Category Archives: evolution

The origins of selflessness? | The Economist

I took a course co-taught by Dr. Henrich last term. Very bright guy with a knack for setting up ingenious little cross-cultural experiments. Below the Economist reports on one of his latest studies, published in Science.

The origins of selflessness: Fair play | The Economist.

It is not so much that cheats don’t prosper, but that prosperity does not cheat

Mar 18th 2010 | From The Economist print edition

FOR the evolutionarily minded, the existence of fairness is a puzzle. What biological advantage accrues to those who behave in a trusting and co-operative way with unrelated individuals? And when those encounters are one-off events with strangers it is even harder to explain why humans do not choose to behave selfishly. The standard answer is that people are born with an innate social psychology that is calibrated to the lives of their ancestors in the small-scale societies of the Palaeolithic. Fairness, in other words, is an evolutionary hangover from a time when most human relationships were with relatives with whom one shared a genetic interest and who it was generally, therefore, pointless to cheat.

The problem with this idea is that the concept of fairness varies a lot, depending on which society it happens to come from—something that does not sit well with the idea that it is an evolved psychological tool. Another suggestion, then, is that fairness is a social construct that emerged recently in response to cultural changes such as the development of trade. It may also, some suggest, be bound up with the rise of organised religion.

Joseph Henrich at the University of British Columbia and his colleagues wanted to test these conflicting hypotheses. They reasoned that if notions of fairness are, indeed, calibrated to the Palaeolithic, then any variation from place to place should be random. If such notions are cultural artefacts, though, they will vary systematically with some aspect of society. In a study just published in Science, Dr Henrich and his team looked at the relationship between notions of fairness and two social phenomena: the degree to which a society is economically integrated and how religious the individuals within it are.

Play up, play up and play the game

To do the study Dr Henrich recruited 2,148 volunteers from 15 contemporary, small-scale societies. The societies in question included the Dolgan (hunters in Siberia), the Hadza (foraging nomads in Tanzania) and the Sanquianga (fishermen in Colombia).

First, the volunteers were asked to play a series of games that would measure their notions of fairness. One of these is called the dictator game. In it, two players (who do not actually meet) are given a sum of money. One of them then divides the money and gives whatever fraction he chooses to the other. Not much of a game, perhaps, but it provides a good measure of the first player’s sense of fairness, since he has the power to be as unfair as he likes.

Another game the researchers asked participants to play was more subtle. In it, the second player has the opportunity to reject the sum offered by the first, in which case neither player receives anything. In this version, however, the second player must decide what offer he would accept (within a 10% margin of error), and do so before he hears what the offer actually is. That provides a measure of willingness to punish, even at a cost to the punisher. Yet another game looked at interactions with third parties.

Having established prevailing notions of fairness in each of the societies they were examining, the researchers then calculated a measure of that society’s market integration. They arrived at this by working out the percentage of a household’s total calories that were purchased from the market, as opposed to being grown, hunted or fished. The volunteers were also asked whether they participated in a world religion (rather than a tribal one).


The results back a cultural explanation of fairness—or, at least, of the variable levels of fairness found in different societies. In fact, those societies that most resemble the anthropological consensus of what Palaeolithic life would have been like (hunting and gathering, with only a modicum of trade) were the ones where fairness seemed to count least. People living in communities that lack market integration display relatively little concern with fairness or with punishing unfairness in transactions. Notions of fairness increase steadily as societies achieve greater market integration (see chart). People from better-integrated societies are also more likely to punish those who do not play fair, even when this is costly to themselves.

For progressives, this finding brings great comfort. It suggests that people are, if not perfectible, at least morally malleable in positive ways. If economic integration is the driving force for fairness then it may make sense to view it as something like a type of technology. As societies have become more complex, those that have developed systems of sanitation, transport, energy and so on have been more successful than those which have not. It may be that the notion of fair play is an intangible equivalent of these systems.

Dr Henrich also, however, found that the sense of fairness in a society was linked to the degree of its participation in a world religion. Participation in such religion led to offers in the dictator game that were up to 10 percentage points higher than those of non-participants.

World religions such as Christianity, with their moral codes, their omniscient, judgmental gods and their beliefs in heaven and hell, might indeed be expected to enforce notions of fairness on their participants, so this observation makes sense. From an economic point of view, therefore, such judgmental religions are actually a progressive force. That might explain why many societies that have embraced them have been so successful, and thus why such beliefs become world religions in the first place.

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Darwin’s unfinished revolution | The Economist

Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway-Morris has interesting ideas about the tendency of evolution to follow certain overarching pathways. In a recent talk while visiting here on campus, he went on to make some oblique, but fascinating, conjectures about the immanence of phenomena such as complexity and intelligence. The Economist discusses him here:

… Simon Conway-Morris, a palaeontologist at Cambridge University, in England, is the champion of a new interpretation of evolution—one that challenges the view that it is largely governed by the accident of circumstances. Unlike Gould, he thinks that if evolution were replayed from the beginning, a lot of things would turn out the same.

Dr Conway-Morris has arrived at this view from a detailed study of what is known as convergent evolution. Darwin himself was intrigued by this phenomenon, in which different groups of organisms independently evolve similar solutions to similar problems, whether these solutions are teeth, eyes, brains, ecosystems or societies. Where other biologists have noted such convergences as “remarkable”, Dr Conway-Morris believes they actually tell a broader story.

His argument is that, given the nature of physics and chemistry, there may be only a limited number of ways in which things can work. Evolution will be channelled into these successful paths, and thus does have trends. Two of these, he thinks, are towards complexity and intelligence. He adds that things “don’t just happen in chemistry”. They happen because of pre-existing causes. Whether it is the molecules of crystallin that are used to build an eye or the haemoglobin that makes blood carry oxygen, the nature of molecules themselves means that evolution is more likely to follow a path determined by their basic structure. Evolution is a mechanism, and it works within rules.

Dr Conway-Morris’s view of the world may or may not turn out to be correct. If it is, it may prove more palatable to some people than the current interpretation of the biological world as ultimately materialist and purposeless.

Darwin himself was deeply troubled by his materialist thoughts and what they meant. He considered how thoughts and emotions were simply secretions of the brain. From his correspondence it seems his religious beliefs never reached a fixed position, but he was sensitive to the extent to which his ideas could upset others. He even devised a diplomatic answer that avoided challenging the existence of God. When asked about the origins of emotions, instincts and degrees of talent, he noted, “say only they are so because brain of child resembles parent’s stock”.

via Charles Darwin’s revolution is unfinished | Unfinished business | The Economist.

And in audio, here.

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Evolution, agency, and Darwinian discourse — part I

As follows are my comments on an ongoing evolution-education post over at ecobobble:

I agree 100% with the argument that ID is trying to present itself as something it’s not (science). This is disingenuous, misleading, and fraught with lameness. …

[However] What i’m suggesting is that the reason ID proponents feel the need to promote their agenda is inherently tied up with the fact that, not least through the semantic terms it uses, *science* tries to present itself (inadvertently) as something *it’s* not: a worldview expressing an opinion on where there is ‘agency’ and where there is not. Where there is ‘order’ and where there is not, where and what ‘intelligence’ is, and where and what it is not. This is not science–this is metaphysical opinion!!! This is hubristic. Subtle, perhaps, maybe indetectable for those engaged in science, but hubristic nonetheless.

E.g. by saying genetic variation is the result of copying “errors” — which is precisely the word that’s used in modern darwinian discourse — the implication is that it’s a ‘machine’ that *mal*functions occasionally. I.e. it’s imperfect and ‘tries’ to do something, but ‘fails’ at this.. because of these ‘failures’ we get variation, adaptation over generations, and voila, evolution… a ‘mindless’, ‘random’ process. This assumes ‘mind’ and ‘intention’ are *produced* by complex neural structres such as the human brain. But there are alternatives to this view–current mainstream darwinian discourse ignores this.

Conway Morris tries to account for this by inverting the whole idea of agency, consciousness, or intelligence. He posits that material structures are not ‘producers’ of intelligence/agency, but rather ‘receivers’ of intelligence/agency.

His point is that we may be mistaking the radio program as a *product* of the radio, rather than something ambient that we can receive via the complex machinery of the radio!!!

It’s like mistaking your browser for the cloud. My grandma makes this mistake all the time. She thinks all the stuff she can access via the internet is somehow stored permanently on her computer, and she has to continually ‘erase’ all the stored up data. She makes the simple mistake of thinking the browser *is* the information, not a tool for *accessing* the information.

Darwinian discourse so far hasn’t accounted for this. The Evo-ID debate could probably be somewhat defused if this was taken into account. It takes some metaphysical humility on the part of scientists, however.

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