’s broad vision in The Phenomenon of Man even better than reflection as an individual capacity that came first.  After all, Teilhard thought that reflection becomes a kind of distributed consciousness at the Omega Point.  Now we can say that it begins as a form of distributed consciousness at the sacle of very small groups.

David Sloan Wilson, The Neighborhood Project (2011) pp. 118-119

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