Cooperation is an interesting field that is extensive and diverse, contingent on a multitude of factors and very easily affected by the constructions of institutions. In my short review, we will attempt to explain why people vary in selfishness, as well as examine the motivations behind certain types of behavior, and if it changes in different levels of evolution in the human lifetime. Unfortunately, it is a tall ask to explain how exactly does virtue arise with the creation of social order, and how it subsequently shapes our cooperative levels, a topic we shall thus leave for another day.

Why do people vary in selfishness?
Firstly, altruistic behavior can be explained as one such motivation. Altruistic behavior can be defined as behavior that benefits another organism, not closely related, while being apparently detrimental to the organism performing the behavior, benefit and detriment being defined in terms of contribution to inclusive fitness. One human being jumping into the water, at some danger to himself, to save another distantly related human being from drowning may be said to display altruistic behavior.

So what are the driving factors for a person to be motivated to help another being that has no relation to his own? Steven Pinker, in his book, The Blank Slate, states that Genes are certainly a factor.  He believes that “Conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, psychopathy, and criminal behavior are substantially (though by no means completely) heritable, and altruism may be as well.”

But, as you may have noticed by yourself, this only replaces the original question – Why do people vary in their selfishness? – With another one.  Natural selection tends to make the members of species alike in their adaptive traits, because whichever version of a trait is better than the others will be selected and the alternative versions will die out.  That is why, according to Pinker, that most evolutionary psychologists attribute systematic differences among people to their environments and attribute only random differences to the genes.  This genetic noise can come from at least two sources.  Inside the genome, rust never sleeps; random mutations constantly creep in and are only slowly and unevenly eliminated by selection.  And selection can favour molecular variability for its own sake to keep us one step ahead of the parasites that constantly evolve to infiltrate our cells and tissues.  Differences in the functioning of whole bodies and brains could be a by-product of this churning of protein sequences.

The second suggestion is the concept of “reciprocal altruism”, as introduced by Trivers. He suggests that altruism, defined as an act of helping someone else although incurring some cost for this act, could have evolved since it might be beneficial to incur this cost if there is a chance of being in a reverse situation where the person whom I helped before may perform an altruistic act towards me.

Putting this into the form of a strategy in a repeated prisoner’s dilemma, (defined as a thought experiment that shows why two people who would not cooperate even if it may appear to be in their best interests to do so) would mean to cooperate unconditionally in the first period and behave cooperatively (altruistically) as long as the other agent does as well. If chances of meeting another reciprocal altruist are high enough or the game is repeated for a long enough amount of time, this form of altruism can evolve within a population.

To put this rather colloquially, it would mean that the two people have somehow managed to establish a level of trust during repeated sessions of the game such that they eventually show signs of altruistic behavior, which signifies their cooperation with one another. This is also a microcosmic experiment that explains why humans can then form societies and work with one another.

This is close to the notion of “tit for tat“, but there still seems a slight distinction in that “tit for tat” cooperates in the first period and from thereon always replicates an opponent’s previous action, whereas “reciprocal altruists” stop cooperation in the first instance of non-cooperation by an opponent and stay non-cooperative from thereon. This distinction leads to the fact that in contrast to reciprocal altruism, tit for tat may be able to restore cooperation under certain conditions despite cooperation having broken down.

Stephens shows a set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions “… for an instance of reciprocal altruism:

1.   The behaviour must reduce a donor’s fitness relative to a selfish alternative;

2.   The fitness of the recipient must be elevated relative to non-recipients;

3.   The performance of the behaviour must not depend on the receipt of an immediate benefit;

4.   Conditions 1, 2, and 3 must apply to both individuals engaging in reciprocal helping.

There are two additional conditions necessary “…for reciprocal altruism to evolve:”

1.         A mechanism for detecting ‘cheaters’ must exist.

2.       A large (indefinite) number of opportunities to exchange aid must exist.[8]

The first two conditions are necessary for altruism as such, while the third is distinguishing reciprocal altruism from simple mutualism and the fourth makes the interaction reciprocal. Condition number five is required as otherwise non-altruists may always exploit altruistic behaviour without any consequences and therefore evolution of reciprocal altruism would not be possible. However, it is pointed out that this “conditioning device” does not need to be conscious. Condition number six is required to avoid cooperation breakdown through backwards induction—a possibility suggested by game theoretical models.

[8]Stephens, C. (1996). “Modeling Reciprocal Altruism”. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 47 (4): 533–551. doi:10.1093/bjps/47.4.533.

Will this variance change?
Yet, whilst examining the theory of reciprocal altruism, another possibility is raised: that some of the genetic differences among people in their social emotions are systematic.  One exception to the rule that selection reduces variability arises when the best strategy depends on what other organisms are doing.  The child’s game o scissors-paper-rock is one analogy, and another may be found in the decision of which route to take to work.  As commuters begin to avoid a congested highway and opt for a less traveled route, the new one will no longer be less traveled, so many will choose the first one, until congestion builds up there, which will induce still other commuters to choose the second route, and so on.  The commuters will eventually distribute themselves in some ratio between the two roads.  The same thing can happen in evolution, where it is called frequency-dependent selection.

One corollary of reciprocal altruism, shown in a number of simulations, is that frequency-dependent selection can produce temporary or permanent mixtures of strategies.  For example, even if reciprocators predominate in a population, a minority of cheaters can sometimes survive, taking advantage of the generosity of the reciprocators as long as they don’t grow so numerous as to meet other cheaters too often or to be recognized and published by the reciprocators.  Whether the population ends up homogeneous or with a mixture of strategies depends on which strategies are competing, which start off more numerous, how easily they enter and leave the population, and the payoffs for cooperation and defection.

In this, we have an intriguing parallel.  In the real world, people differ genetically in their selfish tendencies.  And in models of the evolution of altruism, actors may evolve differences in their selfish tendencies.  It could be a coincidence, but it probably is not.  Several biologists have adduced evidence that psychopathy is a cheating strategy that evolved by frequency-dependent selection.  Statistical analyses show that a psychopath, rather than merely falling at the end of a continuum for one or two traits, has a distinct cluster of traits (superficial charm, impulsivity, irresponsibility, callousness, guiltlessness, mendacity, and exploitativeness) that sets him off from the rest of the population.  And many psychopaths show none of the subtle physical abnormalities produced by biological noise, suggesting that psychopathy is not always a biological mistake.  The psychologist Linda Mealey has argued that frequency-dependent selection has produced at least two kinds of psychopaths.  One kind consists of people who are genetically predisposed to psychopathy regardless of how they grow up.  The other kind is made up of people who are predisposed to psychopathy only in certain circumstances, namely when they perceive themselves to be competitively disadvantaged in society and find themselves at home in a group of other antisocial peers.

The possibility that some individuals are born with a weak conscience runs squarely against the doctrine of the Noble Savage.  It calls to mind the old-fashioned notions of born criminals and bad seeds, and it was blotted out by twentieth-century intellectuals and replaced with the belief that all wrongdoers are victims of poverty or bad parenting. One such example, Pinker notes, is the prisoner Jack Henry Abbott.

Was the idea of reciprocal trust an instinct raised by cultural factors or group selection factors?
As Steven Pinker notes: Studies of altruism by behavioral economists have thrown a spotlight on the sword of Damocles by showing that people are neither the amoral egoists of classical economic theory (as explained by Smith), nor the all-for-one, one-for-all communists of utopian fantasies.

And as already argued earlier, the varying degrees of altruism can be caused by differences spawned by repeated cooperative levels and strategies. We also know that in models of the evolution of altruism, actors may evolve differences in their selfish tendencies.

Although some of the processes that lead to cultural change are very different from those that lead to genetic change, the logic of the two evolutionary problems are similar, and both run parallel to each other.

This idea of multilevel evolutionary theories are thought to be complete “in-principle”, with everything that goes in causing change through time playing its proper part in evolutionary theory and that the variance is somewhat kept in check with permanent mixtures and bounded ratios created by frequency-dependent selection. We then examine the 3 forms of selections that could appear at different levels.

On the individual level, selfish individuals are selected and evolved to maximize their own survival and reproductive success. Of course, as examined through cases of Prisoner’s dilemma, such reciprocal cooperation can then intermix and form a complete mixture of human social systems.

On the group selection level, selection can act on any pattern of heritable variation that exists (Price 1972). By rising against our ingrained animal natures, by following the councels of our sacred texts and great sages, we may have partially succeeded in “a revolt against the selfish genes”.

To paraphrase Darwin, group selection happens due to the need to survival amongst other groups, even though on the individual level, group selection may be disadvantageous. The possibility he quoted is as follows:

When two tribes of primeval man, living in the save country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, …, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other.

On the cultural level, the motivation, planning, production, comprehension, coordination, and evaluation of human social life may be based largely on combinations of 4 psychological models. In communal sharing, people treat all members of a category as equivalent. In authority ranking, people attend to their positions in a linear ordering. In equality matching, people keep track of the imbalances among them. In market pricing, people orient to ratio values. Cultures use different rules to implement the 4 models.

Of course, this essay has yet to touch on systems of dominance and subordination briefly covered on the cultural level selections, but those require much more detailed examination of how governments are formed in response to social orders, as well as our evolutionary heritage. These topics would have to cover not just the nature of man, but the core reasons for governments and why people would cooperate in an environment of limited freedom in exchange for security, something which is less apparent in small groups. The argument can be further complicated with studies on why human virtues such as loyalty and nobleness arise.

This may eventually link to the concepts of political philosophy, and even recent arguments, such as Alastair Macintyre’s After Virtues, raise doubts over how morals and virtues should be comprehended. To him, morals and virtues only be comprehended through their relation to the community in which they come from. Whereas Rawls tells us to conceive of justice through abstracting ourselves from who we are (through the veil of ignorance, for example) MacIntyre disagrees. Running throughout ‘After Virtue’ is the belief that in order to comprehend who we are, we must understand where we come from. And the concern is that MacIntyre himself acknowledges that the book does not give sufficient grounds for a definitive answer that it is Aristotle and his views on ethics, not Nietzsche, who points to the best solution for the problems that the book has diagnosed.

Such arguments compound the questions that we have regarding how people develop cooperative strategies moving into society, and why, as mentioned, human virtues such as loyalty and nobleness arise.


An avid reader, I consistently engage myself in the areas of current affairs and understanding of international relations, whilst at the same time, am interested in the area of economics and understanding the roles of economic concerns in the political economy. You can follow The Heralding on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest & Google+. Alternatively subscribe to our newsletter to be kept up to date with the latest articles on the Heralding.

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