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Large-scale cooperation occurs in small-scale societies

Humans cooperate at remarkably large scales in decentralized societies, partly through the informal punishment of free-riders, research suggests. 

Members of the Turkana tribe, Kenya [Credit: BBC]
To investigate how politically unstructured societies sustain cooperation, Sarah Mathew and Robert Boyd examined cooperation in warfare in a nomadic 

East African society known as the Turkana. In interviews with 118 warrior-aged men that included accounts of 88 raids, the researchers found that raiding parties could number several hundred warriors, most of whom were not related or close friends. 

Cowardice and desertion occur frequently, the researchers report, and are punished by community-imposed sanctions, including corporal punishment and fines. 

Norms of warfare benefit the Turkana as a whole, rather than smaller interest groups. 

The scale of cooperation seen in nature ranges from small kin-based groupings in mammals to gigantic colonies in social insects, and it is unclear where humans fell on this spectrum before formal coercive institutions made enormous state societies possible. 

Many scholars believe that without formal institutions, humans cooperate at a modest scale, best explained by kinship or reciprocity. 

Conversely, this study shows that humans cooperate at very large scales without formal coercive institutions, suggesting that such cooperation, enforced by third-party sanctions, may have evolved early in human prehistory and enabled our ecological success, according to the authors. 

Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences via EurekAlert! [June 14, 2011]

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