(Over)Explaining Cooperation

It isn’t unusual to find evolutionary theorists of one sort or another working very hard to tie selective pressure and deterministic genetics to behavior. The strains of evolutionary psychology that attempt to find “the mechanism” behind all our weird forms of modern courtship and mating is a classic example. Another is the crowd that says there must be genes determining how well we perform on something as behaviorally derived and complex as standardized testing.

Over at The Mermaid’s Tale, Anne Buchanan applies some scientific skepticism to explanations for a behavior that is a little more basic–altruism. The standard scientific storytelling (not a slam; narrative is how we derive meaning from results) around altruism is that we cooperate with those who are not our direct descendents because our ancestors who were altruistic increased the reproductive fitness of many of their more distant kin, even as their selflessness may have injured their own reproductive fitness.  Thus, they indirectly saw to it that the genes for altruism would be passed on at a greater rate than the genes for selfishness.

Buchanan, however, notes that highly deterministic models comes up short here too. The math just doesn’t work.

This would seem to show clearly that, by itself, Hamilton’s rule simply cannot explain human (or even primate) sociality.  In all human societies people routinely help their cousins and other more lineally distant relatives.  But primates simply cannot have 8 or more additional children as a result of being helped.  So those who have thought about this have had to devise various escape-value explanations to preserve the essence of Hamilton’s rule; one is ‘generalized reciprocity’ the idea that I may help you because some day you may return the favor.  But with such escape valves, and the complexity of society, it should long ago have been clear that all bets are off.

In other words, in order to tweak the model to accommodate actual, observed social behavior in primates, it becomes so squishy that it loses its predictive power. That, of course, is where it stops being science. It certainly isn’t impossible that someone will come along and add complexity to the basic model in a way that allows it to become predictive again, but the idea isn’t at that point at the moment.

Beyond that, Buchanan questions the very drive to treat cooperation as an anomaly that must be specifically explained.

Life is about molecules interacting, cell compartments interacting, cells, organs, and organisms interacting.  Cooperation means co-operation, and only in some social animal contexts is it about cozy kindly interactions including the sort of interactions referred to as ‘altruism’.  If an enzyme and its substrate interact to bring about a reaction, that is cooperation.  If one component has the wrong structure or isn’t present when the other is, the interaction doesn’t occur.  One can’t just evolve by out-competing the other.  Things may arise individually, but in various ways must advance in prevalence by successful interactions.  If this is extended to the thousands of interactions in a cell, and among cells in an organism, then why not among organisms in a population?

Sometimes inter-individual competition does certainly occur and sometimes this seems clearly to be related to genetic differences.  And even if there may be some elements of competition — in the restricted sense simply of some things proliferating faster than others, that fact doesn’t gainsay the predominance of cooperation as a fundamental part of the road to success.  Much more of the time what goes on in life is about successful interactions.

Buchanan presents an interesting perspective on how we determine which scientific questions even are question requiring answers. I recommend heading over and reading the whole thing.

Via the Carnival of Evolution at Synthetic Daisies.

(Over)Explaining Cooperation
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12 thoughts on “(Over)Explaining Cooperation

  1. F

    Beyond that, Buchanan questions the very drive to treat cooperation as an anomaly that must be specifically explained.

    Well, when a large number of people think that competition means direct, mano a mano combat between species or members of species (and go on, tell me people don’t think this is how evolution works), you are gonna end up with some people try very hard to explain how cooperation occurs at all.

    A lot of this stems from concepts centered around the phrase “survival of the fittest”, which was maximally built into “social darwinism”, and then reflected back on (at least the popular understanding of) the theory of evolution.

    This is the sort of thinking which gets you “why are there still monkeys?” Because they should all have either changed into people or been murdered. Clean plate club, no leftovers. It’s why some people seem to think “modern mammals are better than dinosaurs – it turned out that dinosaurs weren’t too big to fail, couldn’t cope with changes in their environment, and apparently shrew-like creatures finished them off with an asteroid in a wicked killing stroke.

  2. 2


    Any resources available on co-operation as a form of competition?

    ‘Look at me, I’m so much more co-operative than all those other males/females, and am therefore am stronger and more capable – implying that I will pass on positive genes for strength and capability to my children and will also be more likely to invest in those children after their birth.’

    Only just thought of that now, but it makes a kind of sense. It could be true.

  3. 3

    As usual I have no insight to provide but

    Look at me, I’m so much more co-operative than all those other males/females, and am therefore am stronger and more capable – implying that I will pass on positive genes for strength and capability to my children and will also be more likely to invest in those children after their birth.

    Makes me wonder if we haven’t discovered the evolutionary foundations for passive aggressive behavior.

  4. 5

    Sounds a bit like she’s promoting group selection. AFAIK, that’s currently even less supported by data than reciprocal altruism. So, not much of a solution.

    Personally I think altruism is like baby duck imprinting. Our desire to help others doesn’t come with a relatedness-detector for the same reason baby ducks don’t come with a relatedness-detector; 99% of the time in the wild, where the instinct evolved, they don’t need it. The critter you first and most interact with is your relative. A relatedness-detector would have been wasted energy, because in the wild the “mistake” of helping or imprinting on someone unrelated to you would be relatively rare.

    Such “mistakes” are a lot more common now, in modern societies, for both baby ducks and humans. But asking why modern humans are altruistic is sort of like asking why baby ducks imprint on domestic farm dogs. Answer: because they didn’t evolve the instinct when domestic farm dogs were around, just other related ducks.

  5. 7

    The late biologist Lynn Margulis, whose predictions that the unique structures and properties of eukaryotic cells arose from a series of symbiotic events among different types of prokaryotes have largely been confirmed (one of the four symbiotic events that formed part of her eukaryotic cell formation hypothesis continues to be disputed), spent her life attempting to show that co-operation is an elemental a driving force in evolutionary terms as competition.

    If she was correct, then it certainly wouldn’t make sense to see co-operation simply as a wierd exception to all-encompassing competition that always requires an explanation.

  6. 10

    Good to know. I admit, I just read your post here and not the link with her full article. The bit “that fact doesn’t gainsay the predominance of cooperation as a fundamental part of the road to success” sounded a bit like saying populations that are predisposed to cooperate will outcompete populations that aren’t. Mea culpa – my homework assignment for the night is now to go read the link. 🙂

  7. 11

    To Daniel Schealler:

    Are you familiar with Amotz Zahavi’s work and his handicap principle? He did much of his work on a cooperative species of birds (sorry, I don’t know the species’ English name), and there high status individuals assist low ranking ones. He interpreted the behavior as a demonstration that the one helping can afford the extra expenditure in time and energy.

  8. 12

    Err, no. Lynn Margulis spent her life trying to show that horizontal gene transfer drives evolution. She was wrong. It doesn’t. (Believe me; she came to my university shortly before she died, and we argued a bit.)

    Anyway, I’m not convinced by Buchanan’s math. It’s true that help can’t increase a primate’s number of offspring by eight, but it doesn’t need to. That’s only when I’m sacrificing myself (or my entire procreative legacy) for the benefit of an aunt, uncle or half-sib. Such a situation is probably quite rare.

    A much more realistic example is risking my life to save a relative. So say helping my brother incurs a 10% chance of me dying without leaving offspring. It only needs to increase the number of my brother’s offspring by 20%, or my cousin’s by 80%.

    Or say it’s sharing resources. If sharing resources decreases the average number of offspring I could have by 5%, it only needs to raise my brother’s by 10%, or a cousin’s by 40%. That’s quite possible, since if I make $500 per day, the $50 I might give my brother (who, say, makes $100 per day) is going to do a lot more for him than it would for me.

    Also recall that inclusive fitness isn’t the only way for altruism to work. Game theory is a rule of the universe as much as the gravitational constant, and game theory predicts strategies very similar to what naive humans play, regardless of culture.

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