Collaboration is in our genes. Part 1.
On the evolution of collaboration in humans.

“I believe Humans are agile by nature”, an agile coach posted on LinkedIn. Yes, I agree. But what does ‘agile by nature’ really mean? I have translated it into: we, as humans (Homo sapiens) have evolved to become an intensively collaborative species.

I thought that my previous profession as a biologist would help me find the answer when sifting through literature. But I stumbled. It is not all that easy to find a convincing answer of how we evolved to become this collaborative species.

The best I can do is tell it in a series of different stories. They are related, but I will have to tell them one by one.

Human evolution and the survival of the friendliest

One theory out there is that mankind self-domesticated and became who we are now by ‘Survival of the friendliest’ (book by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, 2020). The theory refers to the study by Belyaev, who experimented on foxes bred for their furs. In the early fifties, in Stalin’s USSR, he systematically selected foxes for ‘friendliness’, less aggressive behavior. After only 6 generations, the foxes had become way friendlier, as to be expected. But they also changed color, showed doglike behavior and appearance, their snouts becoming shorter.

Domestication is the process where mankind has selectively bred animals and plants for properties that benefit us. We evolved plants to become more nutritious or better resistant to diseases or have more and prettier flowers. We have bred animals for food or wool, or to help with hunting or to aid in transport. Humans have selected against aggressive and dangerous behavior in animals towards men, just for safety. And domesticated animals typically show the different pigmentation and changes in their skull.

Why are we interested in this? The evolution of human skulls shows an evolution that is like that of domesticated animals. It is also called pedomorphosis (form of a child, literally) or neoteny, meaning that the skulls start to look more like those of children, with bulging forehead and less pronounced eyebrows and jaws.

All hominids differ from the great apes in their larger brains and in more bulging skulls. You can call it a first wave of growing brains, started over 5 million year ago, when humans and chimpanzees split their evolutionary ways. We will come back to that in a later blog. Several Homo species evolve, some of them to become quite successful, such as Homo erectus that manages to make it all the way to China and Java.

.And then, 200.000 years ago, starts a second wave. Home sapiens appears on the scene in Africa. Homo sapiens breaks a trend. Although their skull becomes even rounder and more ‘childlike’, our brains do not become larger anymore. The self-domestication hypothesis of human evolution described in ‘Survival of the friendliest’ by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, tries to explain this. It goes as follows: “Selection against aggression has facilitated the creation of the special niche favoring the emergence of complex behaviors via cultural evolution. Accordingly, self-domestication has been invoked to account for key innovations in our behavior and cognition, including enhanced cooperation and complex social networks, cumulative culture, advanced technologies, and language (Hare et al., 2012; Hare, 2017; Thomas and Kirby, 2018; Benítez-Burraco and Progovac, 2020).”

Homo sapiens does not make a big splash in the beginning: there are few fossils and tools. Genetic evidence shows that some 70.000 years ago numbers of Home sapiens may have fallen below 10.000 individuals, possibly because of the Toba volcano on Sumatra erupting (see my previous post). But that genetic bottleneck may have kick-started Homo sapiens as an even more social species. And 50.000 years ago, Homo sapiens started to migrate out of Africa.

At that time, 5 hominid species are around, all of them capable of making tools that look alike. Most prominent is Neanderthal man who has managed to livequite successfully as a hunter-gatherer in the challenging environment at the edge of the ice during several Ice Ages. They are sturdy guys, with a larger brain than ours. 300.000 years ago they - actually their forebears, Homo heidelbergensis – had beautiful spears that allowed them to kill large prey such as horses from a distance (spears found in Schöningen, Germany). Some pretty tough competition for Homo sapiens, when they started living in the same area, some 35.000 – 40.000 years ago. And 15.000 years later Neanderthal man went extinct, apparently not up to the competition with what in comparison to them were just out -sized children. Because that is what they looked like, physically weaker, with a childlike skull.

So why did the weaker, less adapted species win?

Domestication and the origins of self-domestication

Domestication is the process by which humans select animals and plants for properties we find interesting, breed them, and select those individuals that are most useful to continue breeding with. It is an evolutionary process where the outcome is determined by humans.

But who decided to start domesticating cats? The simple answer is that cats probably ‘decided’ for themselves. When mankind grows grain, they attract mice. These mice in turn attract cats to the settlement. The most trusting and least aggressive wild cats dare to come closest to human habitation. Friendlier cats would have a bonus and have more offspring. Cats self-domesticated before humans actively intervened and started selecting the cats.

This form of self-domestication is clear and easy to understand. Humans modify the environment, makes it attractive for a species, and the species adapts to that environment and to the presence of humans. The early farmers love to see to a predator specializing in eating the mice that eat those farmers’ harvest. We have a clear win-win situation, with cats becoming gradually closer to man. And inevitably, humans have taken care of a litter of young cats when their mother died, and the house cat came to be.

This is clear. Some animals first became more familiar with humans because this offered some advantage to them. Then gradually humans took control over them, as they were already tamer and as their usefulness for humans was evident.

Nearly all domestic animals (and plants) were domesticated after humans had started agriculture, had settled down and changed the environment. Except for dogs. The earliest ‘not quite wolf’ skull was found in Belgium and dated as about 36.000 years old. Well before man had started farming and changed the environment. In fact, right after Home sapiens had arrived out of Africa.

Did wolves self-domesticate before being domesticated, in a way comparable to the cat story? Now that turns out tricky. The win-win situation of the cat story is evident. Wolves are way more dangerous than cats and could snatch a careless toddler away. Wolves are also competitors. There is quite a difference between watching a cat take a mouse that feasts on your grain reserves versus a wolf taking a large prey you would like as a meal for yourself.

The leading theory by R. and L. Coppinger postulates that wolves were attracted to the trash humans left behind, particularly human excrement. Now, dogs do eat human excrement and among some indigenous people it contributes significantly to the dogs’ diet. But as a ‘self-domestication theory’, it sucks. For starters, the Coppingers got the timing wrong. The dumps described would be typical of agricultural villages, less than 10.000 years ago in general and even more recent in places where early dogs are found. Hunter-gatherers would not be too fond of large predators coming scavenging around the campsite and would defecate some distance away from the camp rather than attract wolves or bears or worse. And why would the wolves, the top predator, start to scavenge and self-domesticate, and not foxes or coyotes? Why not Neanderthal excrement? And what is in it for the humans in those early stages?

No, the win-win between men and wolves must lie in hunting together. Wolves are specialized social predators, hunting in closely knit groups. Quite similar to the early human groups, in fact. Wolves are outstanding at spotting herds of prey, at chasing them, at separating small groups from the main herd and encircling them.

If you watch footage of wolves hunting, killing large prey is the main problem. Even if wolves manage to corner a group of say musk ox or bison, chances are all prey animals get away. A broken rib after a well-aimed kick can become fatal for a wolf, maybe even for the whole pack. Out of say six cornered animals they are lucky to kill one, probably the smallest animal too.

Humans on the other hand have a very poor sense of smell and poor hearing. We are slower as well and we do not have the millions of years of selection as top predator behind us. But with spears and other weaponry, ancient man excelled in the final round. A group of three of four hunters with spears could kill several large animals, cornered by wolves, with low risk to themselves.

And there is your potential win-win: wolves and men working together can manage to kill more prey in a shorter time than each can achieve separately.

The start of the relationship is tricky. Men and wolves are competing for large prey, each species trying to prevent the other from stealing a prey once caught. Wolves would need to set aside their enmity towards men and vice versa.

Would wolves need to become more social? Well, maybe not. They are already quite social, one for all and all for one within their pack. They would need to extend their pack to include humans, but the rules would not really change. Interestingly, wolves have such a partnership with ravens. One of the most socially capable and smart birds. Ravens follow the wolves when they go hunting, to their benefit, but probably helping the wolves by alerting them to the presence of prey. Humans can then follow wolves by spotting the ravens.

And man? Neanderthal man never domesticated wolves. The win-win would have existed for them as well, they probably even encountered situations where they killed the prey that wolves had cornered. But such encounters did not evolve into a relationship.

Homo sapiens did domesticate wolves, nearly immediately after arriving in Europe, as the presence of dog-wolf skulls indicates (e.g. in the Goyet cave in Belgium, dated to 36.000 years ago). This reflects the essential difference between Neanderthal and modern man: Homo sapiens as a more social species. The result of an evolution towards more social behavior. Also called self-domestication of mankind (Hare).

The key seems to be that it requires a social species to collaborate with another highly social species. Wolves and man, later dog and man, manage to have real success, out-competing the smart and well-adapted Neanderthal man (see Pat Shipman). And probably causing the extinction of many large mammal species.

Other stories

In Norse mythology, Odin, or Wodan, has two ravens that fly all over the world to gather information for him. And he has two wolves following him around.

It is interesting to read about the relationship between men and wolves in the oral tradition of different Native American tribes (see Relationships Between Indigenous American Peoples and Wolves 1: Wolves as Teachers and Guides).

Blackfeet were fond of wolves as companions. In preparation for hunts they slept on wolf skins and sang songs encouraging wolves to join them.

The Lakota tell a story of an injured woman saved by wolves. Once healed she returned to her people with a valuable set of skills taught by wolves. Lakota have a brotherly relationship with the wolf because they learned their hunting skills from the wolf.”

“Blackfeet retain traditions stemming from ‘‘Wolf Man’’, an ancient story describing direct instruction and teachings wolves gave humans, some regarding behavior and social structure, others specific to hunting practices. Wolf Man outlined specific protocols, limitations, and expectations of human behavior.”

The common thread in these stories is that man has learnt from wolves how to hunt, different tricks such as chasing bison into deep snow or even over the edge of a cliff.

A second thread in the stories is that wolves often help men and women, and the stories always contain the moral statement that the wolf should be rewarded fairly.


You will find two schools of thought on wolf domestication. The self-domestication theory first proposed by R. Coppinger & L. Coppinger and endorsed by Hare, which suggests that the wolves self-domesticated by collecting garbage and human excrement and so effectively subordinated themselves to men. And a second one by Germonpré and endorsed by Shipman that hunters took some wolf puppies and tamed them.

What I present is a third way. I find nobody describing this exact model of self-domestication based on mutual recognition of social skills. Maybe I am onto something. Or maybe I am just romantic.You may want to watch the National Geographic documentary and check out the behavior of the wild wolf pack near humans, at minute 8, and judge for yourself...

Anyway, this is the surprising conclusion of my search over the last couple of years. I started out resenting the statement in ‘Reinventing Organizations’ by Laloux that the worst kind of organization, the red one, needs to be compared to wolf society. Instead, I arrive at formulating the hypothesis that we have become more human by learning from wolves. We started to trust them, as wolves in a pack trust each other. We became part of a mutually enriching partnership with a different, highly social species, maybe with two, if we count the ravens as well. It made us the winning hominin species, driving the four other species to extinction (although we did pick up some of their genes). It made the wolf – dog very successful and widespread.

In the end, we betrayed the wolves of course, hunting them to extinction in large parts of Europe and the United States. But they are back, breeding in Belgium again. 36.000 years after we became partners here.

The relationship with wolves changed us, made us more social, friendlier, more cooperative. More agile. In our genes.  

But how did it start? Read my next story...

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