If there’s one puzzle that unites the curiosities of anthropologists, economists, political scientists, archaeologists, biologists, and even policymakers, it’s human cooperation. Ironically, they rarely get together to share, in a cooperative setting, what they know.
In September, an SFI working group met to mull over human cooperation across the disparate disciplines whose domains include its study.
“A better understanding of human cooperation is one of the key components in solving the problems the world faces,” says Christa Breisford , an SFI postdoctoral fellow who helped organize the event. The problem is, “different people are working at different parts of the spectrum, and they don’t talk to each other much.”
To get them to talk, Brelsford, SFI Omidyar Fellow Caitlin Stern, and colleagues recently gathered 12 researchers – including a political scientist who studies water policy and property rights, an economist who studies consumer behavior, and a behavioral ecologist who studies humans and insects – for two days of presentations and discussions.
Their first aim: get everything out on the table, which revealed some surprising overlaps between disciplines, Stern says. For example, biologists’ and anthropologists’ ideas were similar to each other, but they shared less with ideas from political science. Likely, that’s a matter of scale. Biologists, for example, are often interested in interactions between individuals, while political scientists are sometimes more interested in organizations or institutions – a difference that’s led researchers to explain cooperation in different ways.
That idea connects to one of the working group’s most important conclusions, Stern says. Addressing policy concerns such as climate change, for example, means knowing both how governments can coordinate to reach solutions and how individuals will behave in response.
Thus, scientists need a framework that encom-passes biologists’ understanding of individual cooperation and political scientists’ understanding of government interactions. The pair hopes to continue advancing toward that goal in future meetings.