The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World
by Nichola Raihani
St. Martin’s Press, 2021 ($29.99)
Society is built on a foundation of cooperation, with lessons on its importance starting as early as Sesame Street. It may be tempting to look at our ability to cooperate—however imperfectly—as evidence that humans have transcended our baser instincts. But in her energetic analysis, psychologist Nichola Raihani recontextualizes cooperation within the framework of evolution and reveals the competition for survival that still bubbles below its surface.
According to Raihani, cooperation is “not just about what we do, but who and what we are.” As multicellular beings, we literally embody cooperation. As individuals, we gravitate toward others. The same instincts that lead us to live in tight-knit family groups drive us to help those who are not part of our immediate circles, even when our assistance will never be reciprocated. While this may not seem to square with “survival of the fittest,” Raihani accounts for this evolutionary puzzle and illuminates how cooperation has shaped such disparate phenomena as cancer, monogamy, menopause, hatred toward vegans, and people leaving dirty dishes in the office sink.
Raihani explains the breathtaking intricacies of natural selection yet does not shy away from addressing the field’s current controversies (such as whether human societies should share the status of “superorganisms” with bee and ant colonies) or touching on its outermost frontiers, including the “mind-bendingly bonkers” possibilities of microchimerism, the presence of cells of two individuals in one body. She compares human behaviors with those of other intensely social animals. For instance, meerkats teach their young how to handle food safely through scaffolded lessons, and the bluestreak cleaner wrasse polices its cleaning station to prevent conflict that might scare off fussy client fish.
Raihani offers insight into how our hardwired drive to cooperate could help us meet the challenges rushing at us, from pandemics to climate change. We can “change the rules” of our society to favor large-scale cooperation—a welcome idea as we confront living in the Anthropocene.—Dana Dunham
Secret Worlds: The Extraordinary Senses of Animals
by Martin Stevens
Oxford University Press, 2021 ($25.95)
Ecologist Martin Stevens catalogs animals’ sensory systems and how they exceed our own while informing—and challenging—our reality as humans. The book has a narrative and inquisitive style that will appeal to a wide audience. Stevens explores dozens of sensory systems through examples of the amazing capabilities they allow, from nocturnal dung beetles that orientate by using the Milky Way to sea turtles that navigate currents by reading the earth’s magnetic fields. Secret Worlds is filled with lessons on how different species evolved to perceive the world. —Jen St. Jude
Once There Were Wolves
by Charlotte McConaghy
Flatiron Books, 2021 ($27.99)
Australian writer Charlotte McConaghy (author of Migrations) delivers a suspenseful and poignant novel about a woman named Inti Flynn and her team of biologists who reintroduce gray wolves into Scotland’s remote Highlands. At first, the wolves seem to thrive, but when a farmer gets mauled, locals blame the animals. Inti, however, reaches a different—and tragic—conclusion: she suspects the man she loves. Her story unfolds as a meditation on the social and scientific consequences of influencing ecosystems, while reminding us that humans and animals alike can break our hearts. —Amy Brady
The Shimmering State
by Meredith Westgate
Atria Books, 2021 ($27)
Memoroxin, a personalized pill that replaces memories in people with Alzheimer’s, is being abused as a recreational drug. Unmoored from reality, Lucien and Sophie meet at a “Mem” rehab center in Los Angeles, where personal traumas can be snipped away along with foreign memories. They feel drawn to each other; have they met before? Like the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Shimmering State explores whether the joys and pains of love can ever be fully erased. Through interconnected relationships, the novel delves into some of the moral dilemmas of a technology that can catalog and edit consciousness. —Jen Schwartz
This article was originally published with the title “Driven to Cooperate” in Scientific American 325, 2, 80 (August 2021)