The Evolution of Cooperation

Week 2 of Howard Rheingold’s course – Towards a Literacy of Cooperation – focuses on the evolution of cooperation. Here are some notes from Howard’s presentation during the live session last week. For wider reading see the Week 2 reading lists.

And for another set of notes I can also recommend Roland Legrand’s

Why does cooperation exist?

If Darwinian processes favour successful competitors why does cooperation exist?

Margulis and Kauffman found that cooperation preceded human life; molecules catylse each other to higher levels of complexity. Axelrod and Hamilton using evidence from palaeontology and mathematical biology found that co-operators at all levels can thrive in a competitive environment if they can find each other and benefit from each other through mutualistic relationships. Co-operation is not a steady state. Populations, during the course of evolution move from being largely unco-operative to co-operative and then back to unco-operative in a cycle. There is some evidence from a study of DNA, that humans were down to 2000 breeding pairs at one point in our history. My thought: this makes perfect sense when remembering the various cycles that are well known in biological systems, e.g. water, carbon, nitrogen, etc.

But – humans have the power to overcome social dilemmas. Axelrod and Hamilton, using computer simulations and evolutionary games, found the following characteristics to be important for co-operation.

  • Be nice – never be the first to defect My thought: pity about the word nice – a word that was banned from children’s creative writing when I was teaching!
  • Be provocable – don’t be afraid to retaliate appropriately – return defection for defection. My thought: so where did the expression ‘be slow to anger’ come from.
  • Don’t be envious – be fair with your partner
  • Don’t be too clever – or try to be tricky, which enters noise into the system and opens room for misinterpretation, although some noise in system is inevitable

Competing explanations

There are a number of explanations for the evolution of cooperation.

1. Group selection  

When humans were hunter gatherers they moved around in extended family groups.  A group which was comprised of cooperators had an evolutionary advantage.  They reproduced more effectively and these small differences made for a big differences over time.

David Sloan Wilson Cooperation in his book Darwin’s Cathedral discussed religious groups as mechanisms for group selection. Wilson demonstrates how religions have enabled people to achieve by collective action what they never could do alone. My thought: good and bad?

The human capacity to create rituals, norms, and institutions that channel our biological urges is one key capability that makes human civilizations different from other species.

2. Reciprocity

Nowak 2006 talks about different reciprocity mechanisms

  • Direct reciprocity, meaning  if you do something for me I will do something for you. This has been  demonstrated in vampire bats, which refuse to feed bats who have not shared food in the past
  • Indirect reciprocity, meaning doing something for an individual who has not done something for you in the past. I help you and somebody else helps me. The evolution of cooperation by indirect reciprocity leads to reputation building, morality judgement and complex social interactions with ever-increasing cognitive demands. My thought: there is a lot of evidence of this in online networks.
  • Reputation depends on a reliable history and whether cooperators will meet again. Cooperation depends on a reliable history being projected from past to future.  Axelrod calls this ‘the shadow of the future’. If individuals are unlikely to meet again then propensity for cooperation is much lower.
  • Network reciprocity which relies on geographic or social factors and who interacts with whom and how often

If a cooperator pays a cost, c, for each neighbor to receive a benefit, b, and defectors have no costs, and their neighbors receive no benefits, network reciprocity can favor cooperation.

3. Kin selection refers to apparent strategies in evolution that favour the reproductive success of an organism’s relatives, even at a cost to the organism’s own survival and reproduction . If you sacrifice your life for 3 siblings then your genes are going to be passed along to a future generation more than if you sacrificed your life for only one child i.e. in terms of genetic evolution it would be worth jumping into the river for 2 siblings or 8 cousins. Cooperation is about costs and benefits. Reproductive success is the measure of evolutionary success and kin selection may be a part of the overall equation. My thought: Does this mean that it’s not worth jumping into the river if the children are adopted?

4. Social grooming. Primates pick parasites off each other.  Robin Dunbar extrapolated his experiments with primate behaviour to human behaviour and found a correlation between the size of a primate group and the part of the brain that is related to reciprocity and reputation.  Social grooming is a mechanism for practicing cooperation. Dunbar believes that language grew out of social grooming. When group became too large for all to be groomed this was the start of gossip. Gossip is all about reputation, who to trust and who not to trust. This is related to studies on the relationship between perceptions of fairness and cooperation.

5. Primate fairness. Research has shown that monkeys have a very clear understanding of fairness Capuchin monkeys reject unequal pay – monkeys understand fairness. My thought: this very short video clip is perfect for exemplifying this point and is very funny. We need more humour in learning environments.

Are humans born with a sense of fairness?

Research involving pre-verbal infants has shown that the length of time an infant looks at something strongly correlates with whether it violates their expectations. Infants can see fair and unfair distributions and  tend to look longer at unfair demonstrations. The research also showed that infants who pay attention to unfairness are more likely to be altruistic.  My thought: these videos are fascinating. Babies are not ‘blobs’!

There has also been research into the evolution of fairness

Frans de Waal has suggested that primates and infants have three qualities fundamental for cooperation

  • Empathy and consolation – (as shown in the activity of mirror neurones)
  • Prosocial tendencies.  Primates have hierarchies but also have social lives
  • Understanding of reciprocity and fairness

There is a complex relationship between unfairness cooperation and social norms.

Cultural Evolution

Culture is what we learn from each other not what we are born with, but it can evolve in the sense that groups that engage in social learning learn more effectively and so are able to adapt to a changing environment more effectively. Cultural evolution is based on biologically evolved attentional and social capacities.

The evolved capacity for social learning was particularly adaptive during time of radical environmental change

Learning capacities created processes that changed the selection environment in which genes develop. Cultural changes spread faster than biological changes so increasing the propensity to cooperate

There is a reciprocal and evolutionary correlation between our biological capabilities and cultural evolution.

My thought: There are too many questions

Last week I noted that there was a huge diversity of resources and ideas being posted, to the point of distraction. This week there is a huge diversity of questions. The mission for this week is:

1. In the forum topic thread designated for this mission, no later than Monday, Feb 4 Pacific time, post a question that you’d like to see addressed by everybody in regard to the biological and/or cultural evolution of cooperation.

These are the questions that have been posted so far and don’t include the questions that were raised in the live session

  • Can biological models from other species be scientifically applied to human subjects, or are they metaphors for how we might understand human behaviour?
  • I am interested in exploring the notion of “respect” and role it play’s in cooperation among us humans.
  • Another question that interests me is the role/influence of power in co-operation and cultural evolution.
  • Can a culture become self-conscious enough to intentionally evolve itself? Does this change the rules of the game?
  • Is it possible and are we likely to evolve in such ways as to constitute different combinations or recombinations (like DNA) in terms of human nuclear family groups?  A clumsy way to put it, but something like, will there be more 5 to 10 parents to 1 to 4 children type of arrangements?  Will we formalize these?  Seems to me in light of fewer people having children, and the high cost of raising a child, and that fact that we could all benefit by helping, and that the kids would benefit by us all helping, that some new reproducing family units might come about.  Do you agree or disagree?
  • In what circumstances would provocability in the case of an uncalled for defection be the wrong response, in terms of biological and cultural evolution?
  • Are there practical benefits of studying the biological evolution of cooperation?  To what extent does it provide insights that convert into theories and practices that can be used in formal or informal communities and organizations? Can an individual, beginning from a singular position of conviction, turn a whole population (in a geographic or other social entity) from self-interest or sub-group interest, to broad-based cooperation? If so, how?

The next stage of the task is

2. Instructor will choose one of the proposed questions by Monday night and post his selection in the forum topic. Each student will email to the instructor by Thursday, Feb 7, 11 PM Pacific time, a few sentences to a short paragraph addressing the question. Instructor will post all the answers at the same time in the forum on Friday.

Live session questions:

  • What is the role of diversity in regulating stability of cooperative groups and societies?
  • How can we learn from deception strategies in the evolution of cooperation?
  • What do deception strategies have to do with evolution of communication?
  • How can humans override the negatives of social dilemmas?
  • What can we learn from the earliest models of cooperation in evolutionary process?
  • Would network reciprocity among groups of cooperators be more successful? Why or why not?
  • What are the communication mechanisms of initiating reciprocity? Are their ways to predict success or failure of cooperation? or sustaining cooperation?
  • What role can social grooming play (role of language/gossip) – hair stylist – does it still have a role?
  • What is the validity of behavioral genetics? Which elements of behavior are genetically determined?
  • How might the factor of expanding access/decreasing intimacy affect cooperation? How do we build intimacy with tech platforms?
  • Can you design for cooperation? If so, through what tools?
  • Are humans born with a sense of fairness?
  • What are the outside factors that can disrupt cooperation? How do systems protect and resist these forces? (mapped in session)
  • Is evolution necessarily progressive?

For me – this is way too many questions! Can diversity be too much of a good thing in a co-learning environment?

This reminds me of discussions we used to have when designing teaching programmes. Do you start with the big picture (as this course seems to have done) and move towards more personal practice, or do you start with personal practice and move to the big picture? The questions that interest me most are those which relate more closely to my personal practice, which is consistent with my interest in the autoethnography and narrative inquiry forum which has been opened by one participant.

6 thoughts on “The Evolution of Cooperation

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