Friday, October 23, 2009

Fundamental Willingness to Share

After reading but one chapter in William Flesch's book on the evolution of cooperation, Comeuppance, Nigel Beale has already encountered a problem. He quotes Flesch thus:
narratives tend to contain or at least to suggest the possibility of three basic figures (though there may be more or fewer than three characters who ‘instantiate’ them): an innocent, someone who exploits that innocent, and someone else who seeks to punish the exploiter…The biological origin of this propensity is part of what has come to be called the "evolution of cooperation." which provides the insights that are central to this book.
In characteristic fashion, it doesn't take Nigel long to get to Hitler, but not before a bizarre reference to Shakespeare:
Shakespeare had as hearty a grip on human nature, I’d say, as any narrative writer in history. Plenty of innocents get expoited in his greatest plays, plenty seek to punish the exploiters…more often than not plenty of all three end up dead in pools of blood, prostrate on the stage boards. How is this co-operation?

Flip over to ‘real’ life: Hitler exploited the Jews. Used them as scapegoats, blaming them for hardships faced by the ‘German’ population. Then he exterminated millions of them. The Allies, despite knowing at least some of what was going on, were uniformly reluctant to provide safe haven for the innocent, let alone ‘punish the exploiter.’ They acted against the exploiter only when their own safety was in jeopardy.

This is not co-operation. It’s self preservation. Let us not forget, typically there is carnage before there is co-operation.
Well, this is pretty silly. I haven't read Flesch's book, but this sort of non-argument drives me crazy. I commented, asking, "Has it occurred to you that Flesch explains what he means, since he says that’s what his book is about? Do you think people who talk about the evolution of cooperation are completely unfamiliar with the history of war? Or that they haven’t heard of Hitler?" Godwin's law aside, my point is that you cannot cite events from human history (after we became culturally human) as evidence to refute an evolutionary theory. Of course, I am persuaded that evolutionary science suggests that that in order to become culturally human (that is, in that moment when language emerges, thus changing everything) we would necessarily had to have cooperated.

As a necessary corrective to the kinds of assumptions built into Nigel's post (and, to be sure, shared by many), take a look at the new issue of Radical Anthropology (thanks to Stuart for the link). The opening editorial suggests that, if the new issue "has a unifying theme then it probably is how fundamental willingness to share--food, stories, lipstick, medicine, beads, dances, childcare--is to humanity". This sharing needs to be explained "as strategic behaviour that survived the test of natural and sexual selection: that is, benefited our 'selfish genes'."

(Update: by the above, I should clarify that I mean you cannot simply point to events in human history as obvious self-evident proof against a given theory; that is, for example, simply pointing to the persistence of war as proof of the innate aggressiveness of human beings, and leaving it at that, will not do.

Also, having now had a chance to read through a fair portion of the Radical Anthropology, allow me to in particular recommend Camilla Power's interview with Darwinian feminist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy [whose latest book, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, sounds fascinating], Moran Finnegan's imagining of an "egalitarian body" via her investigation of female body rituals among the Mbendjele Yaka hunter-gatherers in Central Africa, and the interview with Simone Pika on what the non-vocal gestures of chimps and ravens might be able to tell us about human language.)


stuart said...

I particularly liked the critique of green capitalism in the mag. Waffled on too long, and the conclusions were more vague than the analysis, but I learnt stuff I didn't know and felt it was an important intellectual self defence against 'green' capitalist claims. Cheers

Richard said...

Thanks Stuart. I haven't read that one yet. It was a bit longer than I had time for the other day, and I haven't gotten back to it.

The more I think about it, the more excited I am by Moran Finnegan's article. Also, I feel I'm going to have to read one or two of Hrdy's books.

Jim H. said...


Nigel is not wrong, he just doesn't quite get the whole way there. Sure, his history of WWII may be accurate. Not disputing that. But the NARRATIVE of WWII is precisely one of comeuppance, one in which we were the good guys, etc., etc. That seems to me what the quoted portion is about.

Jim H.

Richard said...

Hi Jim, thanks for commenting.

My problem is not with the narrative of comeuppance wrt WWII, but with the leap to WWII as proof against an evolutionary theory of co-operation. It's a non sequitur and, frankly, ignorant.