The ‘co-operative’ eyes have it

Since Thatcher gained power we have always been told how it is competition that ensures the survival of the fittest and this is the way that societies advance. I’m not sure that Darwinian advances were ever actually widely thought to operate on this level, as it was more of a system indicating long term progress through mutation and suitability. But that was the narrative that became accepted and it was effective at taming the unions and allegedly priming British society for intense competitive effort.

It was a story we should have seen through – Darwinism isn’t appropriate in a society that lives by rules. The rule-makers will in fact decide who is the fittest to survive, which is why we have food-banks, on the one hand and the CEO of Persimmon homes earning £100million, on the other. And why the Competition and Markets Authority is examining whether Asda and Sainsbury should merge.

Indeed most of humanity’s greatest achievements are a result of co-operation. Just think of money, for a start. Or language. Or scientific advance itself.

It is true that nature can be sometimes red in both tooth and claw but there is no reason why human societies should replicate it.

By serendipity I discovered this article by Camilla Power, of the Anthropology department at the University of East London, which although ostensibly about gender equality also highlights rather well humanity’s co-operative nature.

She states:

We are the only one of well over 200 primate species to have evolved eyes with an elongated shape and a bright white sclera background to a dark iris. Known as ‘cooperative eyes’, they invite anyone we interact with to see easily what we are looking at. By contrast, great apes have round, dark eyes, making it very difficult to judge their eye direction. Like mafia dons wearing sunglasses, they watch other animal’s moves intently, but disguise their thoughts from others…..

This, she suggests, prevented other apes from giving up their offspring to be cared for by others – they could never tell what the potential babysitter might be looking at.

She continues:

We do babysitting in all human societies, mothers being happy to hand over their offspring for others to look after temporarily. African hunter-gatherers are the champions of this collective form of childcare, indicating that it was routine in our heritage. In stark contrast, great ape mothers – chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans – do not let their babies go. Because of the risks of harm to their infants, they are hyper-possessive and protective, not daring to take the chance….


The most salient feature of our anatomy distinguishing us from other apes is the extraordinary size of our brains. While a human and chimp mother have a fairly similar body weight, adult humans today have upwards of three times the brain volume of a chimp. Brain tissue is very expensive in terms of energy requirements. Doing the whole job by themselves, great ape mothers are constrained in the amount of energy they can provide to offspring and so apes cannot expand brains above what is known as a ‘gray ceiling’ (600 cc). Our ancestors smashed through this ceiling some 1.5-2 million years ago with the emergence of Homo erectus, who had brains more than twice the volume of chimps today. This tells us that cooperative childcare was already part of Homo erectus society.

So it looks as though our brains exist because of our ‘co-operative’ eyes.

Maybe François Mitterand was rather more prescient than he knew when he conceded that Mrs Thatcher had the mouth of Marilyn Monroe – but the eyes of Caligula.

Perhaps, after all, they were a mutation from ‘co-operative’ eyes.

I rather doubt many asked her to babysit.



  1. Christine Bergin -

    I think that school dinners may illustrate the point. Takes fewer people to prepare a meal for 300 pupils than it does if each family individually catered its own offspring so people can be released to do the work of growing the food or teaching lessons.

  2. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

    I have an entirely unprovable theory – because in some aspects of life we can’t run control experiments – that Thatcherism would not have gained such credence when it did had Richard Dawkins chosen to call his seminal book ‘The Cooperative Gene’.

    It would have been an equally apposite title to the one he did choose, for a book which so few people seem to have read beyond the front cover.

  3. Peter May -

    Good point! I agree.

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