Catching My Eye This Morning …

Lynne Kiesling

Ron Bailey writes at Reason about a new evolutionary psychology paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. I haven’t read the paper yet, and may well have more to say about it when I do, but Ron’s observations make it worth mention. Ron’s summary:

A new study [PDF] in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science by University of California, Santa Barbara evolutionary psychologists Andrew Delton, Max Krasnow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby suggests that human generosity evolved as a response to having to make cooperative decisions in the face of social uncertainty. Specifically, the uncertainty about whether or not any interaction is a one-shot deal or could be repeated in the future.

As the U.C. Santa Barbara researchers note, the results of experiments like the dictator game not only “violate standard theories drawn from economics, but they also violated the predictions of widely accepted models of fitness maximization in evolutionary biology—models that (in the absence of kinship) similarly predict selfishness. Natural selection is relentlessly utilitarian, and is expected to replace designs that unnecessarily give up resources without return with those that retain those resources for enhanced reproduction or kin-directed investment.” On the face of it, natural selection should weed out nice guys.

In recent years, various anthropologists and economists have suggested that group selection could explain the apparent paradox of human prosociality. This new study argues that group selection theory is not necessary.

This research comes from the lab of the pioneering evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, whose work has transformed our understanding of human motivation (and who are among the co-authors on this). I recommend reading their work, which I think is accessible even without an in-depth technical background in the field.

This result is a big deal, in part because of the data it provides to falsify the hypothesis that group selection is necessary for us to be sociable. Note also that the finding that “human generosity evolved as a response to having to make cooperative decisions in the face of social uncertainty” also fits with the pro-sociality arguments Adam Smith presented, particularly in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

One thought on “Catching My Eye This Morning …

  1. The human brain seems to have evolved to under appreciate the uncertainty. Where survival is concerned diversification provides robustness. Humans with generous traits may well have been the antibiotic resistent bacteria of our human past that survived and flourished. We often associate optimum with very specific and focused traits. Generousity may provide a mechanism for diversifying resources and insuring against low probability calamities – black swans to use a popular term.

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