Changemakers Field Guide Episode 20: A dog-help-dog world. There's no "I" in team. But there is an "I" in extinct.

Episode 20: A dog-help-dog world

Ryan D Thompson Collaboration, Evolution, Modern, Skills

Key ideas

We humans did not arrive to our status at the top of every food chain on earth through strength or force. Rather, it was our ability to cooperate with other humans in increasingly sophisticated ways.

  • Compared to our competitors on the ancient savanna, like lions, saber-toothed tigers, and cave bears, those nearly hairless apes that were our ancestors must have looked hopeless. But clearly, we found a way to surpass our rival animals.
  • We often hear some version of the saying “it’s a dog-eat-dog world.” Another word for this is the zero-sum game. We often consider that in any given situation, there will be a winner and a loser. However, a zero-sum mindset would have been a liability on the ancient savanna.
  • To survive, our ancestors needed to find ever more creative ways to cooperate. They divided labor, with every member of the group responsible for different specialized tasks. As human societies grew even more complex, this need for cooperation grew exponentially.
  • While competition has and always will play a role, the non-zero-sum mindset of cooperation will play an even greater role. The scale and complexity of the problems facing humanity can only be tackled through extensive cooperation at every level of society.


Have you ever wondered how our ancient human ancestors rose to the top of the food chain? As far as animals go, we’re pretty slow; and we don’t have big fangs or sharp claws. We’re not all that strong or fearsome. Compared to our competitors on the ancient savanna, like lions, saber-toothed tigers, and cave bears, oh my, those nearly hairless apes must have looked hopeless. But clearly, we found a way to surpass our rival animals.

So it wasn’t our strength or ferocity. Without question, the strongest, meanest, or toughest human of the bunch would have still been crushed by a wooly mammoth. Our brains clearly played a major role. Our ability to reason, remember the past, conceive of the future, and make plans in the present based on this information gave us a significant advantage. But being intelligent individuals clearly wouldn’t cut it. Picture the smartest of the ancient Homo sapiens surrounded by a pack of hyenas. Doesn’t really matter how smart that one person was. Her ability to design innovative tools would be meaningless when all alone in the wild, outnumbered and outclawed. No — cooperation was our superpower. Our big brains helped us to communicate better. To gain a better understanding of our environment. And importantly, to share that knowledge with our people to increase our collective ability to survive and flourish.

This episode is the sixth in a series on dealing with people. We’ll look through the lens of evolutionary psychology to explore how cooperation has played a critical role in our species’ rise to the top. And we’ll explore how it will continue to be a crucial skill for us to cultivate as leaders in an increasingly complex world.

Especially in the western world, and hyper-especially here in the United States, we often hear some version of the saying “it’s a dog-eat-dog world.” We hear about how you have to claw your way to the top. We often idolize those lone wolf leaders who refuse to lose and stop at nothing to win. You have to break a few eggs if you want to make an omelet and all those jazzy metaphors. Another word for this is the zero-sum game. We often consider that in any given situation, there will be a winner and a loser. Like in basketball, tennis, or football, someone will walk away victorious, while the others will walk away with their prehensile tails between their legs.

How would this zero-sum mentality play out with our ancestors on the ancient savanna? Is it true that only the strong survived? As a thought experiment, picture a purely selfish individual who cared only for personal glory. Out on a hunt, this glory seeker would try to outdo his fellow hunters, seeking to take a greater share of the spoils. How often would he get away with this before another hunter or group of disgruntled co-workers had enough of his self-serving behavior? Or what if every hunter had a zero-sum mentality, and all of them were out for their own gain? It’s hard to imagine our ancestors surviving the hunt without working together. There’s no “I” in “team.” But there is an “I” in “extinct.”

In contrast, picture a scene from a prehistoric tribe. One tribe member skins the buffalo the hunters brought home. Another sharpens the stone tools while simultaneously discovering an innovative way to make better tools. Someone else prepares the fire and starts to cook. Others work on burrowing out a log to make a primitive canoe. While a group of caregivers watches the children and imparts tribal knowledge to this next generation. The tribe could not survive without high degrees of cooperation. Each of these tasks requires specialized knowledge that one or more group members possess and share with the others. Every member benefits from the contributions of every other member. 

As human societies grew even more complex, this need for cooperation only grew. The non-zero-sum approaches were far more prevalent. Larger communities required greater division of labor, which required sharing skills, knowledge, and resources. The kinds of cooperation humans engage in vastly surpass what we see in other social mammals. Even our closest primate relatives have minimal or no division of labor, trade between groups, or systems to protect the sick, elderly, or disabled.   

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that we have always been good at cooperation or extended our outreached hand of cooperation to all groups. On the contrary, many of our systems are flawed and highly inequitable. History is filled with violent domination, oppression, and marginalization of entire groups of humans, often based on delusional ideas of racial superiority. The idea of the “survival of the fittest” made famous by Darwin was misinterpreted and misused to justify appalling practices and beliefs. It’s time to put that line of thinking to rest.

How could we possibly overcome the complex problems we face as a species without truly inclusive cooperation? Just think for a moment about all the things we rely on to survive. Every aspect of our lives arises from a complex web of people working together. From the food we eat to the vehicles that move us around to clothing to telecommunications to home construction to computer software to water and sanitation systems and beyond, our lives require a bewildering array of systems, products, services, resources, and interactions. No single human alive is smart enough to understand all of these things. No one among us can repair a car, and write code that creates internet connections, and do open heart surgery, and grow fruit, and build and maintain water pipes, and write fair laws. We simply can’t exist without extensive cooperation.

Now, I want to clarify I’m not suggesting competition isn’t also important. I try to avoid these either/or binaries. Both competition and cooperation have their place. But I feel that competition gets a lot more attention, especially here in the United States. Cooperation always has and will continue to play a critical role in the survival and flourishing of human communities. And sometimes they can even work well together: competition can fuel even better cooperation. Threats from outside groups force us to rise up and work together better than before to meet those threats.

Obviously, cooperation can be really hard sometimes. Cooperating with other people, especially people with different views, can be downright exasperating. I’ve explored some ideas in this series from other traditions that can offer some help in dealing better with other people. Another helpful idea within this framing of evolutionary psychology is the importance of a shared story. Yuval Noah Harari’s masterful book Sapiens lays out a brilliant case for how “story” has shaped human history. Most social mammals and ancient humans lived in very small groups, often no more than 100 or 150 or so, typically sharing blood and genes. In contrast, modern humans have bound together in groups of millions and billions. How? Because we believe the same things. You believe in the same religion as I do? In the same system of government? Great, we’re on the same team. Let’s go forth and cooperate.

Can we find a shared story for humans in the modern world? On a less grandiose level, can you see any shared values or principles that can help you get along better with others, even those with very different views? Our ability to find this common ground can go a long way in making better and more mutually beneficial relationships. And increase the chances that our descendants can be around to tell a story about the work we do today. 

Well, that’s all for now. Join me again next week as I explore some ideas related to racial justice and civil rights. Be sure to subscribe for more episodes. If you enjoy the podcast, please leave me a review; it really helps! And please share this with a friend if you think it will be helpful to someone. Until the next time, be well!


Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License