A cooperative species

 Over the Summer, I have loved reading one of the most breathtaking and ambitious pieces of academic writing I have seen for years.

Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis operate out of the University of Siena and the Sante Fe Institute in the USA. For many years, they have been pioneers of a field sometimes called ‘experimental economics’, looking to model human behaviour as it is, rather than as the economics text books claim. As Paul Ekins argued many years ago in ‘Real Life Economics’, the reliability of modern economics is limited by the extremity of its assumptions – both on human nature and on environmental limits.

In A Cooperative Species: human reciprocity and its evolution, Bowles and Gintis have drawn this together and blended it with work and thinking from across the academic spectrum, from ethnography to biology, in order to compile an account of the centrality of human co-operation in the evolution of our species. It is a classic text – not easy by any means (the mathematics regularly getting beyond me) but argued with an eloquence, a rigour and an imagination that makes you feel as if you can now see the future of sciences concerned with human behaviour. There is a big debate, for example, going on in sociology in the UK at present, post riots, as to whether the discipline is fundamentally of any use – well, you can restart here.

So what is the line of argument? Our roots as a species are in co-operative action and it is these pro-social strategies rather than models of pure competition that explain survival and success.

They are not the first to argue this – the idea of co-operating in order to compete has been developed over the last three decades in biology since Bob Trivers (‘inclusive fitness’), in game theory by Elinor Ostrom and others and in political science by Robert Axelrod. In a neat about-turn from his phrase ‘the selfish gene’, Richard Dawkins now points to models where ‘nice guys finish first’. But what is stunning in A Cooperative Species, is the construction of a plausible and comprehensive set of proof – including the breadth of evidence they bring to bear, from almost every discipline, and the power and reach of the core methodology they use of drawing on empirical evidence in order to model group behaviour in mathematical terms, using contemporary games theory, or agent-based models where complex outcomes emerge from a system of rules played out over evolutionary cycles but in the rapid real time of virtual worlds on computers.

Don’t assume that this is about co-operation emerging simply because you are casting bread on the water, knowing that it will come back. It can cost to co-operate and for altruism or reciprocity to be the norm requires a more demanding set of conditions than that of sharing connections of kin or tribe. Within groups, fairness only prevails if people take the trouble to enforce the rules, and punish others even at a cost to themselves. But there can be increasing returns to scale from working together, for example in hunting, and developing patterns of co-operation, such as around childcare, that support that. Between groups, conflict plays a, or perhaps the, critical role because if you don’t co-operate in your own group, you face a far greater threat of death or violence. But the range of conditions in our distant, evolutionary past (the ‘stateless small-scale societies that arguably made up most of human society for most of the history of anatomically modern humans’) appear to have cemented co-operation, not just as a way to get ahead in individual terms, but as something fostered by institutions and in culture, internalised as a set of norms and put into effect as a set of social emotions, from shame to joy.

This is a story of our past, not necessarily our future. In ideal market conditions where quality can be set out in contracts that can be monitored, altruism gives way to self-interest. But for most exchanges, from credit and employment to information and services, contracts are not enough. As the authors conclude “we now know from laboratory experiments that subjects in marketlike situations with complete contracts tend to behave like the Homo Economicus of the Adam Smith of the Wealth of Nations, but when their contracts are not complete, their behaviour fortunately resembles more the virtuous citizens of the Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Thus, where the invisible hand fails, the handshake may succeed.”

We all need a story. It just turns out that the story we have been told for years – that people are naturally and primarily competitive and self-interested and that life is best shaped around that bleak fact – is bunkum.

The common sense that we should value co-operation is now on its way back.

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