Date: Aug. 26, 2003
From: "Herbert Gintis
Subject: Re: [evol-psych] Kin Selection vs. Group Selection?

At 02:01 PM 8/25/2003 -0400, Phil Roberts, Jr. wrote:

> Herbert Gintis wrote:
>> I do not like being flamed, especially by someone who should
>> have more sense. You have two strikes. One more and you are on my
>> filtered-out list.
>Sorry.  It wasn't until after I posted that realized that I had
>inadvertently criticized the one feature of ev psych that I actually
>admire, i.e., the use of formal models.  For this I humbly apologize.

I'm sorry for tee-ing off at you. I just came off a long air 
flight and I guess I was ornery.

>I agree that game theory has proven to be a marvelous instrument for
>investigating the predictive parameters of the theory of natural
>selection.  Its just that most of the folks I have come to admire
>(Price, Hamilton, Dawkins, Smith, Campbell, etc.) have always given
>me the impression that, if anything, such investigations have
>only served to deepen the mystery:
>     Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a
>     society in which individuals cooperate generously
>     and unselfishly towards a common good, you can
>     expect little help from biological nature.  Let
>     us try to teach generosity and altruism, because
>     we are born selfish.  Let us understand what our
>     selfish genes are up to, because we may then at
>     least have the chance to upset their designs,
>     something that no other species has ever aspired
>     to.  (Dawkins)  [emphasis mine]

Well, Dawkins is just wrong here, I think. Here is something I and 
my coauthors (Sam Bowles, Ernst Fehr, and Rob Boyd) wrote about this (and 
related) statements, in Evolution & Human Behavior earlier this year:

  The explanatory power of inclusive fitness theory and reciprocal altruism 
  convinced a generation of researchers that what appears to be altruism--- 
  personal sacrifice on behalf of others---is really just long-run 
  self-interest.  Richard Dawkins, for instance, struck a responsive chord 
  when, in The Selfish Gene, he confidently asserted ``We are survival 
  machines---robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish 
  molecules known as genes... 

    This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in 
    individual behavior.'' 

  Dawkins allows for morality in social 
  life, but it must be socially imposed on a fundamentally selfish agent.
   ``Let us try to teach generosity and altruism,'' 

  he advises, 

   ``because we are born selfish.'' 

  Yet even social morality, according to R. D. Alexander, 
  the most influential ethicist working in the Williams-Hamilton tradition, 
  can only superficially transcend selfishness. In The Biology
  of Moral Systems (1987), Alexander asserts 

  ``ethics, morality, human conduct, and the human psyche are to be 
    understood only if societies are seen as collections of individuals 
    seeking their own self-interest'' (p. 3). 

  In a similar state of explanatory euphoria, Ghiselin claims 
  ``No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once 
    sentimentalism has been laid aside.  What passes for cooperation turns 
    out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation... Scratch an 
    altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed'' (p. 247).

  However, recent experimental research has revealed forms of human behavior 
  involving interaction among unrelated individuals that cannot be explained in
  terms of self-interest. One such trait, which we call strong reciprocity 
  (Gintis Journal of Theoretical Biology, 2000) , is a predisposition to 
  cooperate with others, and to punish those who violate the norms of 
  cooperation, at personal cost, even when it is implausible to expect that 
  these costs will be repaid either by others or at a later date. In this 
  paper, we present empirical evidence supporting strong reciprocity as a 
  schema for explaining important forms of altruism in humans. We then 
  explain why, under conditions plausibly characteristic of the early stages 
  of human evolution, a small fraction of strong reciprocators could invade a 
  population of self-regarding types, and why strong reciprocity is an 
  evolutionarily stable strategy. Although most of the evidence we report is
  based on behavioral experiments, the same behaviors are regularly observed 
  in everyday life, for example in wage setting by firms, tax compliance, and 
  cooperation in the protection of local environmental public goods.

>     [Wilson and Sober's 'Unto Others'] should carry a
>     health warning.  Read critically, it will stimulate
>     thought about important questions.  Swallowed whole
>     its effects would be disastrous (Maynard Smith).
>> You also don't know what you are talking about. I
>> have no metaphysics of materialism, and I have no problem with mental
>> constructs. Quite the opposite. I am working with neuroscientists to
>> validate such constructs in the context of experimental games.
>Why would one need to consult with neuroscientists if one's primary
>objective were to understand the mind (as opposed to the brain)?

Because thousands of years of introspection have failed to tease 
apart human mental phenomena, and perhaps more controlled and quantifiable 
setting will be able to do so. The point is not to prove the existence of 
mental phenomena, but to be able to model their appearance, disappearance, 
and interaction.

>>>> It does not
>>>> reject introspection, but it requires that propositions derived from
>>>> introspection be validated in the laboratory or by other scientific
>>>> means.
>But you do sound very much like someone who thinks that things just
>can't be top drawer until they're vindicated in a physical laboratory
>of some sort or other, i.e., that science just can't be science until
>it deals with features that are objectively observed (as opposed
>to intersubjectively reproduced).

Not at all. It's just that we haven't succeeded so far, so perhaps 
more information will help to repeat: thousands of years of introspection 
have failed to tease apart human mental phenomena.

>   Phenomena of consciousness are "private," in the sense indicated
>   earlier, namely, that the only consciousness a man can experience
>   directly is his own.  But, as was also indicated, the inferences
>   a psychologist makes, on the basis of his introspection,
>   concerning the nature and functions of consciousness, may be
>   checked by his fellow workers, who also have recourse to
>   introspection -- just as one scientist checks on the reported
>   findings of another by repeating the other's experiment in his
>   own laboratory.  If psychologists sometimes disagree about what
>   they perceive, this is true of physical scientists also.  And
>   the method of resolving such differences is, in principle, the
>   same: to investigate further to compare data more carefully, to
>   define terms more precisely, to explore other, possibly relevant
>   facts, to check their conclusions in the light of the rest of
>   their knowledge to search for contradictions or non sequiturs
>   in the their reports. (Nathaniel Branden)

I don't see anything wrong with this, except that, in fact, 
introspection does not give us enough data to agree. This is why there are 
so many discordant models of human psyche and behavior running around the 
various behavioral disciplines.

>>         You talk big, but you don't know what you're talking about.
>> Cosmides and Tooby do not do experimental games...
> Not so.  Ev Psych was spawned by the revolution created by the use
> of formal models.  Hamilton, Dawkins, Smith, etc. are cited dozens and
> dozens of times though out the Cosmides and Tooby book.  Perhaps they
> don't take them to quite the extreme you do, but I hardly think that
> qualifies me as an ignoramous on such matters.

But C and T was your example! It is true that they tend not to 
deal with mental constructs. But the new breed of behavioralists (C and T, 
unfortunately, distance themselves from this group) have no problem with 
mental constructs. Indeed, our explanations are in terms of such notions as 
shame, empathy, spite, remorse, and the like. See, for instance, Samuel 
Bowles and Herbert Gintis, "Prosocial Emotions", in Lawrence Blume and
Steven Durlauf (eds.) Complex Nonlinear Systems III (2003).

Best Regards,


Herbert Gintis
Emeritus Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts
External Faculty, Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM
Recent papers are posted on my web site.

Get Game Theory Evolving (Princeton, 2000) at

There is no sorrow so great that does not find
its background in joy.
                              Niels Bohr (1938)