Genetics and Evolution

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A Cooperative SpeciesReview - A Cooperative Species
Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution
by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis
Princeton University Press, 2011
Review by Christopher M. Caldwell, Ph.D.
Apr 22nd 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 17)

In A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis provide a carefully argued evolutionary account of human cooperation. Bowles and Gintis draw upon various models, methodologies, and disciplines in constructing their overall argument and specific criticisms. Although the book is accessible in many ways, there are some fairly technical portions of the book, especially in the middle chapters where the book discusses various models and substantially relies upon formulas to express the models and relations being discussed.

The main task of the book is to explain “why the social preferences that sustain altruistic cooperation are so common.” (p. 3) Bowles and Gintis state this as their main task as they believe people enjoy cooperating themselves and dislike individuals who do not cooperate. Most models of altruism deal with either two-person situations of cooperation, e.g. Prisoner's Dilemma type situations, or small group situations, e.g. familial structures. Bowles and Gintis believe these models of human cooperation fail to explain “that it takes place in groups far larger than the immediate family, and that both in real life and in laboratory experiments, it occurs in interactions that are unlikely to be repeated, and where it is impossible to obtain reputational gains from cooperating.” (p. 3) They develop their arguments and their own model through a relatively compact and dense 12 chapters over 200 pages.

The main line of thought pursued is that human cooperation developed due to early human environments, e.g. the presence of large mammals to hunt, and that cooperation was highly beneficial to the members of the groups who practiced it. All of this relies upon the cognitive, linguistic, and physical capacities of humans. Bowles and Gintis argue that these capacities allowed us to structure social institutions and interactions that allowed altruism to develop, thrive, and proliferate. The arguments through the middle chapters of the book rely upon the development and exploration of specific models utilizing concepts and formulae from economics and decision theory. For example, in Chapter 9 “The Evolution of Strong Reciprocity” the authors begin the discussion of punishment by introducing a probabilistic version of Lanchester's Law.

The book is structured in a manner that allows the overall argument to develop clearly. Chapters 1 and 2 provide the foundational terms, concepts, and strategies that are utilized in the rest of the text. Chapter 3 sets up the rest of the book nicely with a discussion of social preferences that favor cooperation and punish those who do not cooperate with others. The chapter has a particularly interesting discussion concerning people enjoying cooperating with others while punishing those who shirk cooperation. Importantly, the authors ground these observations in evidence drawn from specific experiments. Chapters 4 and 5 each examine specific models of cooperation attempting to answer specific concerns of cooperation. For example, Chapter 5 examines various game-theoretic models related to folk theorems. Folk theorems are based on game theoretic models like the Prisoner's Dilemma where the situation is repeated an indefinite number of times with signals concerning the behavior of others in previous occurrences of the game. The repetition allows for exploring establishing cooperation in a manner which non-repeated game theoretic models do not. The authors establish the weaknesses of these various approaches in these chapters. Chapters 6 through 9 attempt to establish the overall view of the evolution of cooperation favored by the authors. A central theme of these chapters is how various forms of competition and cooperation coevolved in their view. For example, competition and altruism coevolved in hunter-gatherer societies through the advantages of group competition. A similar account of coevolution is given in the discussion of war and how the disposition to war is linked to the evolution of altruism and cooperation. These discussions draw primarily upon simulations, but some historical evidence is provided as well.  The final chapters of the book discuss the motives for cooperation. However, the discussion remains evolutionary in nature. For example, Chapter 11 provides an evolutionary account of social emotions, primarily guilt and shame. The book concludes with a final chapter that provides a short summary of the overall position of the book.

A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution should be of interest to individuals across multiple disciplines. The book provides a compelling argument supported by multiple kinds of theoretical and empirical evidence. Although the book does use some technical language and examples in places, the explanation is sufficiently clear to make the main ideas and arguments of the book accessible to individuals who were not previously familiar with these technicalities.


© 2014 Christopher M. Caldwell


Christopher M. Caldwell, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Dept. of History and Philosophy, Virginia State University


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