The evolution of human cooperation

Jun 17 JDN 2458287

If alien lifeforms were observing humans (assuming they didn’t turn out the same way—which they actually might, for reasons I’ll get to shortly), the thing that would probably baffle them the most about us is how we organize ourselves into groups. Each individual may be part of several groups at once, and some groups are closer-knit than others; but the most tightly-knit groups exhibit extremely high levels of cooperation, coordination, and self-sacrifice.

They might think at first that we are eusocial, like ants or bees; but upon closer study they would see that our groups are not very strongly correlated with genetic relatedness. We are somewhat more closely related to those in our groups than to those outsides, usually; but it’s a remarkably weak effect, especially compared to the extremely high relatedness of worker bees in a hive. No, to a first approximation, these groups are of unrelated humans; yet their level of cooperation is equal to if not greater than that exhibited by the worker bees.

However, the alien anthropologists would find that it is not that humans are simply predisposed toward extremely high altruism and cooperation in general; when two humans groups come into conflict, they are capable of the most extreme forms of violence imaginable. Human history is full of atrocities that combine the indifferent brutality of nature red in tooth and claw with the boundless ingenuity of a technologically advanced species. Yet except for a small proportion perpetrated by individual humans with some sort of mental pathology, these atrocities are invariably committed by one unified group against another. Even in genocide there is cooperation.

Humans are not entirely selfish. But nor are they paragons of universal altruism (though some of them aspire to be). Humans engage in a highly selective form of altruism—virtually boundless for the in-group, almost negligible for the out-group. Humans are tribal.

Being a human yourself, this probably doesn’t strike you as particularly strange. Indeed, I’ve mentioned it many times previously on this blog. But it is actually quite strange, from an evolutionary perspective; most organisms are not like this.

As I said earlier, there is actually reason to think that our alien anthropologist would come from a species with similar traits, simply because such cooperation may be necessary to achieve a full-scale technological civilization, let alone the capacity for interstellar travel. But there might be other possibilities; perhaps they come from a eusocial species, and their large-scale cooperation is within an extremely large hive.

It’s true that most organisms are not entirely selfish. There are various forms of cooperation within and even across species. But these usually involve only close kin, and otherwise involve highly stable arrangements of mutual benefit. There is nothing like the large-scale cooperation between anonymous unrelated individuals that is exhibited by all human societies.

How would such an unusual trait evolve? It must require a very particular set of circumstances, since it only seems to have evolved in a single species (or at most a handful of species, since other primates and cetaceans display some of the same characteristics).

Once evolved, this trait is clearly advantageous; indeed it turned a local apex predator into a species so successful that it can actually intentionally control the evolution of other species. Humans have become a hegemon over the entire global ecology, for better or for worse. Cooperation gave us a level of efficiency in producing the necessities of survival so great that at this point most of us spend our time working on completely different tasks. If you are not a farmer or a hunter or a carpenter (and frankly, even if you are a farmer with a tractor, a hunter with a rifle, or a carpenter with a table saw), you are doing work that would simply not have been possible without very large-scale human cooperation.

This extremely high fitness benefit only makes the matter more puzzling, however: If the benefits are so great, why don’t more species do this? There must be some other requirements that other species were unable to meet.

One clear requirement is high intelligence. As frustrating as it may be to be a human and watch other humans kill each other over foolish grievances, this is actually evidence of how smart humans are, biologically speaking. We might wish we were even smarter still—but most species don’t have the intelligence to make it even as far as we have.

But high intelligence is likely not sufficient. We can’t be sure of that, since we haven’t encountered any other species with equal intelligence; but what we do know is that even Homo sapiens didn’t coordinate on anything like our current scale for tens of thousands of years. We may have had tribal instincts, but if so they were largely confined to a very small scale. Something happened, about 50,000 years ago or so—not very long ago in evolutionary time—that allowed us to increase that scale dramatically.

Was this a genetic change? It’s difficult to say. There could have been some subtle genetic mutation, something that wouldn’t show up in the fossil record. But more recent expansions in human cooperation to the level of the nation-state and beyond clearly can’t be genetic; they were much too fast for that. They must be a form of cultural evolution: The replicators being spread are ideas and norms—memes—rather than genes.

So perhaps the very early shift toward tribal cooperation was also a cultural one. Perhaps it began not as a genetic mutation but as an idea—perhaps a metaphor of “universal brotherhood” as we often still hear today. The tribes that believed this ideas prospered; the tribes that didn’t were outcompeted or even directly destroyed.

This would explain why it had to be an intelligent species. We needed brains big enough to comprehend metaphors and generalize concepts. We needed enough social cognition to keep track of who was in the in-group and who was in the out-group.

If it was indeed a cultural shift, this should encourage us. (And since the most recent changes definitely were cultural, that is already quite encouraging.) We are not limited by our DNA to only care about a small group of close kin; we are capable of expanding our scale of unity and cooperation far beyond.
The real question is whether we can expand it to everyone. Unfortunately, there is some reason to think that this may not be possible. If our concept of tribal identity inherently requires both an in-group and an out-group, then we may never be able to include everyone. If we are only unified against an enemy, never simply for our own prosperity, world peace may forever remain a dream.

But I do have a work-around that I think is worth considering. Can we expand our concept of the out-group to include abstract concepts? With phrases like “The War on Poverty” and “The War on Terror”, it would seem in fact that we can. It feels awkward; it is somewhat imprecise—but then, so was the original metaphor of “universal brotherhood”. Our brains are flexible enough that they don’t actually seem to need the enemy to be a person; it can also be an idea. If this is right, then we can actually include everyone in our in-group, as long as we define the right abstract out-group. We can choose enemies like poverty, violence, cruelty, and despair instead of other nations or ethnic groups. If we must continue to fight a battle, let it be a battle against the pitiless indifference of the universe, rather than our fellow human beings.

Of course, the real challenge will be getting people to change their existing tribal identities. In the moment, these identities seem fundamentally intractable. But that can’t really be the case—for these identities have changed over historical time. Once-important categories have disappeared; new ones have arisen in their place. Someone in 4th century Constantinople would find the conflict between Democrats and Republicans as baffling as we would find the conflict between Trinitarians and Arians. The ongoing oppression of Native American people by White people would be unfathomable to someone of the 11th century Onondaga, who could scarcely imagine an enemy more different than the Seneca west of them. Even the conflict between Russia and NATO would probably seem strange to someone living in France in 1943, for whom Germany was the enemy and Russia was at least the enemy of the enemy—and many of those people are still alive.

I don’t know exactly how these tribal identities change (I’m working on it). It clearly isn’t as simple as convincing people with rational arguments. In fact, part of how it seems to work is that someone will shift their identity slowly enough that they can’t perceive the shift themselves. People rarely seem to appreciate, much less admit, how much their own minds have changed over time. So don’t ever expect to change someone’s identity in one sitting. Don’t even expect to do it in one year. But never forget that identities do change, even within an individual’s lifetime.

The irrationality of racism

JDN 2457039 EST 12:07.

I thought about making today’s post about the crazy currency crisis in Switzerland, but currency exchange rates aren’t really my area of expertise; this is much more in Krugman’s bailiwick, so you should probably read what Krugman says about the situation. There is one thing I’d like to say, however: I think there is a really easy way to create credible inflation and boost aggregate demand, but for some reason nobody is ever willing to do it: Give people money. Emphasis here on the people—not banks. Don’t adjust interest rates or currency pegs, don’t engage in quantitative easing. Give people money. Actually write a bunch of checks, presumably in the form of refundable tax rebates.

The only reason I can think of that economists don’t do this is they are afraid of helping poor people. They wouldn’t put it that way; maybe they’d say they want to avoid “moral hazard” or “perverse incentives”. But those fears didn’t stop them from loaning $2 trillion to banks or adding $4 trillion to the monetary base; they didn’t stop them from fighting for continued financial deregulation when what the world economy most desperately needs is stronger financial regulation. Our whole derivatives market practically oozes moral hazard and perverse incentives, but they aren’t willing to shut down that quadrillion-dollar con game. So that can’t be the actual fear. No, it has to be a fear of helping poor people instead of rich people, as though “capitalism” meant a system in which we squeeze the poor as tight as we can and heap all possible advantages upon those who are already wealthy. No, that’s called feudalism. Capitalism is supposed to be a system where markets are structured to provide free and fair competition, with everyone on a level playing field.

A basic income is a fundamentally capitalist policy, which maintains equal opportunity with a minimum of government intervention and allows the market to flourish. I suppose if you want to say that all taxation and government spending is “socialist”, fine; then every nation that has ever maintained stability for more than a decade has been in this sense “socialist”. Every soldier, firefighter and police officer paid by a government payroll is now part of a “socialist” system. Okay, as long as we’re consistent about that; but now you really can’t say that socialism is harmful; on the contrary, on this definition socialism is necessary for capitalism. In order to maintain security of property, enforcement of contracts, and equality of opportunity, you need government. Maybe we should just give up on the words entirely, and speak more clearly about what specific policies we want. If I don’t get to say that a basic income is “capitalist”, you don’t get to say financial deregulation is “capitalist”. Better yet, how about you can’t even call it “deregulation”? You have to actually argue in front of a crowd of people that it should be legal for banks to lie to them, and there should be no serious repercussions for any bank that cheats, steals, colludes, or even launders money for terrorists. That is, after all, what financial deregulation actually does in the real world.

Okay, that’s enough about that.

My birthday is coming up this Monday; thus completes my 27th revolution around the Sun. With birthdays come thoughts of ancestry: Though I appear White, I am legally one-quarter Native American, and my total ethnic mix includes English, German, Irish, Mohawk, and Chippewa.

Biologically, what exactly does that mean? Next to nothing.

Human genetic diversity is a real thing, and there are genetic links to not only dozens of genetic diseases and propensity toward certain types of cancer, but also personality and intelligence. There are also of course genes for skin pigmentation.

The human population does exhibit some genetic clustering, but the categories are not what you’re probably used to: Good examples of relatively well-defined genetic clusters include Ashkenazi, Papuan, and Mbuti. There are also many different haplogroups, such as mitochondrial haplogroups L3 and CZ.

Maybe you could even make a case for the “races” East Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native American, since the indigenous populations of these geographic areas largely do come from the same genetic clusters. Or you could make a bigger category and call them all “Asian”—but if you include Papuan and Aborigine in “Asian” you’d pretty much have to include Chippewa and Najavo as well.

But I think it tells you a lot about what “race” really means when you realize that the two “race” categories which are most salient to Americans are in fact the categories that are genetically most meaningless. “White” and “Black” are totally nonsensical genetic categorizations.

Let’s start with “Black”; defining a “Black” race is like defining a category of animals by the fact that they are all tinted red—foxes yes, dogs no; robins yes, swallows no; ladybirds yes, cockroaches no. There is more genetic diversity within Africa than there is outside of it. There are African populations that are more closely related to European populations than they are to other African populations. The only thing “Black” people have in common is that their skin is dark, which is due to convergent evolution: It’s not due to common ancestry, but a common environment. Dark skin has a direct survival benefit in climates with intense sunlight.  The similarity is literally skin deep.

What about “White”? Well, there are some fairly well-defined European genetic populations, so if we clustered those together we might be able to get something worth calling “White”. The problem is, that’s not how it happened. “White” is a club. The definition of who gets to be “White” has expanded over time, and even occasionally contracted. Originally Hebrew, Celtic, Hispanic, and Italian were not included (and Hebrew, for once, is actually a fairly sensible genetic category, as long as you restrict it to Ashkenazi), but then later they were. But now that we’ve got a lot of poor people coming in from Mexico, we don’t quite think of Hispanics as “White” anymore. We actually watched Arabs lose their “White” card in real-time in 2001; before 9/11, they were “White”; now, “Arab” is a separate thing. And “Muslim” is even treated like a race now, which is like making a racial category of “Keynesians”—never forget that Islam is above all a belief system.

Actually, “White privilege” is almost a tautology—the privilege isn’t given to people who were already defined as “White”, the privilege is to be called “White”. The privilege is to have your ancestors counted in the “White” category so that they can be given rights, while people who are not in the category are denied those rights. There does seem to be a certain degree of restriction by appearance—to my knowledge, no population with skin as dark as Kenyans has ever been considered “White”, and Anglo-Saxons and Nordics have always been included—but the category is flexible to political and social changes.

But really I hate that word “privilege”, because it gets the whole situation backwards. When you talk about “White privilege”, you make it sound as though the problem with racism is that it gives unfair advantages to White people (or to people arbitrarily defined as “White”). No, the problem is that people who are not White are denied rights. It isn’t what White people have that’s wrong; it’s what Black people don’t have. Equating those two things creates a vision of the world as zero-sum, in which each gain for me is a loss for you.

Here’s the thing about zero-sum games: All outcomes are Pareto-efficient. Remember when I talked about Pareto-efficiency? As a quick refresher, an outcome is Pareto-efficient if there is no way for one person to be made better off without making someone else worse off. In general, it’s pretty hard to disagree that, other things equal, Pareto-efficiency is a good thing, and Pareto-inefficiency is a bad thing. But if racism were about “White privilege” and the game were zero-sum, racism would have to be Pareto-efficient.

In fact, racism is Pareto-inefficient, and that is part of why it is so obviously bad. It harms literally billions of people, and benefits basically no one. Maybe there are a few individuals who are actually, all things considered, better off than they would have been if racism had not existed. But there are certainly not very many such people, and in fact I’m not sure there are any at all. If there are any, it would mean that technically racism is not Pareto-inefficient—but it is definitely very close. At the very least, the damage caused by racism is several orders of magnitude larger than any benefits incurred.

That’s why the “privilege” language, while well-intentioned, is so insidious; it tells White people that racism means taking things away from them. Many of these people are already in dire straits—broke, unemployed, or even homeless—so taking away what they have sounds particularly awful. Of course they’d be hostile to or at least dubious of attempts to reduce racism. You just told them that racism is the only thing keeping them afloat! In fact, quite the opposite is the case: Poor White people are, second only to poor Black people, those who stand the most to gain from a more just society. David Koch and Donald Trump should be worried; we will probably have to take most of their money away in order to achieve social justice. (Bill Gates knows we’ll have to take most of his money away, but he’s okay with that; in fact he may end up giving it away before we get around to taking it.) But the average White person will almost certainly be better off than they were.

Why does it seem like there are benefits to racism? Again, because people are accustomed to thinking of the world as zero-sum. One person is denied a benefit, so that benefit must go somewhere else right? Nope—it can just disappear entirely, and in this case typically does.

When a Black person is denied a job in favor of a White person who is less qualified, doesn’t that White person benefit? Uh, no, actually, not really. They have been hired for a job that isn’t an optimal fit for them; they aren’t working to their comparative advantage, and that Black person isn’t either and may not be working at all. The total output of the economy will be thereby reduced slightly. When this happens millions of times, the total reduction in output can be quite substantial, and as a result that White person was hired at $30,000 for an unsuitable job when in a racism-free world they’d have been hired at $40,000 for a suitable one. A similar argument holds for sexism; men don’t benefit from getting jobs women are denied if one of those women would have invented a cure for prostate cancer.

Indeed, the empowerment of women and minorities is kind of the secret cheat code for creating a First World economy. The great successes of economic development—Korea, Japan, China, the US in WW2—had their successes precisely at a time when they suddenly started including women in manufacturing, effectively doubling their total labor capacity. Moreover, it’s pretty clear that the causation ran in this direction. Periods of economic growth are associated with increases in solidarity with other groups—and downturns with decreased solidarity—but the increase in women in the workforce was sudden and early while the increase in growth and total output was prolonged.

Racism is irrational. Indeed it is so obviously irrational that for decades now neoclassical economists have been insisting that there is no need for civil rights policy, affirmative action, etc. because the market will automatically eliminate racism by the rational profit motive. A more recent literature has attempted to show that, contrary to all appearances, racism actually is rational in some cases. Inevitably it relies upon either the background of a racist society (maybe Black people are, on average, genuinely less qualified, but it would only be because they’ve been given poorer opportunities), or an assumption of “discriminatory tastes”, which is basically giving up and redefining the utility function so that people simply get direct pleasure from being racists. Of course, on that sort of definition, you can basically justify any behavior as “rational”: Maybe he just enjoys banging his head against the wall! (A similar slipperiness is used by egoists to argue that caring for your children is actually “selfish”; well, it makes you happy, doesn’t it? Yes, but that’s not why we do it.)

There’s a much simpler way to understand this situation: Racism is irrational, and so is human behavior.

That isn’t a complete explanation, of course; and I think one major misunderstanding neoclassical economists have of cognitive economists is that they think this is what we do—we point out that something is irrational, and then high-five and go home. No, that’s not what we do. Finding the irrationality is just the start; next comes explaining the irrationality, understanding the irrationality, and finally—we haven’t reached this point in most cases—fixing the irrationality.

So what explains racism? In short, the tribal paradigm. Human beings evolved in an environment in which the most important factor in our survival and that of our offspring was not food supply or temperature or predators, it was tribal cohesion. With a cohesive tribe, we could find food, make clothes, fight off lions. Without one, we were helpless. Millions of years in this condition shaped our brains, programming them to treat threats to tribal cohesion as the greatest possible concern. We even reached the point where solidarity for the tribe actually began to dominate basic survival instincts: For a suicide bomber the unity of the tribe—be it Marxism for the Tamil Tigers or Islam for Al-Qaeda—is more important than his own life. We will do literally anything if we believe it is necessary to defend the identities we believe in.

And no, we rationalists are no exception here. We are indeed different from other groups; the beliefs that define us, unlike the beliefs of literally every other group that has ever existed, are actually rationally founded. The scientific method really isn’t just another religion, for unlike religion it actually works. But still, if push came to shove and we were forced to kill and die in order to defend rationality, we would; and maybe we’d even be right to do so. Maybe the French Revolution was, all things considered, a good thing—but it sure as hell wasn’t nonviolent.

This is the background we need to understand racism. It actually isn’t enough to show people that racism is harmful and irrational, because they are programmed not to care. As long as racial identification is the salient identity, the tribe by which we define ourselves, we will do anything to defend the cohesion of that tribe. It is not enough to show that racism is bad; we must in fact show that race doesn’t matter. Fortunately, this is easy, for as I explained above, race does not actually exist.

That makes racism in some sense easier to deal with than sexism, because the very categories of races upon which it is based are fundamentally faulty. Sexes, on the other hand, are definitely a real thing. Males and females actually are genetically different in important ways. Exactly how different in what ways is an open question, and what we do know is that for most of the really important traits like intelligence and personality the overlap outstrips the difference. (The really big, categorical differences all appear to be physical: Anatomy, size, testosterone.) But conquering sexism may always be a difficult balance, for there are certain differences we won’t be able to eliminate without altering DNA. That no more justifies sexism than the fact that height is partly genetic would justify denying rights to short people (which, actually, is something we do); but it does make matters complicated, because it’s difficult to know whether an observed difference (for instance, most pediatricians are female, while most neurosurgeons are male) is due to discrimination or innate differences.

Racism, on the other hand, is actually quite simple: Almost any statistically significant difference in behavior or outcome between races must be due to some form of discrimination somewhere down the line. Maybe it’s not discrimination right here, right now; maybe it’s discrimination years ago that denied opportunities, or discrimination against their ancestors that led them to inherit less generations later; but it almost has to be discrimination against someone somewhere, because it is only by social construction that races exist in the first place. I do say “almost” because I can think of a few exceptions: Black people are genuinely less likely to use tanning salons and genuinely more likely to need vitamin D supplements, but both of those things are directly due to skin pigmentation. They are also more likely to suffer from sickle-cell anemia, which is another convergent trait that evolved in tropical climates as a response to malaria. But unless you can think of a reason why employment outcomes would depend upon vitamin D, the huge difference in employment between Whites and Blacks really can’t be due to anything but discrimination.

I imagine most of my readers are more sophisticated than this, but just in case you’re wondering about the difference in IQ scores between Whites and Blacks, that is indeed a real observation, but IQ isn’t entirely genetic. The reason IQ scores are rising worldwide (the Flynn Effect) is due to improvements in environmental conditions: Fewer environmental pollutants—particularly lead and mercury, the removal of which is responsible for most of the reduction in crime in America over the last 20 yearsbetter nutrition, better education, less stress. Being stupid does not make you poor (or how would we explain Donald Trump?), but being poor absolutely does make you stupid. Combine that with the challenges and inconsistencies in cross-national IQ comparisons, and it’s pretty clear that the higher IQ scores in rich nations are an effect, not a cause, of their affluence. Likewise, the lower IQ scores of Black people in the US are entirely explained by their poorer living conditions, with no need for any genetic hypothesis—which would also be very difficult in the first place precisely because “Black” is such a weird genetic category.

Unfortunately, I don’t yet know exactly what it takes to change people’s concept of group identification. Obviously it can be done, for group identities change all the time, sometimes quite rapidly; but we simply don’t have good research on what causes those changes or how they might be affected by policy. That’s actually a major part of the experiment I’ve been trying to get funding to run since 2009, which I hope can now become my PhD thesis. All I can say is this: I’m working on it.