Monday, April 25, 2011

Another Unrealistic Recipe for Utopia

David Willets (MP, Conservative) reviews (24 April) Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield, SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution and Why We Need Each Other, Edinburgh: Cannongate (HERE):

“The invisible hand that binds us all”

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations outlines the logic of modern capitalism; a world of competition in which benevolence is irrelevant. But in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he gave an account of morality resting on empathy and conscience as an impartial spectator observing our actions. …

…how to reconcile these two great books – is also the challenge of how to order a society in which competition and ethical sensibility are combined.

… So how do we find a way to explain these obligations in a society less susceptible to appeals to tradition or religion? The nexus of evolutionary biology, game theory and neuroscience provides the most exciting avenue, and this book is an excellent example of the genre. Martin Nowak, along with his co-author journalist Roger Highfield, sets out steps by which this type of new co-operation can be developed, beginning with direct reciprocity then indirect reciprocity and on through competition between groups that reward martial qualities of courage and trustworthiness. He starts off with the economic man of the market economists, but ends up with a way of thinking about human behaviour which is closer to that of the great religions. Mr Nowak is a Harvard professor, but he generates controversy for the fact that, unlike most thinkers in this area, he is also a Christian.

The authors are more than a few millennia too late if they advocate introducing a“new [form of] co-operation” based on reciprocity. This a very old form of co-operation found and practiced among animals, as well as humans. In fact it pre-dates humanity as it evolved from the common ancestor with the chimpanzees about 6 million years ago and can be observed today among primates.

From reciprocity (I do you favour – share food; later, you reciprocate by sharing your food with me, which completes the transaction). This is an early implicit form of bargaining, but because the reciprocation may come long after the original favour, it is a quasi-bargain.

Over time, the gap between the obligation to reciprocate narrows, until the transaction is immediate, and because it is immediate, it is more certain to be completed: ‘I will give you this which you want, if you will give me this what I want’ (to paraphrase Adam Smith: WN I.ii.2: 25-25). This the full Smithian bargain.

So, I am not clear what Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield add to what economists and anthropologists already know and what the world of Homo sapiens (NOT that cursed Homo economicus!) practices.

His willingness to argue for group selection, a theory suggesting that evolution operates beyond the genetic level, reawakens old controversies – but he does so using innovative mathematical models, able to incorporate dynamism and uncertainty.”

Biological evolution operates at the individual level and social evolution operates at the society level. Nothing remarkable in that. Hence we have stone-age societies and capitalist societies on the plant, and ‘capitalist societies take many form, from mercantile states through so-called Anglo-saxon to Continental, and relatively free-market scoieites through to Chinese Communist State capitalism, and so on. Societies have evolved quite differently in the recent past and will continue to do so. Again, nothing remarkable in that, and nothing will stop them continuing to do so.

“Adam Smith would have been pleased to know, for example, that putting a picture of two eyes looking at you on a communal fridge trebles contributions to the honesty box, compared with a picture of flowers.”

Adam Smith was quite clear: the close observation of others and by others (for example in a small religious sect) ensure a close adherence to group norms of behaviour. It was scrutiny of the behaviour of others that was supported by the clear moral norms of that small society that brought compliance – a picture of eyes on a poor box (or fridge today) reinforces known norms.

The reviewer, David Willetts, MP, summarises the rest of the book’s mainly technical maths of rationality applied to human behaviour (a set of heroic assumptions, at best), but I do not think the authors have found the Holy Grail. Predicting what is rational and aligning that as behaviour is a seductive trap, indulged in by politicians and their critics.

Much better to concentrate on studying how we arrived a the present situation in order to understand it. Predicting the future course of events is the medicine of the proverbial shaman and witch doctor; best not taken at all.

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