A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution Hardcover – 20 Jun 2011
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"The achievement of Bowles and Gintis is to have put together from the many disparate sources of evidence a story as plausible as any we're likely to get in the present state of behavioural sciences of how human beings came to be as co-operative as they are."--W.G. Runciman, London Review of Books
"In A Cooperative Species, economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis update their ideas on the evolutionary origins of altruism. Containing new data and analysis, their book is a sustained and detailed argument for how genes and culture have together shaped our ability to cooperate. . . . By presenting clear models that are tied tightly to empirically derived parameters, Bowles and Gintis encourage much-needed debate on the origins of human cooperation."--Peter Richerson, Nature
"An outstanding book that presents an important contribution and quite simply raises the scientific standard associated with the difficult and contentious problem of how human altruism evolved."--Charles Efferson, Economic Journal
"A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution states a clearly articulated gene-culture coevolution explanation for why we are a cooperative species. It is a read that will stretch readers' minds a bit, and I think it is an eminently valuable read. . . . I await with eagerness the next time Bowles and Gintis are out cooperating again."--Jonathan D. Springer, PsycCRITIQUES
"[T]he authors' systematic and mathematical approach will appeal to any reader seriously interested in learning about alternative theories of adaptive altruism, and their treatment of cultural inheritance using population-genetic models is first-rate. Although this book will by no means settle the debate surrounding the evolutionary origin of altruism, it is a worthy addition and is well worth reading."--P. William Hughes, Journal of Economic Issues
"Bowles and Gintis are clearly not short of ideas. The attention they draw to the role of conflict and coordinated punishment in the evolution of our cooperative and reciprocal species makes the book very much worth reading. Their focus on the evolution of human nature also paints a much richer picture of our behavior than traditional economics tends to do."--Journal of Economic Literature
"Bowles and Gintis are not the first to claim that competition, conflict, and war between human groups is the foundation of cooperation and of society. However, their integration of this insight into evolutionary game theory stands to increase the accessibility of this powerful idea to a large number of scholars working in a dominant theoretical perspective that spans the social and biological sciences. This is one reason why I recommend their new book A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution."--Noah Mark, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation
"This book makes a strong case for returning as a discipline to this vexed theme. I can only hope we do so with the analytical ingenuity and empirical humility that Bowles and Gintis display."--Jacob G. Foster, American Journal of Sociology
"Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution should be of interest to individuals across multiple disciplines. The book provides a compelling argument supported by multiple kinds of theoretical and empirical evidence. Although the book does use some technical language and examples in places, the explanation is sufficiently clear to make the main ideas and arguments of the book accessible to individuals who were not previously familiar with these technicalities."--Christopher M. Caldwell, Metapsychology Online
"[This book] makes important contributions to our understanding of the nature and function of emotions in politics, including the evolution of emotion and cognition and their linkages to democratic governance. . . . [It] should become [an] important resource for students of politics who have the requisite background in the behavioral sciences and wish to develop an integrated, life science perspective in their own work."--Michael S. Latner, Politics and the Life Sciences
From the Back Cover
"A Cooperative Species is a fresh and pioneering entry into the pivotal field of human social evolution."--Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University
"In A Cooperative Species, Bowles and Gintis draw on their own research and teaching about understanding the complex human being in the context of diverse ways of organizing life. They show that humans can evolve cooperative strategies when they participate in groups that share long-term similar norms and are willing to sanction those that do not follow group agreements. An important book for all social scientists."--Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Laureate in Economics
"Why we form cooperative societies is not hard to understand given all of the advantages we derive, but how we do it is far less understood. Humans have powerful selfish tendencies, but Bowles and Gintis are not of the school of thought that everything can be reduced to selfishness. They muster all of their expert knowledge to make clear that evolution has produced a species with a truly cooperative spirit and the means to encourage cooperation in others."--Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy
"Bowles and Gintis stress that cooperation among individuals who are only distantly related is a critical distinguishing feature of the human species. They argue forcefully that the best explanation for such cooperation is altruism. Many will dispute this claim, but it deserves serious consideration."--Eric Maskin, Nobel Laureate in Economics
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But first a caveat: When the book finally arrived, I leafed through it - and was tempted to send it back immediately. Mathematical formulas and equations, lots of, crawling like little black spiders on every second page! Math makes me sick. I haven't got any mathematical education beyond the rule of three (and I'm not proud of it, believe me), so I tackled the book with more trepidation than hope. Unfortunately, the style also lived up to my worst fears: hardcore scientific prose you normally expect in journals like "Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology" or "Journal of economic Theory". I never read these publications, a trait I share with the majority of Amazon customers, I guess. So I just kept skipping the parts with the math and tried to make sense of the rest.
And now for the good news: The rest does make sense. It gave me some hints to look for an answer to the maddening ambivalence of human nature I mentioned above. The hint, in a nutshell, is something like: Take confrontation and cooperation as two sides of the same coin. The term Bowles/Gintis coined for it is "parochial altruism".
There are in principle two ways to explain human altruism.
(A) Altruism is only skin-deep. Selfishness always lurks behind nice appearances.Read more ›
The Kindle edition is moderately well produced, with plenty of hot links to hop you around between the various cross-referenced sections of the book. It is just a pity that there is the need to keep following them to piece together the authors' threads.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This is a book with a complex context, and it is best to understand something of that context in order to get a clear view of the book. Briefly, Bowles and Gintis have set themselves to resolve one of the most vexing issues in evolutionary theory, that of whether the widespread human trait of altruism toward those who are not close kin can have arisen through natural selection, and if so just how. To do so they must wage war on some views that approach dogma, and they gird and armor themselves with mathematics and factual detail. All this does not make for easy reading, but it is very worth the effort. And it is not necessary to trace all of the details to get a great deal out of it.
In the popular view, the theory of natural selection implies that nice guys always finish last, that it is the strong and ruthless who are fittest, not the cooperative and altruistic. The hyperaggressive Wall St. sociopath is seen as evolution's ideal type. It would seem to follow that altruism cannot be the product of evolution, and thus that natural selection cannot entirely account for the nature of humankind.
Darwin understood all this quite clearly and it troubled him not a little. In a famous passage in The Descent of Man (Penguin Classics) he acknowledged, "It is extremely doubtful whether the offspring of the more sympathetic and benevolent parents, or of those who were the most faithful to their comrades, would be reared in greater numbers than the children of selfish and treacherous parents belonging to the same tribe. He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature. The bravest men, who were always willing to come to the front in war, and who freely risked their lives for others, would on an average perish in larger numbers than other men."
Darwin argued, however, that the contribution made by the "sympathetic and benevolent" to the survival and success of the group would outweigh the individual advantages of the "selfish and treacherous" : "Let it be borne in mind how all-important in the never-ceasing wars of savages, fidelity and courage must be.... A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes: but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed. Thus the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world." Thus was born the concept of group selection.
(Inter alia, it is worth noting Darwin's use of value-laden terms, such as "sympathetic," "benevolent," "selfish," and "treacherous," standing in testimony of the underlying strength of our inbred biases. Attempts to erase or reverse these polarities, such as that undertaken by the Nazis, have met with notably little success.)
But nearly four decades ago, group selection died a messy and protracted death, a victim of mathematical analysis of natural selection's mechanisms, the then-new understanding of the molecular basis for transmission of the traits on which natural selection acts, and deeper understanding of the heredity of social insects. I've heard more than one biologist or mathematical biologist say flatly that "group selection is all rubbish." (For a summary and scorecard see Mark E. Borrello, "The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Group Selection," Endeavour 29, No. 1 (Mar 2005): 43-47.)
In reality, however, it never was that absolute. As the great mathematical biologist John Maynard Smith put it, "The terms group selection should be confined to cases in which the group ... is the unit of selection. This requires that groups be able to 'reproduce,' ... and that groups should go extinct. ... Group selection can maintain 'altruistic' alleles--i.e., alleles which reduce individual fitness but increase the fitness of groups carrying them. The conditions under which this can happen are stringent, so that the main debate concerns whether the process has had evolutionarily important consequences." ["Group Selection," Quarterly Review of Biology 51, No. 2 (Jun 1976): 277-83.]
Bowles and Gintis now return to this debate fortified both with new models and new knowledge of the biology and behaviors of our ancestors. The increased puissance of the models derives both from several decades more thought by mathematical biologists armed with the insights provided by extensive computationally-intensive simulation of a kind not feasible in the 1970s. The knowledge of human descent has been augmented by extensive archeological discoveries, elucidated by powerful technologies for exploiting them, together with the entirely new study of human and animal genomes. The book provides a very extensive tour of all of this.
For all our gains in knowledge, there remain huge gaps in our picture of our ancestors and their lives. We still must rely a great deal on inferences that seem plausible in terms of the available evidence but could very well be wrong. It is not possible to say with certainty whether Maynard Smith's stringent conditions were in fact met in the course of human prehistory. Nevertheless, Bowles and Gintis make out a very colorable case that they were met, and that group selection thus endowed our species with its remarkable altruistic and cooperative tendencies. (They prefer to call it multi-level selection; while this seems more precise and descriptive I am not optimistic that it will become standard.)
As an aside, I should remark that this is a field whose terms, such as "altruism" and "strong reciprocity," have an unfortunate tendency to launch some people into hyperbolic rhetorical orbits, as we see in some of the reviews here. But this is really a book about behaviors and mechanisms, leaving us free to take our own views on values.
Bowles and Gintis, together and separately, have published many papers on the subjects treated in the book but so far as I can see the book very largely subsumes all their published work.
While I rather imagine that Bowles and Gintis have more than once felt quite lonely in their efforts, the question of group selection and its influence on the development of altruism has become quite a hot topic, with those taking the positive view having the wind at their back on the whole, at least for now. The evidence for this includes several other books that bear mention. Edward O. Wilson, who was one of those who argued most effectively against group selection from the biological perspective four decades ago, now has published The Social Conquest of Earth, which many of his sometime admirers see as shocking apostasy. Wilson goes briefly over the same ground as Bowles and Gintis but concentrates much of his attention on the case of social insects, his area of deepest expertise.
Wilson's book was preceded by a widely noted and very controversial paper which he co-authored with a prominent younger mathematical biologist, Martin Nowak, who now (with a co-author) has published SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. This is a non-mathematical exploration of the insights from the mathematical modeling, with references to correlated biology.
Finally, I should mention Christopher Boehm's Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Boehm is a social anthropologist, not a biologist at all, who takes up another argument offered by Darwin, that peer pressure and reputation played a decisive role in the evolution of altruism. Boehm does not offer any of the formal game-theoretic models that Bowles and Gintis use (and that underlie Nowak's book), and Bowles and Gintis do seek to use models to deny reputation a place in altruism's evolution. I do not see them as having entirely undermined Boehm's points and I suggest we will see more on the subject.
No doubt we will see much more on the whole issue of altruism's evolution. Surely we have yet to hear the last of the anti-group selection camp, and there is ample room in any event for further discoveries and resulting arguments. But this book seems bound to have continuing importance. It certainly is true that the book is anything but light reading. It's a deep, dense book, but it well repays the effort involved.
The way that B&G pull together material from the fields listed above (economics, biology, anthropology...) is very impressive. What is especially striking is the level of detail with which they draw on each field. The book is a coherent and argumentative synthesis of very diverse traditions of work. To me, the balance of the book was not quite right. The weight put on the models was a little excessive. There are just so many models developed, in considerable detail, and I think the book could have been a little stronger if a smaller number of models had been given more attention, and if a little more space was given to the empirical side. Some of the models belong in journal articles rather than this book. This is a minor complaint, but I worry that some readers might devour the first few chapters and then get bogged down in the middle, not making it to the end. This would be a shame, as some of the most interesting material comes at the end - including the very final pages. So if would recommend skipping rather than stopping, if the reader finds the middle of the book too model-heavy.
But first a warning : When the book finally arrived, I leafed through it - and was tempted to send it back immediately. Mathematical formulas and equations, lots of, crawling like little black spiders on every second page! Math makes me sick. I haven't got any mathematical education beyond the rule of three (and I'm not proud of it, believe me), so I tackled the book with more trepidation than hope. Unfortunately, the style also lived up to my worst fears: hardcore scientific prose you normally expect in journals like "Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology" or "Journal of Economic Theory". I never read these publications, a trait I share with the majority of Amazon customers, I guess.
It's not a book for somebody with a diploma in, say, philosophy or literature, who just happens to be interested in the question "Why are humans such a cooperative species?". It's a book written by two experts for their fellow experts, and unless readers are well versed in economic or game theory they will have to content themselves with reading for gist.
So I just kept skipping the parts with the math and tried to make sense of the rest. And now for the good news: The rest does make sense. It gave me some hints to look for an answer to the maddening ambivalence of human nature I mentioned above. The hint, in a nutshell, is something like: Take confrontation and cooperation as two sides of the same coin. The term Bowles/Gintis coined for this ambivalence is "parochial altruism".
There are in principle two ways of explaining human altruism.
(A) Altruism is only skin-deep. Selfishness always lurks behind nice appearances. For instance Trivers' "reciprocal altruism", a misnomer, because no genuine altruism is involved. People, according to this approach, expect (sub-consciously) to be repaid sooner or later. If somebody helps a total stranger, with no prospect of being repaid, this theory explains it as a kind of "Big Mistake". Because humans spent most of their history living in small groups based on kinship the human mind even today, in an anonymous situation, acts as if it still were in the pleistocene, helping not some stranger but a relative or some guy he or she will probably meet again sooner or later. Scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours. See you. Genuine altruism today therefore would be a kind of misfiring in a situation unknown to the old mental moduls that still govern our behavior. Bowles/Gintis show that this "Big-Mistake-Hypothesis" cannot be true because even in the Pleistocene humans had plenty of contact with strangers. The picture of small and closed bands (based on kinship) of stone-age people is a myth.
(B) Bowles/Gintis argue that altruism can be genuine. But if altruism is defined as a behavior that increases the fitness of the recipient and that is costly to those practicing altruism - how can it spread? Because evolution is a game that dispenses with rules other than natural laws, being nice has to pay off, or it will disappear. What, according to Bowles/Gintis, is the mecanism that assures the success of altruism? Their answer is: group-selection. The whole argument of the book, as far as I can see, hinges on the question whether group-selection, or multi-level-selection as it is often called today, works or doesn'nt. That's the point where the mathematical models come in and where I drop out.
The prerequisite for group-selection to be effective is that selection within groups is reduced compared to selection between groups. The picture that emerges from the model is that groups who managed to reduce internal strife and competition by inventing and promoting cultural "leveling mechanisms" will act as units of selection and will outcompete groups with more selfish members. The competition, suppressed or reduced within groups, will increase between groups. Humans developed a special kind of groupishness: Being unconditionally altruistic towards their own people, being even eager to punish freeriders of the own group, even if the punishment is costly for themselves, while at the same time acting xenophobically towards other groups. The parochial quality of unconditional (not reciprocal!) cooperation is the necessary condition of genuine altruism to prevail.
Unfortunately, I'm in no position to decide whether the scientific arguments forwarded by Bowles and Gintis, based on mathematical models, hold true or not. On this question, I declare myself incompetent. But I'd say that everybody who is interested in human evolution should read this book, even without competence in higher math, because the idea is fascinating that in human history it was groups rather than individuals who were selected for or against. And that it was and still is culture that formed groups in a way as to making them act as units of selection. I think that culture and its group-forming force is the part of the picture that Dawkins and the gene-centered view of evolution missed ("memetics" doesn't explain anything).
Just one final remark: Herbert Gintis is one of the top reviewers of Amazon, and it's always a pleasure to read his commentaries. They are written in a clear, accessible style. If only this book was written a bit more like his reviews. My wish would be : keep the jargon to the journals. Books like these are for interested layfolks. The math may be essential for the argument; the jargon certainly isn't. Therefore only four points.
The Kindle edition is moderately well produced, with plenty of hot links to hop you around between the various cross-referenced sections of the book. It is just a pity that there is the need to keep following them to piece together the authors' threads.
These people really know what is happening both in economics, antropology and evolutionary biology today, they strongly contribute to the development of both and they can convincingly make their point.
The discussion about the evolution of cooperation has certainly not yet come to a final conclusion. But on this stage it looks Bowles and Gintis are right when claiming:
"The view that early humans lived in worlds with little contact outside one's family--Dawkins' ideal conditions for self-interested cooperation to flourish--is difficult to square with what is known about the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau's philosophers, Dawkins, Huxley, and other biologists seem to have jumped on a faulty time machine, and have journeyed to an imaginary ancestral world...
We will see that neither the likely size of groups, nor the degree of genetic relatedness within groups, nor the typical demography of foraging bands is favorable to the view that Late Pleistocene human cooperation can be adequately explained by kin-based altruism or reciprocal altruism...
But our joint work with Stefany Moreno Gamez and Jon Wilkins of the Santa Fe Institute indicates that if ancestral groups indeed had been small and closed, the degree of differentiation among groups predicted by the standard model of equilibrium differentiation would be substantially greater than what we observe (Moreno Gamez et al. 2011). The genetic data thus are more consistent with ancestral groups being of considerable size and with ever-changing composition."
One issue came to my mind. Normally the efficiency of the market economy (with several companies offering alternative products) is said to be due to competition allocating productive resources to their most highly-valued uses. But maybe the efficiency is also due to competition causing the employees of the competing companies to act like a hunter-gather groups. The competition causes higher efficiency via the mechanism of heightened free-rider punishment by gossip etc.:
"A final experiment provides a possible link between group conflict and the evolution of cooperation based not on the fact that altruists, if parochial, are willing fighters but that group conflict stimulates altruistic punishment of free-riding fellow group members. Sääksvuori, Puurtinen and their coauthors (2011) implemented a series of eight-person public goods games with and without a punishment option and in which the payoffs of members of the groups playing these games either depended on the outcome of group competition or were independent of the performance of any other group.
In the treatments with group competition, the groups with the larger contribution to the public good won a prize that was twice the group difference in the level of public contributions. Group competition greatly heightened the punishment of shirking group members where this was possible, so that groups with the punishment option prevailed over groups without it."
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