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Social interaction research suggests teamwork helped make humans smart

PARIS--Learning to work in teams may explain why humans evolved a bigger brain, according to a new study published on Wednesday.

Compared to their hominid predecessors, Homo sapiens are cerebral giants, a riddle that scientists have long tried to solve.

The answer, according to researchers in Ireland and Scotland, may lie in social interaction.

Working with others helped humans survive, but this required developing a brain big enough to cope with all the social complexities, they believe.

In a computer model, the team simulated the human brain, allowing a network of neurons to evolve in response to a series of social challenges.

There were two scenarios. The first entailed two partners in crime who had been caught by the police, each having to decide whether or not to inform on the other.

The second had two individuals trapped in a car in a snowdrift and having to weigh whether to cooperate to dig themselves out or just sit back and let the other do it.

In both cases, the individual would gain more from selfishness.

But the researchers were intrigued to find that as the brain evolved, the individual was likelier to choose to cooperate.

“We cooperate in large groups of unrelated individuals quite frequently, and that requires cognitive abilities to keep track of who is doing what to you and change your behavior accordingly,” co-author Luke McNally of Dublin's Trinity College told AFP.

McNally pointed out, though, that cooperation has a calculating side. We do it out of reciprocity.

“If you cooperate and I cheat, then next time we interact you could decide: 'Oh well, he cheated last time, so I won't cooperate with him.' So basically you have to cooperate in order to receive cooperation in the future.”

McNally said teamwork and bigger brainpower fed off each other.

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