Research Article

Cooperative Breeding and the Evolutionary Origins of Shared Intentionality

  • Ronald J. Planer orcid logo (University of Wollongong)


It has seemed to many theorists that our nature as a cooperatively breeding species is crucial to understanding how we became fully human. This article examines a particular strand within this thinking, according to which cooperative breeding drove the evolution of human skills and motivations for sharing intentionality. More specifically, I consider a model of the evolution of these skills and motivations offered by Tomasello and González-Cabrera (2017). Their model is “composite” in that it also recognizes an important role for collaborative foraging in the evolution of shared intentionality. I argue that their model (or more precisely: a natural construal of it) faces at least two problems—what I call the “reflexive metacognition problem” and the “bonding problem.” These two problems (as their names would suggest) concern the cognitive and emotional-motivational dimensions of the evolution of shared intentionality, respectively. I sketch an alternative evolutionary scenario which also posits a dual role for collaborative foraging and cooperative breeding. However, there are some crucial differences between the two models. In particular, the Tomasello and González-Cabrera model appeals to cooperative breeding in explaining the initial appearance of basic skills and motivations for sharing intentionality. In contrast, I argue that cooperative breeding, at least initially, instead served to drive down the age of development of preexisting skills and motivations for sharing intentionality that originally evolved to support collaborative foraging in adult life. This alternative model avoids the reflexive cognition and bonding problem, and has other advantages which I highlight.

Keywords: cooperative breeding, collaborative foraging, shared intentionality, reflexive metacognition, (social) bonding, cultural learning, phenotypic plasticity

How to Cite:

Planer, R. J., (2023) “Cooperative Breeding and the Evolutionary Origins of Shared Intentionality”, Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology 15: 2. doi:

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Published on
22 May 2023
Peer Reviewed