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How Altruism Might Have Evolved

I spend a lot of time in my book Liars and Outliers on cooperating versus defecting. Cooperating is good for the group at the expense of the individual. Defecting is good for the individual at the expense of the group. Given that evolution concerns individuals, there has been a lot of controversy over how altruism might have evolved.

Here’s one possible answer: it’s favored by chance:

The key insight is that the total size of population that can be supported depends on the proportion of cooperators: more cooperation means more food for all and a larger population. If, due to chance, there is a random increase in the number of cheats then there is not enough food to go around and total population size will decrease. Conversely, a random decrease in the number of cheats will allow the population to grow to a larger size, disproportionally benefitting the cooperators. In this way, the cooperators are favoured by chance, and are more likely to win in the long term.

Dr George Constable, soon to join the University of Bath from Princeton, uses the analogy of flipping a coin, where heads wins £20 but tails loses £10:

“Although the odds [of] winning or losing are the same, winning is more good than losing is bad. Random fluctuations in cheat numbers are exploited by the cooperators, who benefit more than they lose out.”

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"Cooperating with the Future"

This is an interesting paper — the full version is behind a paywall — about how we as humans can motivate people to cooperate with future generations.

Abstract: Overexploitation of renewable resources today has a high cost on the welfare of future generations. Unlike in other public goods games, however, future generations cannot reciprocate actions made today. What mechanisms can maintain cooperation with the future? To answer this question, we devise a new experimental paradigm, the ‘Intergenerational Goods Game’. A line-up of successive groups (generations) can each either extract a resource to exhaustion or leave something for the next group. Exhausting the resource maximizes the payoff for the present generation, but leaves all future generations empty-handed. Here we show that the resource is almost always destroyed if extraction decisions are made individually. This failure to cooperate with the future is driven primarily by a minority of individuals who extract far more than what is sustainable. In contrast, when extractions are democratically decided by vote, the resource is consistently sustained. Voting is effective for two reasons. First, it allows a majority of cooperators to restrain defectors. Second, it reassures conditional cooperators that their efforts are not futile. Voting, however, only promotes sustainability if it is binding for all involved. Our results have implications for policy interventions designed to sustain intergenerational public goods.

Here’s a Q&A with and essay by the author. Article on the research.

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