The fruits of human cooperation
Why cooperation? Why social complexity? Why the ‘problem’ of altruism? These are issues which bubble up at the intersection of ethology and evolution. They also preoccupy thinkers in the social sciences who address fundamental questions. There are perhaps two major dimensions of the parameter space which are useful to consider here: the nature of the relationship between the cooperators, and the scale of the cooperation. An inclusive fitness framework tracks the relation between altruism and genetic relatedness. Reciprocal altruism and tit-for-tat don’t necessarily focus on the genetic relationship between the agents who exchange in mutually beneficial actions. But, in classical models they do tend to focus on dyadic relationships at a small scale.* That is, they’re methodologically individualistic at heart. So all complexity can be reduced to lower orders of organization. In economics a rational choice model of behavior is individualistic, as are the critiques out of behavioral economics.
There are other models which break out of this individualistic box, insofar as they make analogies between organisms at the individual scale to social entities which are aggregations of individuals (e.g., a colony or ethnic group). The society as an organism has an old intellectual pedigree, and was elaborated in great detail by Émile Durkheim. More recently David Sloan Wilson has attempted to resurrect this framework in an explicitly evolutionary sense. Wilson has also been the most vocal proponent of multi-level selection, which posits that the unit of selection can be above the level of the gene or individual. For example, selection operating upon distinctive ‘demes.’ Roughly, a breeding social unit.
The original robots
We are haunted by Hamilton. William D. Hamilton specifically, an evolutionary biologist who died before his time in 2000. We are haunted because debates about his ideas are still roiling the intellectual world over a decade after his passing. Last summer there was an enormous controversy over a paper which purported to refute the relevance of standard kin selection theory. You can find out more about the debate in this Boston Globe article, Where does good come from? If you peruse the blogosphere you’ll get a more one-sided treatment. So fair warning (I probably agree more with the loud side which dominates the blogosphere for what it’s worth on the science).
What was Hamilton’s big idea? In short he proposed to tackle the problem of altruism in social organisms. The biographical back story here is very rich. You can hear that story from the “horse’s mouth” in the autobiographical sketches which Hamilton wrote up for his series of books of collected papers, Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Evolution of Social Behaviour and Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Evolution of Sex. For the purposes of the issue at hand the first volume is obviously more important, but the second volume has an enormous amount of personally illuminating material because of Hamilton’s untimely passing in 2000 before it could be edited. In Ullica Segerstrale’s Defenders of the Truth and Oren Harman’s The Price of Altruism Hamilton looms large as a major secondary character in the narrative. The Altruism Equation, A Reason for Everything, and The Darwin Wars, all give him extensive treatment, both his scientific ideas and relevant biographical context. Hamilton’s scientific influence on Richard Dawkins was enormous. There are nearly fifty references to him in both The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype. In writing his obituary Dawkins began: “W. D. Hamilton is a good candidate for the title of most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin.”
In terms of the details of his science, Hamilton proposed that genetic relatedness between individuals can explain altruism within groups. In this way Hamilton reduced a phenomenon which had often been explained as a group-level one (e.g., “for the good of the species”) to an individual-level one (e.g., “for the good of the individual/gene”). According to Hamilton when he was a young scientist in the early 1960s most people did not perceive this problem to be a problem at all, and he had difficulty finding support for this line of research, and was in fact warned off it by his superiors. The end culmination of those early years of lonely introspection were two dense, abstruse, and difficult papers (in part due to their peculiar notation), The genetical evolution of social behaviour – I and The genetical evolution of social behaviour – II. But the basic heuristic at the heart of these papers was condensed earlier in a short essay in The American Naturalist as Hamilton’s Rule:
rB > C or rB – C > 0
With the recent huge furor over the utility of kin selection I’ve been keeping a closer eye on the literature on inclusive fitness. The reason W. D. Hamilton’s original papers in The Journal of Theoretical Biology are highly cited is not some conspiracy, rather, they’re a powerful framework in which one can understand the evolution of social behavior. They are a logic whose basis is firmly rooted in the world of how inheritance and behavior play out concretely. But because of their formality and spareness inclusiveness fitness has also given rise to a large literature derived from simulations “in silico,” that is, evolutionary experiments in the digital domain.
One can elucidate inclusive fitness through Hamilton’s Rule, but it is also rather easy to exposit verbally via a “gene’s eye view.” Imagine for example a dominant mutation in a diploid organism which produces the behavior of altruism toward near kin. Initially the altruist will have offspring whose probability of carrying the dominant mutation is 50%, because there is also the probability that they will carry the ancestral non-altruistic variant. Imagine an altruistic behavior which incurs a small, but not trivial, cost to the individual performing the behavior, and a large gain to the individual who is on the receiving end of the altruism. The logic of favoring near kin is such that in the initial generation the parent which behaves altruistically toward near kin is increasing their own “inclusive fitness” because their offspring share 50% of their genes identical-by-descent (in the case of a diploid sexually reproducing organism). But from a gene’s eye perspective what is really occurring is that there is a 50% chance that the gene which fosters altruism is promoting the fitness of a copy of itself. So inclusive fitness operates by modulating the parameters of costs and gains to focal individuals as a function of their relatedness, but it is the genes, the “replicators,” which persist immortally across the generations. We “vehicles” are just the ocean through which genes sail.
But like Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection the fruit of these logics are in the details. A new paper in The Proceedings of the Royal Society puts the focus on different means by which inclusive fitness may be maximized. In particular, the paper offers up a reason for why what Richard Dawkins termed the “green-beard effect” is not more common. Selective pressures for accurate altruism targeting: evidence from digital evolution for difficult-to-test aspects of inclusive fitness theory:
There is a new paper in Nature which is a full frontal attack on the utility of William D. Hamilton’s inclusive fitness framework in explaining eusociality. Martin A. Nowak, Corina E. Tarnita, & Edward O. Wilson are the authors. Wilson is famous in large part for his authorship of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, and is arguably the doyen of American organismic biology. He is both an active scientist, and, a premier public intellectual. So with that in mind, I notice that Dienekes Pontikos alludes to “E.O. Wilson’s change of mind about group selection.” This is conventional wisdom, but it is I think wrong (though from what I can tell Wilson has not done much to disabuse the press of the notion). In Defenders of the Truth Ullica Segerstrale notes that Wilson did not expunge group selection thinking even in Sociobiology. In Evolution for Everyone David Sloan Wilson recounts that it was in fact E. O. Wilson who pointed out a group selective interpretation of data he was presenting at a conference, helping to push him early on in a rather unfashionable direction. From what I have heard Wilson always believed that the empirical data was not adequately explained by a pure inclusive fitness model, and simply waited until things shook out before pushing back with more theoretically trained colleagues who had the same skepticism.
From page 30 of Sociobiology:
Sometimes in a narrative you have secondary characters who you want to revisit. What do to do after the story is complete? An convenient “work-around” to this problem is to find the story rewritten from the perspective of the secondary character. In broad strokes the picture is unchanged, but in the finer grained shadings different details come into sharper relief. Though the exterior action may be unaltered, it gains different context, and the interior motive may radically alter, as the nature of subjective perspective matters so greatly in the last instance. In many ways Oren Harman’s The Price of Altruism reads to me like a narrative rewritten from the perspective of a character who was a supporting protagonist in other stories. George Price, almost a novelty act elsewhere, now becomes the primary point of view character.
I could almost say that Harman, a historian of science, has given us a novel from a “shared universe” of stories. That universe is the real world. The other stories are the lives of great scientists, and the plot consists of the working out of their ideas. In the acknowledgments Harman alludes to the wide range of works where fragments of George Price’s life filters through. I have read many of the mentioned works, The Darwin Wars, Defenders of the Truth, and Narrow Roads of Gene Land. In all of these George Price cuts a quixotic figure, mercurial, brilliant and exceedingly eccentric. His plain biography already peculiar. Price began his career as a chemist, shifted to journalism and became what we today would term a professional “skeptic,” then entered into a period of productivity as an evolutionary theorist of some major impact, and finally spent his last years attempting to live the life of a serious Christian who followed God’s commands to the best of his abilities. He died tragically, committing suicide in his early 50s in 1975, homeless, destitute, and serious ill.
If you have even a marginal interest in evolutionary biology you will probably have heard of Hamilton’s Rule, a simple formal representation of the logic whereby a gene which favors altruism may spread through a population: rB > C, where r = coefficient of relatedness on the gene in question, B = benefit to those related, and C = cost to oneself. The idea is almost trivially obvious. Consider that you are in a situation where you are faced with the possibility of aiding your full sibling at a cost to yourself. Now imagine that you carry a single allele which favors altruism toward close relations. Your sibling has a 50% probability of carrying that allele identical by descent (let’s stay haploid for simplicity). From a “gene’s eye view” it benefits the allele to predispose you to helping your kin in direct proportion to the probability that your kin carry that allele. In other words the logic underlying inclusive fitness isn’t really that abstract, it is ordered around the benefits and costs to the theoretical genes which manipulate social behavior over the long term. This explains why the evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane responded “…I would to save two brothers or eight cousins,” when asked if he would save his brother from drowning. The genetically relatedness to a sibling is 1/2, to a cousin 1/8. 2 X 1/2 = 1 and 8 X 1/8 = 1, basically equivalent to yourself. Evolutionary altruism is obviously somewhat different from common sense altruism, because you’re averaging out the behavior of many individuals over a time window.
The fascinating back story behind the development of this sort of formal thinking is recounted in W. D. Hamilton’s first collection of papers, Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Evolution of Social Behaviour. An elaboration upon the core logic of Hamilton’s Rule in two seminal papers revolutionized our understanding of the evolution of sociality in the 1960s; Hamilton was proud of how widely cited his original papers were. John Maynard Smith’s evolutionary game theory and Robert Trivers reciprocal altruism emerged out of the same ferment (Trivers’ acknowledges the debt to Hamilton in Natural Selection and Social Theory). More recently E. O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson have been arguing for a rehabilitation of more complex models of the origins of sociality through multilevel selection theory.