Mother Nature doesn’t give her information for free. Her minions cloud their enemies’ judgement with devilish deception, and make plain the truth for their friends. Birds flock and fish school, predators are confused, and the little guy is a little safer. Delightful collaborations emerge where we least expect them, but it’s a simple matter of finding our mutual interest. Transparency and trust are much harder to come by. Welcome to the sharing economy, where online platforms help people share access to goods and services. Maybe it’s cars, or rooms, or power tools. Ride-sharing companies Lyft, and room-sharing app Airbnb, even Craigslist. The sharing economy offers tremendous opportunities, but you have to elicit trust to get it. And that means giving a measure of transparency into who you are. You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable, be willing to reveal something of yourself to strangers. If we can take that plunge, we can learn to “surf for free” on an unprecedented scale, just like the rest of nature. Keep reading to learn how common crows work together to keep their entire flock in check.
Any negotiator will tell you that information is a currency: being open builds trust for creating alliances, while keeping your cards close gives you power when you go it alone. It’s a tricky balancing act. But what we, as a species, are increasingly discovering, is that we simply can’t go it alone. It isn’t an efficient or effective strategy when you need collaboration. Democracies and market economies depend on transparency, giving citizens the hope they need that their actions and opinions can make a difference. Transparent practices earn businesses loyalty from consumers and make long-term shareholders feel secure. Visible supply chains and authentic sustainability initiatives mean fewer nasty surprises. It’s just good business.
But if that’s true, you ask, then why is everything such a scam? Why can’t we trust our banks, our businesses, our governments, our institutions? Well, shady practices thrive in our systems for one simple reason: cheating is a quick way to make a buck, and publicly-held businesses are managed for quarterly profit. Everything is a slave to the leading edge of that profit. Follow the money. It flows to the top.
Photo by Sergio Ruiz
That said, there is a movement away from these opaque monoliths, and it’s picking up steam. Airbnb hosts have put up some 9 million guests since 2008, with 500,000 listings in 33,000 cities. Lyft facilitates 30,000 rides per week. The sharing economy is worth around $26 billion right now, and it’s growing all the time.
But sharing stuff with complete strangers over the internet is risky. Who are these people? How do I know I can trust you? I have the word of other strangers to go by, as past sharers and borrowers rate their exchanges, but mostly I just have to go by gut instinct. People trust other people that are one of Us, and the best way to find that out is probably by reading your potential collaborator’s online profile. Are you Them, or are you Us?
Genetically speaking, the first loyalty of every gene inside you is to itself and to copies of itself living in your relatives. The group has to subjugate your wish to look out for el numero uno to the extent they need you to get things done for them. Humans are practically Borgs compared to our ape friends. A person without a group is like an ant in a jar. Pretty sad. Few species know more about the advantages of living cooperatively than we do, but there are also costs: a lot more competition! A lot of our decision-making around whether to help out or not revolves around simple “Us or Them?” math.
To benefit from group living, we entice others to make and keep promises with us. We do it by eliciting trust, which we do by showing our cards. I’m on your side. We’re in it together. Here’s the ultimate promise: woman promises paternity, man promises family protection and provisioning. That’s a lot of trust around some really big issues, and there’s really no guarantee the promises are being honored. Chimpanzees and bonobos get around it by exchanging food and sex simultaneously: “Here’s an apple, baby. How ‘bout it?” Humans are more nuanced about the whole thing. If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it. And that’s after the pair spends God-knows-how-long convincing each other with elaborate vocal, gestural, cultural, and financial displays that the ring will be an investment well-spent. It could take years (if you separate the sex from the offspring part of the bargain. Keep them together, and things get a lot chimpier).
Not everyone follows through on a promise, of course. Take lions, for instance. Some hang back when its time to defend the pride’s resources. Maybe they are “friends in need,” helping only if it will make or break the outcome, or ”fair-weather friends,” who only lend a hand if they know their team will win. Nature, as always, has a diversity of strategies, one of which is cheating. The dangers of being cheated on are profound. We need each other to survive, which requires our trust and transparency, but we also have to guard against exploiters. Female and lesser-ranked male chimps “hide behind a rock” for forbidden trysts, even trying to suppress their cries of passion. Subordinate chimps put their hands over their erections when pretty ladies go by (if Big Hector is around). And of course humans love to play the field if they can get away with it. My PhD advisor used to teach his undergrads about genetics by having them map out eye color in their family, but he had to stop. The 20% rate of “spontaneous mutation” was too hard to explain.
Yes, there are always cheaters, because its a damn fine strategy. But if too many do it, it stops working. Take vaccines, for example. Many parents don’t vaccinate their children, because they perceive a risk of side-effects. It’s an acceptable “cheater strategy,” as long as most other kids get their shots. Your child takes no risk, and reaps all the benefits of group protection. It’s a win-win. But as the idea catches on, the benefit goes down: your child could actually die of whooping cough. And of course, society isn’t going to like it. Gradually the math begins to change.
Nature is full of balancing mechanisms like this. Take the fig tree and fig wasp, for instance. The figs provide food and a place for baby wasps to grow, and the wasp pollinates the figs. If the wasp cheats and doesn’t pollinate the fruit, the fig tree drops all the unfertilized fruit, killing the wasp’s offspring. Ta-dah!
Crows and jays sock nuts away for a rainy day, and when they do, they watch out for their lying, cheating, stealing crow-brethren. For example, Crow One may pretend to hide the food, but instead he’ll stash it in his chest feathers and fly off to bury it somewhere else. Crow Two may see this and he knows all about crow deviousness (a flock of crows is called a murder for good reason in my opinion). He’ll suspiciously follows the first to be sure things are on the up and up. Check-mate.
This psychological arms race is integral to our biology. Humans are really good at assessing social interactions. In less than thirty minutes, we know who is not to be trusted. African Grey parrots are the same way. They work together to solve problems, just like we do. But they like some partners better than others. Who wants to collaborate with a guy who won’t share his nuts?
Not chimpanzees, that’s for sure. If one guy steals food from another, the victim will sure as hell let him know, and it’s going to hurt. But the rest of the group doesn’t gang up on the thief the way humans do. There’s only one other species we know of that punishes social violators on a community scale, and it will surprise you. Cleaner fish! Manta rays, groupers, and sea turtles visit these fish schools specifically for a cleaning. It’s a carwash co-op, with high customer service standards. If a client gets nipped, the other workers will chase the miscreant down and stone him to death (or something), just like at the human carwash when one guy forgets your air-freshener. Human societies have rules, called morality. We feel guilt, and cultivate values like trust, obligation, honesty, and integrity to keep each other in line. Violations are sometimes punishable by death.
Clearly, many people are willing to enter into these social contracts. They believe their collaborators, complete strangers, are trustworthy. That’s a beautiful thing, and it gives me hope. The more we trust and give transparency to each other, the bigger our ‘We’ gets, and the more we surf for free: just like the rest of nature.
And if you’re still on the fence about humanity, I give you this parting nugget: scientists at the University of Oxford called up hundreds of people and simply asked them to flip a coin. Tails you get paid; heads, stugatz! Would you believe 55.6 percent reported heads? That’s right, the numbers don’t lie. Schmoes before crows.
An evolutionary biologist, writer, sustainability expert, and passionate biomimicry professional in the Biomimicry 3.8 BPro certification program, Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker blogs at BioInspired Ink and serves as Content Developer for the California Association of Museums‘ Green Museums Initiative. She is working on a book about organizational transformation inspired by nature.