The kind­ness of mankind most likely devel­oped from our more sin­is­ter and self-serving ten­den­cies, accord­ing to Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity and Uni­ver­sity of Ari­zona research that sug­gests society’s rules against self­ish­ness are rooted in the very exploita­tion they condemn.

The report in the jour­nal Evo­lu­tion pro­poses that altru­ism — society’s pro­tec­tion of resources and the col­lec­tive good by pun­ish­ing “cheaters” — did not develop as a reac­tion to avarice. Instead, com­mu­nal dis­avowal of greed orig­i­nated when com­pet­ing self­ish indi­vid­u­als sought to con­trol and can­cel out one another. Over time, the direct efforts of the dom­i­nant fat cats to con­tain a few com­peti­tors evolved into a community-wide desire to guard its own well-being.

The study authors pro­pose that a sys­tem of greed dom­i­nat­ing greed was sim­ply eas­ier for our human ances­tors to man­age. In this way, the work chal­lenges dom­i­nant the­o­ries that self­ish and altru­is­tic social arrange­ments formed inde­pen­dently — instead the two struc­tures stand as evo­lu­tion­ary phases of group inter­ac­tion, the researchers write.

Sec­ond author Andrew Gallup, a for­mer Prince­ton post­doc­toral researcher in ecol­ogy and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­ogy now a vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Bard Col­lege, worked with first author Omar Eldakar, a for­mer Ari­zona post­doc­toral fel­low now a vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor of biol­ogy at Ober­lin Col­lege, and William Driscoll, an ecol­ogy and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­ogy doc­toral stu­dent at Arizona.

To test their hypoth­e­sis, the researchers con­structed a sim­u­la­tion model that gauged how a com­mu­nity with­stands a sys­tem built on altru­is­tic pun­ish­ment, or selfish-on-selfish pun­ish­ment. The authors found that altru­ism demands a lot of ini­tial expen­di­ture for the group — in terms of com­mu­nal time, resources and risk of reprisal from the pun­ished — as well as advanced lev­els of cog­ni­tion and cooperation.

On the other hand, a con­struct in which a few prof­li­gate play­ers keep like-minded indi­vid­u­als in check involves only those mem­bers of the com­mu­nity — every­one else can pas­sively enjoy the ben­e­fits of fewer peo­ple tak­ing more than their share. At the same time, the reign­ing indi­vid­u­als enjoy uncon­tested spoils and, in some cases, reverence.

Social orders main­tained by those who bend the rules play out in nature and human his­tory, the authors note: Tree wasps that police hives to make sure that no mem­ber other than the queen lays eggs will often lay illicit eggs them­selves. Can­cer cells will pre­vent other tumors from form­ing. Medieval knights would pil­lage the same civil­ians they read­ily defended from invaders, while neigh­bor­hoods ruled by the Ital­ian Mafia tra­di­tion­ally had the low­est lev­els of crime.

What comes from these arrange­ments, the researchers con­clude, is a sense of order and equal­ity that the group even­tu­ally takes upon itself to enforce, thus giv­ing rise to altruism.

Read the abstract.

Eldakar, O. T., Gallup, A. C. and Driscoll, W. W. (2013), When Hawks Give Rise To Doves: The Evo­lu­tion and Tran­si­tion of Enforce­ment Strate­gies. Evo­lu­tion. doi: 10.1111/evo.12031

This work was sup­ported by the National Insti­tutes of Health.

Original article at Princeton University.

Published On: February 6, 2013

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