Saturday, October 11, 2014

Inequity Aversion and the Limits to Human Social Integration
My friend Ron White raises the following question on the International Political Science Association Research Committee #12 Facebook page:
Ronald F. White Ken Blanchard Jr.....why not get back to Book 5 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics? Why not explore the evolution of retribution and distribution based on MERIT, NEED, EQUALITY, and UTILITY? And of course the conflicts that arise at different, times, places and degrees. I've always found this "cooperation research" to be a bit left-leaning....overly focused on need and equality. Don't you?
I reply: no.  I think cooperation research captures the tension between Aristotle’s two moral/political books.  The Nicomachean Ethics begins with the assumption that the human thing is the deliberate action of some individual human being:
Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good. 
The Politics begins with the assumption that the human thing is the cooperative association
Every polis is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for human beings always act in order to obtain that which they think good.
As usual, I think Aristotle’s approach is perfect.  You can’t understand human beings without looking at us from both points of view.  Having digested de Waal and Brosnan’s article in Science, I think it supports Aristotle’s approach. 
“The Evolution of Responses to (Un)fairness” distinguishes two forms of inequity aversion.  First Order IA presents when a partner in some cooperative activity objects to a distribution of the fruits of the partnership that weighs to the objector’s disadvantage.  This form of inequity aversion has been found among a range of species that routinely cooperate. 
Second order IA presents when a partner responds negatively to an inequitable distribution of the fruits of cooperation that benefits the objector.  If I read the article correctly, this form has been found only in chimpanzees and human beings. 
What I make of this is that selfish reciprocity (I cooperate only in so far as I benefit) has much deeper evolutionary roots than conscientious reciprocity (I am concerned both for me and my partner).  Human beings are capable of cooperation on a level that leaves all the other primates far behind.  The emergence of human moral and political is a result, in large part, of the runaway selection for second order IA.  That indeed points toward a “socialist” view of man.  Nonetheless, second order IA is dependent upon first order IA, and the latter has deeper roots.  Anthropoi are not, and will not be in any practical timeframe, hymenoptera.  Human beings remain individuals, each with his or her own interests.  Any cooperative community can flourish only if the interests of each of the members is implicit in the interest of the whole.  The human community that is most in accord with human nature is one in which the rights of individuals are fundamental. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Evolution of Fairness

I have had the pleasure of meeting Franz de Waal on two occasions.  The first time was during an NSF Summer Institute at Dartmouth and the second was when he graciously agreed to sit on a panel I organized.  He is a very nice fellow. 
Since 2003, de Waal and Dr. Sarah Brosnan have been studying fairness behavior in monkeys.  Their basic research questions, as I understand it, is to what extent do nonhuman primates recognize and respond to situations of fairness and unfairness and how can this be explained by evolutionary theory?  The pair have published a paper surveying the literature and their findings in Science.  I don’t have access to the paper yet, but I have just read a summary of it at  Here is Brosnan’s description of their hypothesis:
"This sense of fairness is the basis of lots of things in human society, from wage discrimination to international politics," Brosnan said. "What we're interested in is why humans aren't happy with what we have, even if it's good enough, if someone else has more. What we hypothesize is that this matters because evolution is relative. If you are cooperating with someone who takes more of the benefits accrued, they will do better than you, at your expense. Therefore, we began to explore whether responses to inequity were common in other cooperative species."
Obviously, the question of the evolution of a sense of fairness in monkeys and nonhuman apes bears of the question of the natural history of human fairness.  Human beings are extraordinarily cooperative animals.  Our capacity for cooperation is possible in large part because we are capable of a sense of obligation toward others and a tendency toward righteous indignation when others fail to oblige in return. 
It is not immediately obvious how either capacity emerges in our evolutionary history.  The sense of obligation means that we give unto others when we don’t have to do so, which entails a cost in resources.  If I share what I have in my hands, I have less for myself.  The indignation means that I may refuse to accept a share from another that I regard as unfair, thus getting nothing (and perhaps getting into a fight) rather than getting something.  In a situation where resources and needs are marginally related (which was our situation for most of our time as a species on this earth) getting something rather than nothing would seem like the obviously better choice. 
It turns out that the indignation part of the equation is easier to explain.  Here is a summary of their 2003 paper in Nature. 
In this study, brown capuchin monkeys became agitated and refused to perform a task when a partner received a superior reward for that same task. To view video footage of the study, visit Since then, Brosnan has tested responses to inequity in nine different species of primates, including humans. She has found that species only respond to inequity when they routinely cooperate with those who are not related to them.
Here I am speculating on what de Waal and Brosnan have found and what it might mean.  Animals that cooperate with non-kin face a problem that animals who cooperate only with closely related individuals mostly do not.  Instincts for cooperation will be selected for only if they advance the reproductive success of the cooperator.  If cooperative associations reap benefits that are not available to conspecific non-cooperators, then the one will outbreed the other.  The species will evolve toward greater cooperation. 
However, what is true between the cooperators and non-cooperators will be true within the population of cooperators if some routinely exploit others.  Let us consider an over-simplified scenario in which two version of a key gene are evenly distributed across a population of cooperators.  One version (RI1) codes for righteous indignation whenever that animal doesn’t receive a fair share of the benefits of cooperation and the other version of the gene (RI2) does not.  Assuming that RI2 results in a smaller payoff from cooperation (and it only has to be a very small difference) then RI2 will gradually disappear from the general population. 
The really neat thing about this is that it doesn’t matter how big the payoff is.  Whether the population is small or large, struggling or flourishing, within the population of cooperators, the indignant will increase and the complacent will wither away.  So when someone says “it’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing”, they are expressing something that has a long evolutionary history.  An inherited sense of morality will maintain itself in the population only if it cares as much about the principle as the profit. 
The evolution of obligation is rather more difficult.  It is easier to see why an animal would be offended by a smaller share than feel an obligation to share when she has more than her partner. 
Responding to getting less than a partner is not the only aspect of fairness. For a true sense of fairness, it also matters if you get more. Brosnan and de Waal hypothesize that individuals should be willing to give up a benefit in order to reach equal outcomes and stabilize valuable, long-term cooperative relationships. Thus far, this has only been found in humans and their closest relatives, the apes.
A willingness to share equitably with others when you could take more for yourself means that you are (more or less consciously) concerned about maintain a reputation as a good cooperator.  That requires a more sophisticated psychology than we see in most primates. 
I close by noting that Plato was right.  The idea of justice is as real as the idea of a triangle.  The one governs the architecture of certain animal societies as much as the other governs the architecture of roofs. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Living Organisms, Autonomy, & Lineages

Miranda: you are better than any student I have ever known at seeing what the next question is.  That is the single most important element in philosophy. 
Aristotle considered metabolism (the ability of a living organism to nourish itself and consequently produce waste) as a sufficient condition for life.  He referred to this as "nutritive soul."  Plants have this alone, whereas animals have additional layers (mobility, perception at a distance) and human beings have still others.  These are the elements that define various levels of autonomy.  I don't think that this makes autonomy just another word for life.  The word life points to what we are trying to understand whereas the word autonomy helps us to understand what life is. 
However, I smuggled in an element that does not seem to belong to autonomy so much: the production of babies.  Some philosophers of biology argue that, in addition to autonomy, living organisms have to be part of a lineage.  Every living organism is the offspring of a line of successful replicators. 
I am not certain, but I think that the addition of the lineage as an essential element of life is an attempt to head off the kind of objection that Scott James raises against me.  A political community, for example, seems to display autonomy or something very close to it.  It seems to struggle to maintain itself and it has to feed and produce waste.  Aristotle himself argued that the political community is precisely that human association that works enough dynamic cycles that it is "self-sufficient".  Well, if political communities are self-sufficient are they not autonomous?  And if they are autonomous, are they not alive? 
I think that the self-sufficient human community is a much stronger challenge to my view of autonomy than are refrigerators or thermostats.  It is tempting to talk about the evolution of political institutions and to see, for example, the United States as, perhaps, an example of political speciation.  The American regime broke off from the British regime in much the same way as homosapiens broke off from the common ancestor with pan troglodyte. 
This is misleading.  Political communities do not form lineages.  The Second Continental Congress formed spontaneously, as relations between the continent and the mother country worsened; it had no mommy or daddy.  Regimes form spontaneously all the time.  By contrast, living organisms do not form spontaneously.  They always have at least one biological parent. 
It is a very interesting question (and one that did not occur to me until your latest comment) whether the biological lineage is an element of life distinct from autonomy or whether it is another element of autonomy.  The cells and organs of my body (with the exception of my reproductive organs) have sacrificed any opportunity to reproduce.  Like sterile castes among the ants, they can have offspring only through the reproductive activity of something else (my gonads in the one case, the queen in the other).  Does this compromise their autonomy?  Every cell in my body is robustly alive as is the sister forager feeding on my picnic lunch.  I will have to ponder this one.