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Evolution, Games, and GodReview - Evolution, Games, and God
The Principle of Cooperation
by Martin A. Nowak and Sarah Coakley (Editors)
Harvard University Press, 2013
Review by Daniel R. Kern, Ph.D.
Mar 18th 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 12)

Evolution, Games, and God is an edited volume, based on "a research project at Harvard on 'The Theology of Cooperation'" (p. xi).  Its editors, Martin Nowak and Sarah Coakley, explain in the helpful introduction that "the aim of the book is to assess the place and significance of cooperation within the dynamics of evolution, and to do so in a radically interdisciplinary way, bringing to bear not only the insights of evolutionary biology (both mathematical and empirical), but also of the social sciences, philosophy, and theology" (p. 1).  They characterize it as an "adventure of ideas" (p. 1) and claim that "getting clear about how and when cooperation can flourish as an evolutionary 'strategy,' when it can become stable in a species or species subgroup, when it is most likely to be threatened or even obliterated in an evolutionary population, and what the evolutionary implications are, are the first tasks of this book" (p. 2).  Some helpful definitions are provided, to tie together the chapters: "Cooperation is a form of working together in which one individual pays a cost (in terms of fitness, whether genetic or cultural) and another gains a benefit" (p. 4, their italics) and "Altruism is a form of (costly) cooperation in which an individual is motivated by good will or love for another (or others)" (p. 5, their italics).   The remainder of the long and thorough introduction explains in detail the main argument of each section and chapter and how they are related to each other.

The first section of the book is entitled "Evolutionary Cooperation in Historical Perspective."  This section presents a historical view of how the evolutionary puzzle of cooperative behavior was treated throughout the history of the evolution hypothesis and the three chapters do this well. In the first chapter, "'Ready to Aid One Another': Darwin on Nature, God, and Cooperation," John Hedly Brooke provides a sophisticated account of Darwin's intellectual and spiritual journey as he developed the theory of evolution – especially his much more nuanced position with respect to religion and Christianity than is popularly held.  This chapter is one of my favorites of the book, and is worth reading on its own merits.  Chapter 2, "Altruism: Morals from History," is an interesting chapter by Thomas Dixon on 19th-century discussions of the possible origins and significance of altruism.  Chapter 3, "Evolution and Cooperation in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century America," by Heather Curtis, is another interesting addition, bringing the historical story into the twentieth century and discussing some of the efforts to integrate (or not) evolutionary and Christian ideas.

The second section of the book is entitled "Mathematics, Game Theory, and Evolutionary Biology."  It is really the core of the work in terms of information; it serves as the foundation of much of the discussion of later sections.  Martin Nowak, one of the co-editors, provides "Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation."  This chapter (as are the next two) is heavy on math and I found it difficult to know just what the argument or conclusion is.  Nowak shows how, based on prisoners' dilemma models, cooperation as a strategy usually loses to "defectors" or non-cooperators.  But, he shows mathematically, if certain conditions apply, cooperation can survive in such models.  Nowak provides five cooperation-preserving scenarios, explaining that "each rule can be expressed as the benefit-to-cost ratio of the altruistic act being greater than some critical value." (p. 109).  While these mathematical models are intriguing, it was unclear to me how they were supposed to inform me of anything about the evolutionary conditions in which cooperative behavior arose.  Nowak then draws the surprisingly strong conclusion that "cooperation is the secret behind the open-endedness of evolution" (110) – but how that conclusion followed from the mathematical models was not clear.

In chapter 5, "Mathematical Models of Cooperation," Christopher Hauert discusses evolutionary cooperation from the standpoint of more sophisticated mathematical models, the Snowdrift Game, spatially extended prisoner's dilemmas, and social dilemmas.  His somewhat tepid (and less than clear) conclusions include "The significance and scientific value of game theoretical models for understanding the evolution of cooperation does not lie in their predictive power for particular applications to specific scenarios.  Instead, these games represent a conceptual framework to highlight and to emphasize the rich and often-unexpected dynamics generated by simple models that capture the essence of biologically and socially relevant interaction patterns" (p. 127).  

Finally, Johan Almenberg and Anna Dreber discuss cooperation in a series of prisoner's-dilemma-type games adapted to economics situations (Chapter 6 – "Economics and Evolution.").  They make this surprising claim: "a simple theoretical economic model in which individuals are only concerned with maximizing their own material payoffs does a bad job of predicting actual behavior." (p. 138).  Their overall summation is "the experimental research in this area shows that cooperation is frequent even when this is not an equilibrium strategy in terms of the material payoffs of the experimental game" (p. 146).  These conclusions seem to undermine the whole premise of this section of the book; that (selfish) evolutionary processes can produce cooperation, or that cooperation is ultimately based on selfish motives.  Almenberg and Dreber try to counteract their own conclusion with some caveats about the usefulness of games for studying evolution and cooperation, but their responses seem hollow after the stated conclusion.

Section 3 of the book is devoted to "Psychology, Neuroscience, and Intentionality in the Cultural Evolution of Cooperation."  Its first selection, Chapter 7, "Social Prosthetic Systems and Human Motivation," presents the work of Stephen Kosslyn.  A "social prosthetic system" or SPS is an arrangement in which one person "lends" to another person a part of themselves (hands or brain or time, etc.).  Related to cooperation, an SPS is "a system in which the people who function as your prostheses [extensions] are willing, proactive participants, in spite of the fact their behavior leads them to pay a cost at the time they produce it" (p. 165).  This is all well and good.  But when it comes to motivation, Kosslyn claims that the motivation is that "these people expect you to help them in the future" (p. 165).  But this goes against the empirical study reported by Almenberg and Dreber, and, if true, undermines altruism (see the definition from the introduction).

In Chapter 8, Dominic Johnson addresses "The Uniqueness of Human Cooperation."  His first point is to posit the limitations of game theory for modeling human, based on the extremely higher level of complexity in humans than in computers (p. 168).  Johnson argues that, given humans' "theory of mind" and "complex language," selfishness is more costly for humans, because the probability of exposure is higher.  But the evolutionary and biological question arises, how do humans "tune down" our biological drives for sex and dominance?  Johnson thinks religious ideas such as supernatural punishment helped, which conferred evolutionary value on them.  This is an interesting hypothesis and might help explain the evolutionary usefulness of religious ideas, but doesn't seem to explain where the religious ideas themselves originated.

In the final paper in this section, Chapter 9, "Self-denial and its Discontents," Maurice Lee notes that the self-denial required for cooperation or altruism is a difficult and often conscious choice and wonders how we can account for it.  He cautions that science, as a source of knowledge, can only partly, at best, address such a question and that current scientific techniques are coarse and "low-resolution" with respect the phenomena in question (p. 189).  He points out the limitations of neural imaging (p. 190) and the dangers of falling into a mechanistic, naturalistic, world view (p. 195).  However, perhaps surprisingly, given all of these warnings, he feels hopeful about potential progress in addressing these questions scientifically.

In Part IV we turn toward the philosophical realm, exploring "Philosophy of Biology and Philosophy of Mind."  There is a general transition to a higher level of skepticism throughout the next few chapters.  Jeffrey Schloss begins this more-skeptical approach in Chapter 10, "Unpredicted Outcomes in the Game of Life."  He describes a number of evolutionary transitions that have happened; from simple to complex, from individualistic to social, and from selfish to cooperative/altruistic.  Such transitions, he surmises, are "not strictly expected from, though [turn] out not to be inconsistent with, the bare logic of selection" (p. 207).  They do, however, he thinks, raise important and interesting questions about the ability of contemporary evolutionary theory to account for cooperation and altruism.

In Chapter 11, Justin Fischer asks, "What Can Game Theory Tell Us about Humans?"  He first creates room for a skeptical answer, based on whether game theory can take into account mind-body dualism, free will and the level of human biological and emotional complexity.  While there is room for skepticism, Fisher thinks that "game theory is compatible with all plausible positions regarding dualism and free will" and that, while current models are not up to the task of modelling the complexity of human behavior, there are plausible "improvements that we may expect to make game theorists to make" in that case as well.  So, with caveats, Fisher is hopeful about scientific progress in explaining human behavior.  Fisher admits to being open to mind-brain reductionism (p. 221), which is consistent with his conclusions, and hard-core dualists and/or libertarians will probably not like his position, but the arguments presented to establish these points are interesting, laid out well, and worth mulling over.

Ned Hall's advice, "How Not to Fight about Cooperation" is, for me, one of the best articles in the book. Hall addresses the underlying framework of the cooperation debate itself and presents possible arguments from the position of Suzy, a "sophisticated Christian theist" (SCT) and Billy, a "reductionist atheist physicalist" (RAP). Surprisingly, Hall argues that with respect to cooperative behavior, Billy and Suzy may have little to disagree about.  His presentation of the positions of SCT and RAP are very good (although Hall excludes advocates of Intelligent Design from membership in SCT, which seems too strong to me). Hall is mostly concerned about what is required for RAP and his main argument is to propose that one can be reductionist while admitting that certain phenomena might be very difficult to reduce to lower level scientific theories or entities.  Human motivation, connected with cooperation and altruism, is likely to be just one of those phenomena.  So the practical irreducibility of human motivation to biology and physics need not undermine Billy's reductionism (or physicalism or atheism).  The bringing-together of a sophisticated theism and a (sophisticated) reductionist atheism is extremely well done by Hall.  One response to his conclusion might be to bring up the distinction between a phenomenon being practically irreducible and being theoretically (or metaphysically) irreducible.  This distinction will ultimately separate Billy and Suzy, although it may not arise for a long time.

Part V takes the discussion into the realm of Ethics and Metaethics. The writers of these chapters tend to be quite skeptical.  In "The Moral Organ," Marc Hauser presents interesting research showing that some basic moral judgments made by humans (i.e., "harming someone as the means to a greater good is morally worse than harming someone as a side effect to a greater good" (p. 261, his italics) are the same regardless of cultural differences, including religious difference.  Hauser takes this to be evidence of a deep, universal, sub-cultural moral structure in humans.  While interesting in its own right, the connection of these ideas to the theme of the book is a little unclear, even in the final statement, "cooperation is thus an expected outcome (at least for populations) of long-term interactions between individuals with similar moral and psychological dispositions" (268).

In Chapter 14, Friedrich Lohmann presents "A New Case for Kantianism." This article is fascinating, if just for the illustration Lohmann uses to make his point.  Sean Penn was castigated by society in 2005 when he went to New Orleans, ostensibly to help people, but published photographs of himself helping.  In 2007, Professor Liviu Librescu was shot and killed at Virginia Tech while holding a classroom door shut so his students could escape a gunman.  Librescu was heralded around the world as a hero. The difference in public reaction to these two events, Lohmann claims,  rightly it seems to me, demonstrates that in judging the morality of actions, people always take the intentions of the actor into account, and intentions can override good outcomes (in Penn's case) or bad outcomes (in Librescu's case).  This fact demonstrates the superiority of Kant's approach to morality over a utilitarian approach to morality. However, argues Librescu, this fact "is strangely forgotten by sociobiological or game-theoretical approaches to morality and cooperation" (p. 277), which only look at actions and results. Rather than simply dispelling game theoretical approaches, though, Lohmann allots them a complementary position in the moral landscape, "in the process of implementation" of moral values and rules in human life.

Jean Porter next discusses "Nature, Normative Grammars, and Moral Judgments."  Hers is a defense of the relevance of Aristotelian and Medieval ideas of teleology and natures in moral discussions.  She draws on and supports the work of Marc Hauser (above) regarding the existence of deep moral structures embedded in human nature.

In Chapter 16, "The Christian Love Ethics and Evolutionary 'Cooperation,'" Timothy Jackson directs the most openly skeptical argument of the book about some of the early themes, as indicated in the sub-title; "The lessons and limits of Eudaimonism and Game Theory" (p. 307).  Jackson distinguishes eudaimonism (the belief that all human actions aim at happiness) from agapism (the belief that morality is concerned with "the real holiness of God rather than the ideal happiness of humanity" p. 307).  He claims that game-theoretic discussions and Darwinian evolutionary theory in general don't "provide an adequate explanation for altruism and neighbor love in the rich and demanding sense intended here" (p. 308), because they "analyze robust other-regarding values" in terms of "natural self-interest and the instinct for self-preservation" (p. 308).  One of Jackson' most interesting points (made by several others in this book as well) is that if cooperation and altruism are explained in terms of self-interest (of individual or groups), then they are in fact explained away, because they imply entirely opposite motivations.  Jackson also questions the ability of evolutionary theory to account for the transition from self-regarding to other-regarding behaviors, unless it occurred as a total accident (which is no explanation at all).  One slight problem I found in Jackson's presentation is that he seems to create a false dilemma in placing the descriptive claims of eudaimonism and evolutionary moral theory against the normative claims of agapism.

The essays of Part IV are (loosely) connected under the title "Cooperation, Metaphysics, and God."  In the first of these, "Altruism, Normalcy, and God," Alexander Pruss appeals to the distinction between normative and nonnormative facts.  While science is focused on nonnormative facts, "the scientist need neither believe the absurd thesis that there are no normative phenomena nor even the thesis that normative facts never appear in explanations of nonnormative phenomena" (p. 330).  Now, while this is certainly true, an interesting discussion might be the extent to which scientists do believe these theses – certainly a number of popular critics of religion propose them quite strongly.  Pruss ads useful support to his claim, though, by arguing that in the search for evolutionary bases for cooperation and altruism, "'cooperation' has to have a precise, scientifically amenable and thus nonnormative meaning," and, "what the scientific explanation explains is not why cooperation is normal or appropriate for humans but what makes humans in fact have a tendency toward it" (p. 331). So there are some aspects of cooperation that are theoretically inaccessible to science.  Pruss goes so far as to argue that grounding the normative aspect of cooperation might "provide us with evidence for the existence of God" (p. 331).  The argument is ambitious and thought-provoking.  I leave the reader to decide whether it is convincing.

Chapter 18, "Evolution, Altruism, and God, seems to be a good summary of the skeptical argument of the book.  In "Philip Clayton asserts first, "the possibility that religious beliefs, behaviors, and values might represent something more than their biological functions" (p. 344). He mentions the fact that, since motivation is involved, "no empirical study of human behaviors by themselves will suffice to detect altruism" (p. 345). He reiterates the "theological hypothesis" "that the existence of persons who 'truly love' may be explainable, at least in part, by the existence of a divine source of love, whose nature is agape" (p. 347).  Then he adds to the discussion by casting it in terms of "strong emergence" (p. 350). Strong emergence goes beyond supervenience or simple emergence by rejecting reductionism and asserting downward causation – that higher levels of emergent complexity can have causal influence on lower levels. Given strong emergence, Clayton argues that "some human actions require explanations that are given, at least in part, in terms of persons: their intentions, thoughts, and self" (p. 352). His, I believe too-careful, conclusion is "if some human actions are strongly emergent and require irreducibly person-based explanations, it is at least not absurd to consider distinctively theological explanations of human acts of radical altruism" (p. 359).

The last two chapters both take up the problem of evil.  It is fitting that a book that includes defenses of a theological interpretation of the world and a theistically-guided evolutionary explanation of origins tackle this problem. Michael Rota begins in Chapter 19, "The Problem of Evil and Cooperation."  Rota quotes Henry Drummond to the point: "The world has been held up to us as one great battlefield heaped with the slain, an Inferno of infinite suffering, a slaughter-house resounding with the cries of a ceaseless agony" (p. 363).  Drummond concludes that this picture is "a challenge to its Maker, an unanswered problem to philosophy, and abiding offence to the moral nature of Man" (p. 363).  Some people say that no defense of a god in the face of evil and suffering is possible; we must accept suffering and choose to believe (appealing to the god's ultimate wisdom and control) or not believe (appealing to the lack of an answer). Rota admits this possibility.  But, he says, "I think we can say more" (p. 365).  Using Aquinas, he appeals to the "dignity of being a cause," arguing that that "animal life is richer and more worthwhile for the struggle it involves" (p. 366).  In addition, he argues that evolution protects divine hiddenness, without which we might be overwhelmed by god's presence and unwittingly choose to believe in him. Theodicy is very difficult and I applaud Rota for attempting it. However, the test I use is to imagine presenting this argument to someone who is dying of a terribly painful cancer or a parent who has just lost a child.  Rota's answer, as I believe do all concrete answers, must sound hollow and empty and infuriating to that person.   Saying "God wanted to bestow on you the dignity of being a cause" does not seem like it would comfort him or her.  Perhaps the original option of simply saying "I do not understand, but I believe," would have been better after all.

In Chapter 20, "Evolution, Cooperation, and Divine Providence."  Sarah Coakley, one of the two editors of this book, has the last say and takes up the issue of Divine Providence.  Coakley sees three problems arising from the conjunction of evolution and divine providence: the role of God's providence before humans, the relation of God's providence to human freedom and creativity, and the problem of evil, as discussed by Rota. Regarding the first problem, Coakley appeals to an argument similar to Rota's divine hiddenness answer – God is not "problematically interventionist" (p. `377) in evolutionary creation, God is "the intimate, undergirding secret of the whole maintenance of the created order in being" (378).  I am not entirely sure what that means, other than sounding like God is not really consciously in control of what is happening, a process-theology view, which strikes me as heavily undermining the traditional attributes of God (omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence).  This is, to me, no defense of God at all. Coakley addresses the theodicy to which I am sympathetic, calling it the (lazy) no-contest position.  She thinks the work of this book can help add rational support to the defense of God in the face of suffering.  Echoing some earlier presenters, she argues that the existence of cooperation and altruism in an evolutionary world might serve as an indication of and evidence for "an incarnational God, a God of intimate involvement in empathy, risk, and suffering" (p. 383).  As with Rota, I applaud the effort to account for suffering in a supposedly providential world, and I think the "new form of 'moral/teleological' argument for God's existence" (p. 383) presented by Oakley and others here is powerful and hopeful.  I just don't think it has added anything as a response to the problem of evil.  Regarding evil and suffering, I still appeal to Wittgenstein: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

As was promised in the introduction, this book is indeed "an adventure of ideas."  It presents a broad range of arguments and viewpoints, both affirmative and skeptical, regarding the project of explaining cooperation and altruism through (naturalistic) evolutionary processes.  It is a very helpful and useful introduction to this range of viewpoints and would be good reading for undergraduate or graduate students in virtually any discipline, although I suspect philosophy and theology students would gain the most from it.


© 2014 Dan Kern


Dan Kern, Chaffey College, Los Angeles, California and Oxford University (Visiting Academic)


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