Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

How the right wing co-opts research into the evolution of cooperation

Posted 20 Aug 2011 / 2

Molten-Breakup-2013-01_0200pxOne of the ways that I keep up with my field these days (inasmuch as that is even possible given the pace of innovation and activity) is by using Google Alerts. For those of you who are not familiar with the service, it allows you to receive updates via e-mail every time that a new page pops up on the Internet matching your search criteria of choice. This can be very useful and also very overwhelming, especially since there is a good chance that scientific papers published in prominent journals will end up on your Google Alerts e-mail about fifty times. I only use one Google Alert these days, which is for the search criteria “evolution of cooperation”. This brings in plenty of information.

Today my Google Alert brought up two very unexpected sites discussing cooperation.  I never would have found these sites on my own, so the value or danger of Google Alerts is demonstrated by this morning’s e-mail from Google.

The first website that Google Alerts sent me to today featured an article called  “The Evolution Of Racial Differences in Morality“. It was published on the white supremacist website American Renaissance. The article is actually from 1995, but apparently was just posted. The article is a blatant piece of misinformation that makes completely unsupported claims about racially-based differences in biology. It is especially caught up in the question of IQ, which is still scientifically mysterious today (Zimmer 2008). Using a series of folk anecdotes, the article attempts to establish that blacks, whites, and other racial groups maintain fundamentally different biological identities. Of course anyone familiar with the now-extensive scientific work that has analyzed global human genetic differences will know that we actually share a huge amount of genetic diversity, and the differences within regional groups are far greater than any differences between groups. Scientifically, the concept of race has been pretty-well rejected (Bamshad & Olson 2003). We also now know that the superficial traits that we associate with race (such as skin color) evolve very rapidly, such that racial social groups may actually be comprised of very diverse gene pools. So evolutionary biology has pretty much eroded all of the major assumptions of these sort of racist rants.

But what I found really interesting about this absurd article is how it appealed more specifically to the literature on how cooperation evolves. Beyond trying to argue that different races are biologically different from each other, the article actually makes the claim that different races have different moral standards and that these moral standards reflect the evolutionary environment experienced by each group in the past. On its face, this claim is not totally absurd. But the article seems to be so confused about whether it is talking about culture or biology, and this presents a real problem for its chief argument: that the races are fundamentally different from each other in terms of their behavioral norms. For this to be really true, they have to be talking about biology, because culture flows very rapidly between different human populations. At the same time, every difference they claim in morality seems fundamentally cultural. And of course this is even forgetting how stereotypical and inaccurate their depictions of each race’s so-called moral standards are.

The fundamental claim of this delusional article is that people of European ancestry needed to cooperate more in order to survive, and this has led to fundamental differences in morality. Anyone who understands how modern-day tribes live will see how absurd this assumption is: tribal living is typified by rather extreme cooperation moderated by very strong local norms. In the end we are supposed to believe that different racial groups are fundamentally more or less cooperative based on their evolution over the last 40,000 years. The article even makes note of Robert Axelrod and William Hamilton’s seminal work on The Evolution of Cooperation, using their idea that social strategies are under frequency-dependent selection to argue in favor of racial segregation.

Although this article is patently ridiculous, I want to make sure to identify how. The first of course is that it drastically overstates the importance of genetic differences, both in how they shape the fate and traits of individuals and the role they play in regional populations of human beings. The second confusion stems from very sloppy thinking about the dual roles of genetics and culture in determining how local groups of people live. The third inaccuracy has to do with the depiction of cooperation in the article, which seems to be considered without any reference to scale. The argument that a particular group is more cooperative than another really cannot be made unless we specify the scale at which we are talking about cooperation. As I already mentioned, no human group will out-cooperate small tribes at the local scale. And of course it is a given to say that industrialized countries cooperate better at a larger scale, since many human groups maintain no interactions with larger-scale organization. And why should we even think that cooperation is necessarily an admirable trait? The fundamental argument about racism in the United States is that whites have colluded to systematically exclude people of other races from opportunities. This is cooperation, albeit unjust. Needless to say, this racist rant is simply invoking science in order to cover its rotten argument in a veneer of scientific legitimacy. It is important to point out all the thin spots in that veneer.

The second article is a little more subtle. I still maintain that it is filled with radical right assumptions, but it is admittedly not overtly racist and delusional like the posting on American Renaissance. Apparently a reaction to the recent unrest in London (although it makes no explicit reference to these events) the article in The Fortnightly Review (“On social disorder“) is a classic appeal for social order based on punishment by the state. In case you missed where the article was coming from, the author (Gerald F. Gaus) makes specific reference to the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes. This is fine, although I think recent work in evolutionary biology is pulling us away from a Hobbesian view of social dynamics (I like Frans de Waal’s Age of Empathy as a counterargument to a Hobbesian view of evolution). What really rubs me the wrong way is how Gaus misrepresents the literature on experimental social interactions. Here is his depiction of this rich body of work:

RECENT WORK ON the evolution of cooperation also endorses another claim typically associated with ‘the right’: crucial to deterring individuals from playing snatch is some form of third-party punishment.

Nothing is more frustrating than when non-scientists pick and choose from the scientific literature in order to support their viewpoint. This claim that punishment has been shown to be an important mechanism for maintaining cooperation in social groups is just plain wrong. As I highlighted only yesterday, there are plenty of scientists who believe that direct punishment of norm violations actually discourages cooperation.  I am not saying that punishment does not play some role in cooperation, but this depiction by Gaus is highly misleading.

If we want to look at recent events involving social unrest such as the looting that took place in London last week through the lens of cooperation and punishment, we need to do so thoroughly and rigorously. I do think that an understanding of cooperative dynamics can help us come to an understanding of these events, but I doubt that I would reach the same conclusion as Gaus, which seems to be that we need more  state-sanctioned punishment in order to maintain a functioning society. If you look at the reasons why people riot, protest, or loot, it is not sufficient to simply label people on the streets violating everyday norms as defectors while the rest of us are happy cooperators. As I discussed above, we need to put aside the idea that cooperation is always nice: one group could be engaging in self-benefiting cooperation that oppresses another group. The rebellion of that group against the prevailing cooperators, especially if done collaboratively, is also a form of cooperation. So which form of cooperation should we favor? Science has no answer to this question: the answer lies in deciding at which level of organization we value the products of cooperation. In poor neighborhoods worldwide, cooperation at the level of the state is oppressive. Those who live in poverty are provided fewer opportunities by the society at large than those with economic privilege. From the perspective of the poor, everyone else is a defector/cheater/freerider. So to band together to cooperatively punish one’s oppressors has a social logic. I don’t mean to say that all forms of social unrest are productive, but they have a logic that is rooted in cooperative dynamics. Now if I am a member of the larger society who is benefiting from the prevailing social order, I consider anyone who violates the norms of that prevailing social order (however oppressive those norms may be) to be a defector. I may want to punish defectors through various means (police violence, harassment, imprisonment) in order to maintain cooperation as I value it at the scale of larger society. Notice how a consideration of simple cooperative dynamics (such as those depicted by the prisoner’s dilemma) does not really help us to determine what to do about social unrest. It all depends on what you value: is the oppression of a minority necessary in order to maintain higher-level cooperation, or is that oppression a sign that the prevailing social order is actually very unfair? And is it possible to maintain higher-level cooperation and thus large-scale societies whilst maintaining fair dynamics at smaller and more local social scales? These are questions that we should be asking based on an understanding of cooperation as we try to figure out how to prevent the violence and destruction of social unrest.

I admit it: this post may be a fool’s errand. I realize that in trying to police or counter these sort of misuses of my field, I am setting myself up for disaster and failure. There is no way to prevent people with particular agendas from misusing science to forward those agendas. But when I see legitimate science being misused to support oppressive ideas, I get sick to my stomach, and I can’t help commenting on how fallacious their so-called scientific ideas are.

Cooperation, Cultural Evolution, Ethics, Human Evolution, Memetic Fitness, Political Science, Punishment, Reciprocity, Sociology, Web

2 Comments to "How the right wing co-opts research into the evolution of cooperation"

Randall Calvert 8th September 2011 at 3:45 pm

Fascinating post. It’s interesting, and of course scary, to be reminded what perverse use people make of our work. I’m puzzled, though, why you identify Gaus’s “misrepresentations” with social science. Judging from your provided link, Gaus himself is a philosophy professor. And although of course there is all kinds of strange and confused stuff to be found in the broader literature, the mainstream of social science thinking about implications of the “evolution of cooperation” closely resembles what you’ve laid out here.

Chris Jensen 8th September 2011 at 5:00 pm

I think that this is a very fair criticism; I have tried to modify the post to better reflect the actual school of thought that Gaus is coming from.

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