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Cortina, M. (2017). Adaptive Flexibility, Cooperation, and Prosocial Motivations: The Emotional Foundations of Becoming Human. Psychoanal. Inq., 37(7):436-454.

(2017). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 37(7):436-454

Original Articles

Adaptive Flexibility, Cooperation, and Prosocial Motivations: The Emotional Foundations of Becoming Human

Mauricio Cortina, M.D.

Humans are highly motivated to cooperate, share, and help others. The evidence for this claim comes from examining prosocial behaviors as they show up very early in development, and by systematic comparisons between young children and mankind’s closest great ape relatives. Highly cooperative and social species that care for kin and nonkin members of their group are rare in nature and call for an evolutionary explanation. Based on the work of Michael Tomasello and others, I offer a possible explanation based on a two-phase model. The first phase of the evolution of cooperation and sociability is induced by climate change taking place during a critical period of human evolution. Climate variability produced shifts from wet, monsoon landscapes to dry and arid landscapes in East Africa, the home of many of humanity’s ancestors. Shifting environmental conditions produced selective pressures favoring adaptive flexibility and forced cooperation and interdependence among our hominin ancestors, who had to search for food (cooperative foraging) and protect each other from predators. Forced interdependence came together with two biosocial adaptations: a cooperative form of raising young children (cooperative breeding) and long-term mating patterns (pair bonding). These biosocial adaptations help explain how the species might have begun to develop emotionally modern intersubjective mind-reading capacities. During a second phase of the evolution of cooperation, the emergence of shared social norms, social reputations, the cumulative effects of cultural knowledge passed on over many generations, and cultural differences produced a new form of evolution: cultural evolution. In turn, cultural evolution produced a new cycle of innovations consisting of symbolic capacities and language. When it comes to psychotherapy, the same conditions that made one human—adaptive flexibility, cooperation, helping others and mutual enjoyment in sharing—are the same conditions that make for a strong therapeutic alliance.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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