Teach the Controversy: Shadow of the Leviathan (Part 2)


Chimpanzees are like us in many ways. They form alliances, maybe even friendship, and maintain these alliances by aiding each other in conflicts. Other behaviours we would recognise in ourselves are an obsession with social climbing, swapping dinner for sex and, slightly less light-hearted, the penchant for actively killing their neighbours out of boredom

The chimp mafia are surprisingly well organised

… or if the price is right

But, on a fundamental level, they just don’t give a shit about one another.

There was a paper in Proceeds of the National Academy of Science (the world’s worst abbreviation, read it out loud…) which demonstrated that they don’t have a concept of fairness in an egalitarian sense. Chimps know damn well whenthey themselves have been treated unfairly, and will react when their offspring or social allies are attacked, but beyond that, nothing. Too bad for chimpanzee, because third-party punishment (just punishment from now on); where someone intervenes to either protect an unrelated individual from harm or to uphold general standards of fairness, is vital for the evolution of large scale cooperation and altruism.

Shadow of the Leviathan

In part 1, I told you that three things tend to encourage us to get along, 1) Kin Selection, 2) Reciprocity and 3) Reputation, but nothing has been demonstrated in both the experimental and theoretical literature, and indeed everyday life, to increase cooperation and altruism like the spectre of punishment for transgressions.

Despite what you may think, this isn’t because of we’re afraid of being punished ourselves per se, it’s because deep down we don’t trust one another. Human relationships are complex, and while some people might take notice when someone cheats another, that defector is still probably a ‘great guy’ to their friends; one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter as they say. So we can’t guarantee that reputation and reciprocity will work in our favour. Human for the most part are conditional co-operators, in that we all want to cooperate but fundamentally fear being taken advantage of.

A local example will do: This year the council asked the stores along the high street (and we’re not talking an Oxfam/Ladbrooks high street here) to help pay for the Christmas lights. Lights that draw people to the centre, encourage shoppers to stay late and put us all in the mood for a Christmas spending binge. Yet so few stores said they would contribute there may be no lights this year. Basically each retailer (because saying ‘store’ makes it sound like we’re talking about a local butcher not a multi-national) feared being the only one contributing for everyone’s benefit and thus none did.

On a more academic note, it is a wonderful example of a naturalistic public good game. An intersting questions is what would happen if the names of the stores which refused to contribute were revealed?

Merry Christmas everyone

Punishment changes this in a very Hobbesian Leviathan way. That is, we are willing to cooperate and trust one another because we know some power somewhere will bring its wrath upon those that do not. We know this not just because individuals will cooperate when they could be punished, but because individuals will actively seek an institution where punishment is possible; we are willing to give up the freedom to defect, cheat, rape or murder in order to be protected from others who want to do the same. It’s why prosperity follows peace and why we often turn to tyrannical leaders during times of hardship.

We know punishment massively aids cooperation and altruism. In fact, we expect someone else to intervene as much as we expect them to help (hence why we’re so shocked when people just stand by and do nothing). But viewed from the economics of individual selection, the numbers just don’t add up.

The Problem with Punishment

Punishment is costly. It costs the person being punished, it costs the person doing the punishing, and it costs the group as a whole. In fact in many cases, given the waste of resources that punishing unfairness inevitably causes, everyone would just be better off going it alone – as for the most part Chimpanzee’s do in terms of cooperative endeavours. Even if punishment didn’t negatively impact the group, those that punish are in the position of an altruistic shop in the example above. If a shop had paid for all the lights, they certainly benefit, but so does everyone else for free; equally, if one stops rowdy teens breaking the glass in a bus stop, you have a nice bus stop, but so does everyone else that didn’t risk a stabbing.

Because of this, on an Individual Selection level many believe that punishment can never evolve. Those with a propensity to punish will always lose the evolutionary race against both free-riders (those who behave selfishly/chavs) and also second-order free riders (those who refuse to punish selfish individuals/hippies).

The caption is the title of a paper by Dreber et al (2008) detailing why anyone who engages in punishment will ultimately lose out to plot holes and satan-power reboots

“Winners Don’t Punish”

That is, unless you take into account inter-group conflict.

War and Peace

If there’s one thing we’re good at, and this probably extends (as I mentioned above) right back to a pre-hominid ancestors, is killing one another. In fact, if both historical and contacted hunter-gatherer people are any indication, we spent most of our evolutionary past in a state of endemic low-level warfare.  In such a competitive environment, the willingness to punish intra-group unfairness; which remember actively promotes cooperation within a group, is no longer such a handicap. Essentially if a group is more socially cohesive and goal focused than another it will win any conflict; it doesn’t matter if the group with the punishers may have lower absolute group efficiency, they’re the only ones left standing.

Genetic legacy secure, shame about all that sterilising radiation


The reason for our sensitivity to unfairness, and desire to avenge it, is that some groups, through a quirk of random mutations, contained individuals who were willing to punish regardless of the cost. Groups containing such individuals triumphed in these never ending conflicts. Thus there doesn’t need to be any benefit for the punisher to explain why this behaviours evolved as groups that didn’t maintain this variation were simply eliminated. The important difference between modern Group Selection and its earlier incarnation is this conflict pressure (though more benign versions suggestion ‘environmental pressure’ as a possible alternative) as it provides an actual means by which an individually deleterious trait could be evolutionarily stable.

Strong reciprocity

While I’ve been talking about how generally nice humans are to one another, it doesn’t take much (famously as little as dividing participants by which of two paintings they liked) for us to form antagonistic groups. This version of Group Selection seems able to explain this too in the form of ‘parochial altruism’: the propensity to be nice to people in our group and violently assault people in other groups while taking their things.  Much like intra-group punishment above, being altruistic to your group mates here can be evolutionarily stable without any need for individual benefit through reputational/reciprocal gain. As an overall effect it’s been called Strong Reciprocity, as an individual is reacting to the behaviour of another and not to what they can get out of it.

So while Individual selection explains altruistic gestures in the modern world as essentially the misfiring of a brain designed for our ancestral environment, Group-level selection suggests that any spontaneous niceness occurs because we evolved to help anyone near us, regardless of any individual costs or benefits. The pressure of inter-group conflict has made us willing to behave cooperatively and altruistically without a thought to any benefits (evolutionarily or otherwise).

In some cases heroism it may take longer to get to than others

Deep down, we’re all superheroes

It’s a controversy

Now we (finally) get to the controversy part of all this. Because at it stands the conflict/group-level selection explanation for human pro-sociality is far from universally accepted. While Group-level selection is a fine theory that has been supported by experiments conducted by researchers far more intelligent and insightful than I will probably ever be, there are certain issues that have lead others, including me, to question its validity. For the sake of space, and because it’s my area of expertise, I’ll be focusing on punishment.

Retribution and retaliation

There is, to paraphrase one researcher, “A reason the police wear body armor” and that reason is we really don’t like being told off for doing something wrong. Retaliation is as ubiquitous as punishment, yet very few experiments really take this into account when investigating human social behaviour. Those that do find that when retaliation against a punisher is possible, punishment is no longer evolutionarily stable, and no punishment means no cooperation. In fact, unless very strict criteria are observed very few participants at all will try and punish free-riders if said free riders can fight back.  This can be seen quite plainly in everyday life; we’ve all read the stories about the knife-y fate that befalls anyone willing to stand up to criminals or angry looking youths.

IMHO this 'common sense' cost to punishment has been ignored because, in contract to altruism, the study of punishment has almost entirely been the purview of economists, or sociologists who just see patriarchal oppression

What I’m saying is, maybe we should just stick to tutting loudly when someone cuts in-line

Why is this important given what I said about the Group Selection explanation? Because individuals behave as if they are insensitive to the cost of punishment only if it’s cheap. Once recantation raises the cost it’s suddenly a bad idea. While the threat of retaliation may be the main cost inhibiting the evolution of cooperation and punishment, it is also the most overlooked.

Real life examples

Another problem is there is huge cultural variation in a willingness to engage in both cooperation and punishment. For instance in cultures that are honour-heavy, (in experiments at least) there is little punishment but a great deal of retaliation to any attempt at punishment. When honour is the social norm, and especially in countries where the authorities are corrupt or non-existent, stepping into a conflict not concerning you is dangerous as the target will respond in kind; indeed they’ll have to, as in such a culture NOT reacting to any slight can be deadly!

Perhaps the biggest problem is that in pre-state societies (modern hunter-gatherer and pastoral groups), societies that are supposed to represent the condition of humanity for most of our evolutionary history, there is little definitive evidence of third-party punishment. Indeed most studies that claim there is are often criticised for overlooking factors such as kin or self interest. In both cases this is not what we would expect if Group-Selection and Strong reciprocity are correct.

Indeed, if we turn away from punishment for a second, it’s simply far too easy to manipulate people using the prospect of reciprocity/reputational gain into behaving more altruistic/selfishly for these to have been insignificant forces acting on our evolution.

Cui bono, or public good for private gain

Because of these issues, individual selection is making a comeback into the evolution of human sociality. Firstly there is the matter of costly signalling. The classic example of this is the peacock’s tail, only high quality males can have such a fancy appendage and still survive, but a better example in this context would be a Billionaire building an orphanage complete with tennis courts, boating lake and a Michelin star chef. Indeed there is strong evidence that people, groups and nations regularly engage in this sort of conspicuous consumption or excessive giving as a way of showing off how fabulously wealthy they are; anyone with slightly competitive relatives will know what this looks like at Christmas when it’s present time.

Oh no it’s fine, I mean the socks you got me are good too…

This also applies to punishment. As I mentioned above retaliation is potentially the main cost to punishment so while we all get outraged at unfairness, only very few of us actually do anything about it because it is so costly. This is borne out in the data as, handbag waving grandparents notwithstanding, pretty much all acts of third-party punishment are carried out by large and athletic males. See, there is a reason beyond eternal loneliness that I have included super hero pictures across this post, just as there’s a reason Peter Parker only started cleaning up the streets of New York after gaining the power to cover criminals in sticky white goo. Added to this, having witnessed said masked vigilante take down a train full of armed Mafioso, are you really going to steal his wallet while he takes a nap? It’s all about reputation again, but this time as someone who is not to be messed with. Equally, and continuing with the theme, we really like people who stand up for the public good, or more specifically, our good. While we generally don’t like people we observe violently (because, well, they could beat the crap outta us) we love them once it’s directed against ‘bad people’. A few experiments have shown we really like individuals who ‘stand up for what’s right’, truth, justice and the American way.

Combining these two ideas, there’s some really interesting research being done (including by me) on the role punishment has in signalling dominance, and whether engaging in punishment behaviour in necessary to maintain a dominant position; no politician was ever elected on a “soft on crime and a ban on door locks” ticket after all.

If you know what BBY means (and are female) please send me a private message including your name, age and ring-size ;-)

Keeping the galaxy safe since 19BBY

Alternative opinions are available

So, despite having left the point of these articles to die in a ditch quite a while ago, there we have it. There is a genuine debate within the field about how our altruistic behaviour and sense of egalitarianism evolved. What began with a simple concept of group survival was replaced with a focus of individual selection, only to rise from the ashes as the weakness in the latter approach became clear. And now, this approach too is being questioned. What’s the answer? Will group-selection via inter-group conflict continue to be the most likely explanation, will Individual selection also make a comeback, or will a hybrid multi-level selection model win out?

For the purposes of this post it doesn’t really matter. The point is this is what an actual controversy in evolutionary theory looks like, competing hypotheses that are thoroughly tested in the most complete way researcher can think of. And as the methods are honed and the results become clear, theories are amended, altered or rejected, because any researcher who carries on with there pet theory contrary to all the evidence will simply be ignored. It’s just a shame this doesn’t happen in the wider world.

About Myles Power (760 Articles)
Hello Internet! My name is Myles Power and I am a chemist from the North East of England, who loves to make videos trying to counter pseudoscience and debunk quackery in all of its various forms! From the hype around GMOs through to Atrazine turning the freakin’ frogs gay, I’ll try to cut through the nonsense that’s out there!

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