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A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution

Author(s):Bowles, Samuel
Gintis, Herbert
Reviewer(s):Coelho, Philip R. P.

Published by EH.NET (November 2011)

Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton, NJ:? Princeton University Press, 2011.? xii + 262 pp.? $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-15125-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Philip R. P. Coelho, Department of Economics, Ball State University.

This book explains the development of human altruism through the lenses of game theory and experimental economics. Almost two hundred of the book?s 262 pages are devoted to text (divided into twelve chapters); the rest consists of twelve appendices, a bibliography, and two indices.? The first three chapters set the stage, introducing models (the Prisoner?s Dilemma is prominently featured) used to explain why cooperation should be considered unusual, and the various aspects of cooperation (cooperating to punish non-cooperators is linguistically complex but easily understood).? Chapters 4, 5, 7, and 10 are heavily into the game theoretic foundations of their models, with the other chapters (6, 8, 9, 11, and 12) devoted to placing the models into explanations for the evolution of cooperation among humans.? The authors? major hypothesis is that human altruism can be attributed primarily to cultural evolution rather than biological evolution because biological evolution cannot be rationalized on a cost/benefit basis.? This is a serious book with serious scholarship, nevertheless it comes with a full-balance sheet; there are serious flaws.

A major flaw is a mirror image of one of the authors? significant achievements: their exhaustive use and review of game-theoretic analysis and cooperative games. Their analysis is highly dependent on these models; consequently they are also bound by the limitations that come with game-theoretic analysis.? These limits impose severe and artificial restrictions upon evolutionary processes.? Well before the ascendancy of game-theory, the prominent evolutionary biologist Michael T. Ghiselin (1974, p. 41) made a prescient criticism of the use of rule-based models to explain evolution:? ?Actually, evolution has no rules at all. … The best we can say is that there are various ways to cheat, and that some types of cheating are hard to get away with.?

Game-theoretic models developed by economists who are unfamiliar with the nuances of biology, history, and/or evolutionary history, and who are also resistant to empirical reality are doomed to failure.? Illustrative is an account given by Alexander J. Field of a prisoner?s dilemma economic experiment utilizing a Nash-equilibrium type game. The game and experiment were conducted with significant inputs from John Nash; the experimental subjects (players) were John Williams (a mathematician) and Armen Alchian (an economist).? The game that Nash developed had 100 rounds and there were points awarded for each round, the total number of points accumulated were converted into (substantial) monetary payments at the end of the games. As usual in prisoner?s dilemma-type games, non-cooperation (defection) was the ?rational? (expected) outcome for each round.?? Contrary to Nash?s (and the game-theoretic model?s) predictions, the players co-operated much more than expected.? Williams and Alchian received financial compensations for their efforts in exceeding predicted outcomes.? Nash was discomfited, and his extraordinarily revealing final remark was:? ?I would have thought them more rational? (Field, 2001, p.5).

One is left speechless that a future Nobel Prize winner in economics would have such a cavalier attitude towards scarcity and financial considerations. Nevertheless a similar ethos permeates game-theoretic approaches; the mathematics is all important, if empirical reality does not conform to the model, so much the worse for reality. Models that are confounded by empirical reality are neither good science, nor good history.? Even worse, as in the Nash vignette, is the equating of rationality with conforming to mindless game-theoretic solutions.

Bowles and Gintis use game-theoretic models to suggest that cooperation is a function of cultural evolution because rewards to the individual for behaving cooperatively are too insubstantial to affect the evolutionary calculus.? Their evidence comes from the aforementioned games and experimental data.? But these do not mirror human evolution, nor do they reflect the actual nuances of our history. In the context of the evolution of cooperation the authors use the results of ?Dictator? games as evidence that confounds the self-interest explanation in the evolution of cooperation. In the ?Dictator Game? one participant (the ?Dictator?) is given an amount of money to divide, the other participant can either accept or reject the division; if it is accepted the participants walk away with the money, if it is rejected then both participants get nothing. In the ?Dictator Game? participants are anonymous; consequently the authors argue that because: 1) most ?dictators? made close to an equal division, and 2) a large number of unequal divisions were rejected, then 3) self-interest can be ruled out as the foundation for cooperation. The authors contend that ?rational? persons would not offer much in the ?dictator? role, nor would they sacrifice anything to punish a non-cooperator if they were in the recipient position.

From an evolutionary perspective their conclusions are incorrect; putting the ?Dictator? experiment into the context of humanity?s ancestral environment is revealing. The hominid line (our species, Homo sapiens, is the last surviving branch of the hominids) has been a social species for as long as we have evidence of its existence. This means that we are social creatures; in the long-run survival and reproduction is not feasible outside of society. As in all societies, social rank (status) is crucially important to individuals. In the pre-historic human environment the vast majority of social interactions took place between relatively few adults (around twelve or less) and social interactions were continuous; in such small groups both making and accepting grossly disparate divisions would have had participants experiencing a substantial diminution in status, and a reduction in the probabilities of future cooperation.? In other words the results of disparate divisions would have substantially reduced the chances of evolutionary success (reproduction). As I (1985) and others have pointed out, status-seeking is inherently linked to living in societies. The authors argue that because these interactions take place between anonymous individuals it would be ?irrational? to be generous or to punish greedy ?dictators? and thus forego any payment. This is an egregious misreading of evolution because it takes no account that the desire for status (whether perceived externally or internally) has been hard-wired by evolutionary processes. Enhanced status improves reproductive success; behaviors that were consistent with reproductive success in the ancestral environment are embedded in our genetic inheritance; acting in accord with these instincts is not irrational, it is instinctive. To act contrary to instinctive behavior is itself costly.? Humans are usually frightened by snakes and complacent surrounded by automobiles; yet in contemporary societies one is much more likely to be killed or injured by automobiles rather than by snakes. But contemporaneous societies have not bestowed upon us our instinctive (genetic) behaviors; we must credit (or blame) the ancestral evolutionary environment for that. Whether we recognize it, like it, or actively deny it, the quest for status is an inherent evolutionary legacy in all non-pathological humans. The experimental environment of the twenty-first century is irrelevant to our genetic conditioning.? It would be analogous to say that we in the twenty-first century are ?irrational? for preferring high-protein fatty foods when we are overweight and marginally diabetic; culture can overcome our evolutionary heritage, but it is not easy.

The history that the authors do present is somewhat confusing and unnecessarily so; they continually refer to ?the late Pleistocene or early Holocene? epochs. The Pleistocene Age covers about 2.5 million years, terminating with the beginning of the Holocene Age (the Age in which we live) about 13,000 years ago. Two percent of the Pleistocene (about 50,000 years) is almost 400 percent of the entire Holocene Age. Linking them (as they do) can delude the unwary to assume percentile equivalence. Another dating issue that causes confusion is the authors? use of the Before the Present (BP) convention in dating. Before the Present is misleading because the ?present? is nearly 62 years old now. The ?Present? in BP dating starts in 1950 (this has to do with radiocarbon dating). Consequently, when the authors date events using the BP convention, it forces readers to be wary and demands annual revisions to place events in historical context.??

Perhaps these criticisms are misplaced; as noted in the first paragraph of this review, their study is almost exclusively framed by the game-theoretic approach. This is not a book about how cooperation actually evolved in the hominid line; they write about how game-theoretic modeling can be utilized in evolutionary models. In my opinion their analysis relies too much upon theory, and too little upon empiricism and biology. One does not have to be as nihilistic as Robert Trivers (2011) about the benefits of economics in explaining evolution; still it would be wise to consult non-game-theoretic alternatives in evolutionary thinking. In this vein I was disappointed (but not surprised) that the authors do not cite Alchian?s seminal (1950) contribution, nor do they consider the more recent contributions of Ghiselin, Tullock, and Dennett.? Can one learn from this book, despite its shortcomings? Yes, you can learn a great deal if you want either a passing familiarity or an in-depth review of the current knowledge of game-theoretic analysis in evolutionary models. The authors also give readers their views on the evolution of cooperation in humans. However, for readers interested in history or the empirical reality that permeates history and biology, this is an iffy book; it is more a book for specialists in the uses (and abuses) of models in evolution.

Alchian, Armen A. (1950) “Constraints, Evolution and Economic Theory,” Journal of Political Economy 58 (3): 211-21.

Coelho, Philip R. P. (1985) “An Examination into the Causes of Economic Growth,” Research in Law and Economics 7: 89-116.

Dennett, Daniel C. (1995) Darwin?s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.? New York: Simon & Schuster.

Field, Alexander J. (2001) Altruistically Inclined? The Behavioral Sciences, Evolutionary Theory, and the Origins of Reciprocity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Ghiselin, Michael T. (1974) The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Tullock, Gordon (1994) The Economics of Non-Human Societies. Tucson, AZ: Pallas Press.

Trivers, Robert (2011) The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. New York: Basic Books.

Philip R. P. Coelho is Professor of Economics at Ball State University. His recent book (co-authored with Robert A. McGuire), Parasites, Pathogens, and Progress (MIT Press 2011), is a study of the impact of diseases on history with an emphasis on their impact on American slavery, and their role in the development of the Malthusian Doctrine. He continues to work on the impact of morbid diseases on economic productivity, and he is working on the economics of education and economic methodology and ethics.

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Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative