Saturday, July 30, 2011

More on the evolution of cooperation

It's fascinating how fascinating scientists find cooperation these days. A recent article in the Economist explains recent attempts to give an evolutionary explanation for basic human civility and generosity toward strangers:
Evidence from economic games played in the laboratory for real money suggests humans are both trusting of those they have no reason to expect they will ever see again, and surprisingly unwilling to cheat them—and that these phenomena are deeply ingrained in the species’s psychology. Existing theories of the evolution of trust depend either on the participants being relatives (and thus sharing genes) or on their relationship being long-term, with each keeping count to make sure the overall benefits of collaboration exceed the costs. Neither applies in the case of passing strangers, and that has led to speculation that something extraordinary, such as a need for extreme collaboration prompted by the emergence of warfare that uses weapons, has happened in recent human evolution to promote the emergence of an instinct for unconditional generosity.

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, two doyens of the field, who work at the University of California, Santa Barbara, do not agree. They see no need for extraordinary mechanisms and the latest study to come from their group (the actual work was done by Andrew Delton and Max Krasnow, who have just published the results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) suggests they are right. It also shows the value of applying common sense to psychological analyses—but then of backing that common sense with some solid mathematical modelling. [emphasis added]
The conclusion that Cosmides and Tooby come to is explained in these words:
For most plausible sets of costs, benefits and chances of future encounters the simulation found that it pays to be trusting, even though you will sometimes be cheated. Which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense. Previous attempts to study the evolution of trust using games have been arranged to make it clear to the participants whether their encounter was a one-off, and drawn their conclusions accordingly. That, though, is hardly realistic. In the real world, although you might guess, based on the circumstances, whether or not you will meet someone again, you cannot know for sure. Moreover, in the ancient world of hunter-gatherers, limited movement meant a second encounter would be much more likely than it is in the populous, modern urban world.

No need, then, for special mechanisms to explain generosity. An open hand to the stranger makes evolutionary as well as moral sense. Except, of course, that those two senses are probably, biologically speaking, the same thing. But that would be the subject of a different article.
Here you see the bias on the part of scientists, that our morals must somehow be ingrained in us biologically. I don't see any proof that this is the case. What about the role of traditions? Arguing that morals evolve biologically is like arguing that language is preconditioned in our DNA--which some argue is true, but I believe is false. Our morals, like our language, would not exist without structures that exist on top of our biology, structures created not purely biologically but also socially. In other words, you have to be taught in order to speak a language, and you have to be taught to have morals.

I don't think we should discount the biological account of certain moral traits; perhaps in some sense it could be enlightening. On the other hand, a computer model does not explain everything. Examining the moral development of actual human beings would be more enlightening.

And then, there is this remark: "Except, of course, that those two senses [evolutionary and moral] are probably, biologically speaking, the same thing." This is one modern assumption I just can't buy: that moral questions are all reducible to empirical questions. Even if, as secular thinkers presume, there is no transcendent purpose for our morals other than that they allow the human species to survive and thrive, this is no way guarantees that we will be able to reduce our moral sense to "evolutionary sense"--that is, we cannot necessarily understand what will, in the long run, lead to the survival and thriving of the human species. In the interest of keeping this post relatively short, I'll refrain from addressing all the questions I see looming over this reduction from moral to empirical.

My final question is this: what will be the philosophical and societal implications of these empirical studies? It would be naive to think that these "findings" are playing on ideologically neutral ground. Are these studies going to be used to attack capitalism? Or perhaps bolster it? I could see the arguments going either way. One might say, "Capitalism makes a false empirical assumption that people are naturally self-interested, so it ought to be dismantled." Or one might say, "See? People left to make their own decisions naturally tend to cooperate, so we ought to give them more economic freedom." Personally, I find both interpretations naive, but naive interpretations tend to drive ideological battles. It will be interesting to see what interpretations emerge from the evolutionary study of morals.

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