Robin Hanson responds to work such as Frans de Waal’s which emphasizes the invaluable role that empathy and cooperation played in natural selection of humans by stressing that as good as cooperation might be, we are prone to making serious errors about what genuinely helpful cooperation entails in specific instances:
The unstated moral behind most media stories on our biological instincts to cooperate seems to be that we would do better to empower and emphasize these instincts. Such as, oh, taxing carbon, and shaming those who don’t tax carbon.
But such stories mostly ignore the dark side of cooperation: pro-cooperation instincts rely on dangerous conformity. Yes groups can be better off if individuals can see who do things that hurt the group overall, and punish those folks, and punish those who don’t punish them, etc. But our evolved instincts about which are the individual actions that actually hurt others might be quite out of whack.
The problem is that evolved cooperation instincts reward supporting behavior that most people feel is cooperative, and not what is actually cooperative. In novel situations, where our ancient instincts and simple rumor mills are poor guides, ordinary folks can be quite mistaken about which actions help vs. hurt everyone. In this case our “cooperative” instincts can make it much harder to share info about what actually helps or hurts. In contrast, if it is accepted that we will each act selfishly, cooperating selfishly via exchange and contract, we can more easily rethink and relearn what actions are actually helpful in our new changing world.