Work, Sex and Social Norms

In the last class we touched on Michael Tomasello’s work. Dr. Tomasello is an American developmental psychologist. His body of work focuses on identifying the distinctive cognitive and cultural processes that differentiate humans from our closest cousins, the great apes. Tomasello’s research highlights how humans through their development, become essential cooperative components of cultural groups. Dr. Tomasello’s work examines uniquely human skill sets, as well as motivating factors and drives for shared intentionality: joint intentions, collaboration, pro-social motives, and social norms (Tomasello, 2005)

Dr. Tomasello theorizes that it is our capacity to cooperate that makes human’s different in comparison to our nearest primate relatives. The ability to put our heads together and collaborate defines our specie and its evolutional development. Dr. Tomasello’s current research focuses on  how children form joint goals; how they plan together which enables them to form something collaborative and lasting and how they divide the rewards of their efforts amicably. Interestingly enough our cousins the chimpanzees are able to cooperate; but they are unable to successfully maintain their collaborative bond.  Chimpanzees are incapable of fairly distributing the spoils of their collaborative venture.

Historically it was believed that our primate relatives did not have the capacity to understand the mental states of other primates. Current research has contradicted this theory. Studies are now suggesting that the great apes do in fact have the capacity to understand the goals and motives of their peers; but that these drives are fuelled by the desire to compete more successfully with one another. Humans differ from the great apes in that they aspire to put their heads together to collaborate and cooperate to accomplish a goal as a unit, that was unattainable for a lone individual.

Tomasello proposes that this quality is unique to human cognition and refers to it as Social-Cognitive Based Co-operation. In addition to the goal orientated social cognition skills that apes possess to compete with others, humans have cognitively developed additional skills and motivations that enable us to cooperate with others. These acquired skills of shared intentionality, joint goals and mutual knowledge enables human collaboration and perpetuates corporation.

It is these mutually benevolent alliances that Tomasello believes produced group minded cultural products such as social conventions, norms and institutions. Could it be that our ability to work well with others, gave us evolutionary advantages over our extinct cousins the Neanderthals?

In 2006, an article titled “What’s a Mother to Do? The Division of Labour among Neanderthals and Modern Humans in Eurasia” was published. The authors of the paper theorize that Neanderthals had no division of labour roles between the sexes. They proposed that both male and female Neanderthals’ single main occupation was focused on hunting big game. The article suggested the Neanderthal’s deficit of labour division result in their inadequate usage and extraction of resources from the environment. It was this lack of labour division which is believed to have played a key role in their demise.

Interestingly enough, it is believed that Homo sapiens’ drive to collaborate and cooperatively promoted the adoption of sex linked labour division roles. These labour division roles helped drive the population explosion our ancestors enjoyed as the Neanderthals’ numbers dwindled.

Could Tomasello’s beliefs that our capacities to cooperate and drive to collaborate were not only the catalyst for group minded cultural products such as social conventions, norms and institutions; but they may have also secured the continuation of our species? Could ancient man’s ability to successfully split labour roles according to gender still be affecting the way we are thinking and acting today?

Zoologist, ethnologist and human socio-biology author, Desmond Morris thinks so. Morris proposes that when our ancient ancestors adopted the hunting/gathering labour division life style; it had profound effects upon the role of the human sexes. Human females became food gatherers, males became specialised as hunters. This type of pair-bonding does not exist among our close relatives, the monkeys and apes.

Ancient man’s newly acquired gender roles meant that males in family/social units had to leave their females behind at their camp site, while they worked in highly cooperative hunting parties. Morris states that in order to take part in the hunts, “males were to leave the females behind, without their protection. It became important that the two sexes should have some powerful bonds of attachment for one another. And if the males were to co-operate actively on the hunt, there could be no conflict in the group.”

These demands unavoidably lead to pair-bonding, resulting in each male having his own female, eliminating socially destructive competition between males. For ancient females, the benefits of pair-bonds meant the males would return to the campsite with the sought after pray and share the spoils with them and their offspring. The females would return the generosity by sharing their resources of gathered foods. Ancient humans came to understand that this gender governed labour division was extremely efficient and led to the “evolution of a powerful, biologically based pairing urge in the rapidly spreading tribes of primeval humans. Each adult became programmed to stay with a breeding partner long enough to jointly rear a ‘serial litter’ of young.  It is because these young were not all born together but one at a time over a number of years, the pair-bond had to be more than just seasonal or annual. It had to be long-lasting.”

Tomasello and Morris’s theories in regards to human evolutionary cooperation are provocative to me. If group cooperation is such a culturally essential catalytic learning tool, why aren’t our institutions of higher learning utilizing it to full capacity?

Cooperative/collaborative learning is an educational process that promotes positive group interdependence. Students labour in groups to complete learning tasks collectively. Learners cooperatively benefit from one another’s ideas, experiences and skills. Participants of a collaborative learning experience succeed only when the group as a whole succeeds; this eliminates the need for intergroup competition. Highly effective cooperative learning groups promote open-ended intellectually demanding discussions, creativity and usually involve higher order thinking tasks. This is fundamentally the complete opposite of today’s formal learning environments.

Currently education systems focus on the individual learner. Test, exams and marks are used as rating tools. Teachers go through their syllabi at brake neck speeds, educating and exploring topics in a shallow time constrained manner. North American educational institutes exclusively focus on the success or failure of an individual’s ability to learn in relation to their peers.

As I a lifelong learner, I have found these methods poor and ineffective. Could it be that out ancestors had stumbled upon a highly efficient problem solving tool that amplifies learning? Could something as simple as promoting the capacity to effectively cooperate, share intent and knowledge be the key to overhauling our education system to encourage the success of many over the success of the few?  Perhaps being at the top of one’s class is not so much a personal achievement, but a failure to help one’s peers in succeeding also?

Are we under using cooperative learning in our education system? As basic as cooperative/collaborative learning is; in all of my 28 years of structured education, I find myself straining to think of a time where I actually experienced it.

Yes, I have worked in groups in school. Once in a blue moon, a small group of us were put together for a mini project or assignment. In my experience, what usually occurred in this so called group work was the most extroverted individuals spoke frequently and the shy ones nodded along; or the more aggressive personalities pushed their ideas on others and for fear of rocking the boat no one disagreed.

I cannot recall actually experiencing the magical collective synergy that group work is totted to be. I wondered why this was. Could it be that group work is like every other skill or talent? Does practise make perfect? Are teachers in schools misusing collaborative learning? Is it employed too infrequently and for inadequate time increments? Perhaps we need to re-evaluate this essential cognitive catalyst’s use, after all look what it did for our ancestors….



Kuhn, S. L and Stiner, M.C., (2006) What’s a Mother to Do? The Division of Labor among Neandertals and Modern Humans in Eurasia, Current Anthropology, Volume 47, Number 6, December doi:10.1086/507197 Retrieved from

Tomasello, M (2010, November 14). Michael Tomasello: Origins of Human Collaboration and Shared Intentionality pt02 [Video file]. Retrieved from


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One response to “Work, Sex and Social Norms

  1. Hi Ally,

    You raise a number of interesting topics related to our studies on the role of cooperative learning that I had not considered previously.

    I had been taught in my Biology degree that species are driven to reproduce to ensure continuation of their genetic material, but generally speaking from a purely biological perspective, males invest little in the process. They provide a single-celled organism during mating whose source can be replenished quickly and to which they have no physical attachment. This does not provide great incentive for males to be monogamous and, indeed, it is rare in nature for species to mate for life. The idea that the lifelong partnership observed in Homo sapiens stems from our capacity to co-operate and have shared intentionality is an explanation I’ve never considered regarding this uniquely human behavior which defies natural tendencies.

    I also liked your discussion around collaborative learning in the education system and how learning could be optimized with greater opportunity for group work. One suggestion for enhanced learning outcomes for educators using group work strategy is to have team members come up with a contract which they agree to and sign on day one. It might sound dehumanizing on the surface, but the contract requires members to openly discuss and democratically agree to important components of the project work which will define shared intentionality from the outset. The contract should include expected level of engagement from each team member and desired team goals. This solidifies two aspects of a well-functioning community of practice, mutual engagement and joint enterprise. I have never done this myself in a group, but my husband, who is also doing a Masters’ degree says that having a contract like this in place is priceless. It brings about cohesiveness.


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