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Natural selection produces cooperative organisms. It shouldn’t be surprising that this is so. Consider any conditions under which the fitness of each organism depends on how well it plays with others -- e.g., certain resources are only available through joint action, or certain predators can only be resisted by coordinated measures. In such conditions, there is pressure favoring both cooperative behavior and the mechanisms that underwrite it. Given enough time, and assuming stable conditions, we would expect to see adept cooperators emerge. And, of course, that is exactly what we find.
Much of the research on cooperation focuses on those conditions that preserve cooperative behavior. Less work has been done on the environmental factors that incentivize cooperation at the outset. Half of Cooperation and Its Evolution takes up this issue. The other half is concerned with the nature and function of those mechanisms that have evolved to support cooperative behavior. On the whole, the papers are of high-quality: well-argued, engaged in the literature without being myopic in their concern, judicious in their use of formal apparati, thoroughly thought-provoking. Moreover, the contributors cover a wide array of topics: the commons dilemma faced by the Amazon molly; the units of selection problem; the origins of property rights; punishment’s role in promoting prosociality; the various versions of moral nativism. To better illustrate the range of the volume, let me draw the reader’s attention to a three essays.
The first essay in the book, by Don Ross, tries to explain the current of appeal normative individualism -- i.e., the view that our norms are justified by our judgments and are exclusively concerned with the interests of individuals, rather than collective goods. His account is based on the contribution of a particular conception of the self to specialized labor in increasingly complex groups. To get there, he synthesizes a remarkable amount of work in economics, biological and cultural anthropology, game theory, and computational psychology. Then, in Chapter 10, Deborah M. Gordon offers a powerful reminder of how little we understand about the evolution of cooperative behavior in most animals. The reason for this is simple: we explain the evolution of cooperative behavior by identifying the benefits to groups, and derivatively to individuals, of so behaving; however, it is extremely difficult to assess those benefits. Why? Because benefits accrue via a complex web of relationships involving the individual, the group, other groups, and the environment. So, for example, it’s easy to see an ant foraging as benefiting the group. It’s harder to see that an ant’s not foraging might also benefit the group, since it thereby reduces the colony’s net water loss. Toward the end of the volume, in Chapter 24, Daniel Kelly shows how disgust developed into the powerful social tool that is today. According to Kelly, disgust is produced by two systems that have slowly become entangled -- one for avoiding poisons; the other for avoiding parasites. Then, in an example of biocultural evolution, disgust was co-opted for social purposes. Now it’s used to draw the boundaries of groups and enforce norms within them. This promotes cooperation both by making it easier to identify confederates and ensuring that those confederates will sacrifice self-interest in appropriate ways.
The remaining essays are as different from one another as these three suggest. This rich, diverse collection is essential reading for anyone working on cooperation.
© 2013 Robert William Fischer
Robert William Fischer is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Texas State University. He works on problems in ethics, moral psychology, and the philosophy of science.
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