Category Archives: cooperation

Is E O Wilson Senile, Narcissistic, or Just an Asshole?

Last weekend, renowned evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson was interviewed by BBC Newsnight. In the course of the interview, he continued his public feud with Richard Dawkins. Like most feuds, this one probably can be attributed to multiple causes, but it centers primarily around Wilson’s disavowal of kin selection.

The bit of the interview that has received the most attention is where Wilson calls Dawkins a “journalist”:

There is no dispute between me and Richard Dawkins and there never has been, because he’s a journalist, and journalists are people that report what the scientists have found, and the arguments I’ve had have actually been with scientists doing research.

This is pretty Oh-Snap! in the world of science, which is full of polite trash-talk centered on establishing who is more of a real scientist. Just like how you can insult a physicist by calling them an engineer, or how you can insult an economist by emphasizing “Memorial” in “Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences”.

The thing that struck me, though, was this bit, quoted in the Guardian’s coverage:

Wilson was asked about his current views on the concept of a selfish gene, to which he replied: “I have abandoned it and I think most serious scientists working on it have abandoned it. Some defenders may be out there, but they have been relatively or almost totally silenced since our major paper came out.”

The paper Wilson is referring to is his 2010 Nature paper co-authored with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita. This is a paper that prompted a condemnation signed by 137 prominent population geneticists. (That’s about 130 more than the number of population geneticists who could legitimately be considered “prominent”.)

Now, it’s one thing for Wilson to continue to defend the paper. That would just make him wrong. But to claim that it silenced everyone who disagrees with him comes off as profoundly disingenuous.

Disingenuousness, by the way, is exactly what was wrong with the paper in the first place. The mathematical model it presented (mostly in the Appendix) was fine. However, the main text was filled with misrepresentations of other people’s work. The point of the paper was to show that everyone in the field was wrong, because they had neglected factors X, Y, and Z. Of course, it’s not hard to prove people wrong when you lie about the work they’ve done.

It’s basically like if you reformatted Fox News as a Nature paper.

If you’re interested, I’ve written about this paper and the controversy surrounding it on a number of occasions (here, here, here, and here), and even made a little video dramatizing some of the criticisms of the paper.

But here’s today’s question: What is Wilson thinking? Is he starting to lose it? Or is he so arrogant that he feels comfortable dismissing any criticisms of his ideas, even to the point of denying their existence? Or has he constructed a bubble for himself, where he no longer encounters critical voices?

Or is he is so hell-bent on building a legacy as The Guy Who Proved Everyone Wrong that he does not really care whether or not anything he says is actually true?

I’m honestly puzzled. Wilson is a giant in the field. He’s a smart guy who presumably knows what it means to be a scientist. And he doesn’t (or at least didn’t) have a reputation for being a horrible person — a reputation that is common among people of his stature.

The one explanation that is off the table at this point (as far as I’m concerned) is that he is a gifted scientist trying in good faith to pursue the truth, and that this is some sort of legitimate scientific disagreement.

Egypt Week – Corruption and Cooperation

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for So, our next Egypt Week feature is a theoretical paper on a topic closely related to the last post. Once again, we are interested in understanding the mechanisms that are responsible for encouraging or enforcing cooperation, thereby facilitating collective action. Last time, we talked about a paper that found that “altruistic” or “third-party” punishment is common in large-scale, complex societies, but is rare in small-scale societies, while “spiteful” punishment is universal.

Many empirical and theoretical studies of cooperation focus on punishment as a mechanism for enforcing societal norms. Basically, you set up a situation where the group benefits if people cooperate, but each individual benefits by not cooperating. If mechanisms exist to punish people for not cooperating, you get cooperation. Which is to say that the existence of punishment changes the individuals’ incentives. The benefits of not cooperating are outweighed by the cost of being punished. No big mystery there.

But what if punishment itself is costly? Punishment can stabilize cooperation, but what stabilizes punishment? Some models rely on an infinite succession of punishments, where people punish people who fail to punish people who fail to cooperate, and people punish people who fail to punish people who fail to punish people who fail to cooperate, and people punish … well, you get the idea.

Today’s paper asks if cooperation can be enforced by corrupt punishment. That is, while punishment is still treated as costly, punishers are not necessarily cooperators themselves, as is commonly assumed in models of this sort. Furthermore, the corrupt punishers (“policers”) suffer a lower cost when punished than do non-punishers (“civilians”).

A corrupt policer looks forward to a cushy retirement, thanks to his hypocritical enforcement of others’ cooperation. Little does he suspect how a new, young partner, who colors outside the lines, but has a heart of gold, will turn his whole life upside-down, with hilarious consequences.

The model shows that in the presence of a modest power imbalance, cooperating civilians and corrupt policers can coexist. That is, a moderate level of corruption is consistent with, and can even stabilize cooperation. However, when the power imbalance becomes large, corrupt policers overrun the population, the system breaks down, and cooperation is lost.

The first part of the result is nice because it provides a degree of robustness to the “cooperation through punishment” paradigm, as it does not require the punishers to be acting altruistically themselves.

The second part of the result is perhaps more directly relevant to Egypt Week. Societies can function in the presence of a degree of inequality, and they can tolerate a certain amount of hypocrisy from their leaders. But too much hypocrisy and inequality is inconsistent with the type of collective action that governments are meant to facilitate.

It is heartening to see that when a less corrupt alternative presents itself, people are still capable of collective action on a massive scale.

Peace be upon you.

Úbeda, F., & Duéñez-Guzmán, E. (2010). POWER AND CORRUPTION Evolution DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2010.01194.x [1] [2]


[1] This is an online, ahead-of-print publication, which is why there are no page numbers, but it should be findable through the DOI.

[2] Disclosure: The first author on this paper is a long-time friend and colleague, and we have worked together on issues of intragenomic conflict. Here is photographic evidence of our friendship, from when we were traveling around Lyon, France like Thelmo and Louis following the 2010 SMBE meeting:

On our way to the Palais de Justice, we accidentally activated our Wonder-Twin Powers. Francisco took the shape of an evolutionary biologist, and I took the form of a French trash can. Photo by Gleek.

Egypt Week – Spiteful versus Altruistic Punishment

So, welcome to the first Egypt Week edition of Lost in Transcription. We’re going to kick it off with an anthropology paper that uses a cross-cultural approach to study the origins of human punishment and cooperation.

If you’re not familiar with this vein of research, let me set the stage for you. The “problem” of cooperation when people talk about it in anthropology, biology, and economics is this. If you take a super naive view of natural selection, it would say that we should have evolved to ruthlessly pursue our own self interest. In particular, if we have an opportunity to cheat and get away with it, the logic of self interest suggests that we should. From this perspective, the whole idea of successfully engaging in collective action seems absurd.

Contrary to this naive expectation, we observe that people do forego opportunities to pursue their own narrow self interest, and the history of civilization is one of successful collective action on an enormous scale.

Of course, at some level, we know what the answer is.[1] Natural selection does not act only on the short-term self interest of the individual, but favors behaviors that enhance survival, reproduction, and the propagation of the genes carried by the individual. Those things are all affected by more that just who gets the biggest piece of the pie in a given interaction. Other factors that come in to play include selection on kin or social groups, the establishment and enforcement of social norms, and systems of reward, punishment, and reputation.

So, much of the work in this field focuses on trying to figure out which among these various effects has played the greatest role in the origin of the enormous capacity for cooperation that underlies all human societies.

This paper uses a standard set of experimental protocols, applied to twelve societies that differ enormously in size and complexity of social organization. The societies studied span the range from the Hadza, hunter-gatherers from Tanzania, to the people of Accra, the capital city of Ghana. Each experiment is a two-player or three-player game in which the players make decisions that determine how money is distributed. The goal here is to measure the degree of “altruism” in each society, the degree of “second-party” punishment (how willing are people to punish someone who is not generous to them), and the degree of “third-party” punishment (how willing are people to punish someone who is not generous to someone else).

The first experiment used was the Dictator Game (DG), in which the experimenter provides Player 1 with an allotment of money, and Player 1 determines how that money will be divided between themselves and Player 2. The game is played once, and is played anonymously, so there is nothing to stop Player 1 from offering nothing to Player 2. This experiment establishes a baseline level of cooperation or altruism, quantified by the average proportion of the money that Player 2 receives.

The second experiment is the Ultimatum Game (UG). This is like the Dictator Game, but Player 1 proposes a division of the allotment of money, and Player 2 can either accept or reject this proposal. If Player 2 rejects, both players walk away with nothing. This measures the willingness to punish ungenerous individuals who make low offers. Note that for any non-zero offer, Player 2 actually has to give up money in order to punish Player 1, making this a “spiteful” form of punishment.

The third experiment is the Dictator Game, but involves a third player, who receives an allotment of money from the experimenter. After Player 1 determines how the primary allotment will be divided between him/herself and Player 2, this third player has the option of paying back a portion of their allotment in order to have three times that amount taken away from Player 1. This again measures the willingness to punish an ungenerous offer, but this time the punishment is “altruistic” rather than “spiteful,” since the punisher was not actually the one who suffered the ungenerous offer.

A few general patterns emerged from this set of experiments.

(1) Small-scale societies were less generous (Player 1 made lower offers) across all three games compared with larger societies.

(2) Second-party punishment was observed at similar rates across all societies. Thus, in the small-scale societies, individuals “expect to get a fair share even when they do not want to give a fair share.”

(3) Third-party punishment was much more common in larger societies. And, in fact, in those larger societies, third-party, “altruistic” punishment occurred more often than “spiteful” second-party punishment.

Taken together, what these patterns support the idea that human cooperation may have emerged first in the context of spiteful punishment, rather than through altruistic or community-oriented enforcement of social norms. They suggest that third-party punishment arises only with the establishment of more complex societies. In particular, once a society exceeds a certain size, it becomes difficult to keep track of individual reputations. In such groups, collective-action problems require the existence of institutions that promote and reward third-party punishment.

Peace be upon you.

Marlowe, F., Berbesque, J., Barrett, C., Bolyanatz, A., Gurven, M., & Tracer, D. (2010). The ‘spiteful’ origins of human cooperation Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.2342 [2]


[1] Editorial note: This is a version of the answer that comes up again and again in science. The world is a complicated place. We (scientists) come in and try to describe it using a really simple model. Then we feign surprise that the simple model does not adequately describe the behavior of the system that we are supposedly modeling. We declare that there is a paradox and build a field around resolving it. This is all fine, as it is just the way that science works, but it is worth remembering that many of the “problems” in science are really artifacts of simplistic models that have achieved an iconic status.

[2] Disclosure: Frank Marlowe, who is the first author on this paper, is a friend, and we have written a paper together on the genetic and ethnographic evidence regarding sex-biased migration in humans.