The premise of this blog is that the capacities that most distinguish humans resulted from a fundamental shift in evolution that occurred when we first arose from apes 6 million years ago. At that time, natural selection converted from predominantly taking place at the level of individuals—to taking place at the level of relationships between individuals. Both the nature and effect of this shift can be understood by exploring the distinction between cooperation and coordination.
A sense of this distinction that I am after lies in the word coopt, which means to “appropriate as one’s own.” In the evolution of cooperation, it is the individuals that are the entities selected to survive, so it is the interests of individuals that are paramount. Cooperation occurs when the interests of two or more individuals (companies) overlap such that, when each coopts something from the other, the result is a “win-win” for all involved. This is how business and trade work.
In 2000, Robert Wright published, Nonzero, which extolls the virtues of cooperation as a sweeping general principle of life. Listen to Bill Clinton (catch just the beginning, then skip to the very end so as not to miss his evolutionary scenario). Although Bill goes on about interdependence and international peace, here I will focus on economic cooperation that results from commercial trade, which is, perhaps, the most cohesive force in the world.
In the evolution of coordination, relationships are the entities preferentially selected to survive. In human evolution, the productivity-and-thus-survival of relationships becomes more important to the survival of participating individuals than these individuals’ own relative “fitness.”
To illustrate the concept of coordination in a business scenario, let’s take the example of a moving company. The boss makes cooperative deals with clients and pays three employees to motivate them to cooperate by actually moving the furniture. These are the parts of the business activity that Bill was talking about. But then, when the three employees get down to actually squeezing a large sofa through a small door, they need to shift into coordinating their behavior. As they work, they are constantly talking, which is the hallmark of our species. As each one of them is in a position to know how to move the sofa next, that person temporarily “borrows” the authority of the task. Yes, within this second-by-second-real-time-of-work, it is the task itself that is now in charge. Although the workers are cooperating with the boss, what makes this entire project possible in in the first place is their long-evolved capacity to coordinate their labor.
This kind of coordination is rare in nature. It is seen on a primitive level in the hunting abilities of lions and wolves, and the feeding by pair-bonded birds of their young. Colonies of ants and bees are merely cooperative. Coordination is group behavior characterized the collective synchronization of constantly changing second-by-second, interacting contingencies like a basketball team.
The ability to coordinate real-time behavior is only secondarily cognitive and analytic, and is primarily driven in-the-moment by empathetic blends of dynamic emotion and feeling that keep moving right along—like a band of musicians making small adjustments to stay in sync.
A case is made in this blog that synchronizing our behavior has been the most important adaptation of our Hominin Tribe—and the most important function of that portion of our brain-cortex that has expanded since apes.
In the following video of individuals constructing an aircraft, there are “external” cooperative deals with the buyers of the planes and cooperation throughout the internal hierarchy of the company to align all their self-interested incentives, but inside of the very heart of what is going on, without-which-there-would-be-nothing, is the truly remarkable, naturally evolved ability of humans to coordinate our labor.