Michael Tomasello on the importance of cooperation

From Nautilus this month, a long profile article by Kat McGowan describing the work of Michael Tomasello: “Cooperation is what makes us human”. The focus of Tomasello’s experimental work has been uncovering the ways that chimpanzees act as individuals where humans seem naturally to intuit that others can help us.

“We naturally inform people of things that are interesting or useful to them,” Tomasello says. “That’s unusual. Other animals don’t do that.” Pointing is an attempt to change your mental state. It is also a request for a joint experience: She wants you to look at the dog with her.
Chimps, by contrast, do not point things out to each other. Captive chimps will point for humans, but it’s to make a demand rather than to share information: I want that! Open the door! They do not understand informational human pointing, because they do not expect anyone to share information with them. In one of Tomasello’s experiments, food is hidden in one of two buckets. Even if the experimenter points to where it is, the chimp still chooses randomly. “It’s absolutely surprising,” Tomasello says. “They just don’t seem to get it.”.

The end of the article briefly describes work on dogs and the Belyaev fox experiment; in both cases these species have taken on the ability to see humans as helpers, including an ability to understand pointing.