Category Archives: sociobiology

Humans Acting Like Chimps

The video below is titled, “Chimpanzee Human-Like Behavior Montage.”  Of course, we only think of their behavior as “human-like” because we’re human.  I’m sure they are watching us on Youtube thinking, “Man, those humans sure act like Chimpanzees!’” 

Is Kin Selection Dead?


None other that E.O. Wilson, father of Sociobiology, and one of the greatest minds in Biology of the last half-century says that it’s time to dump the idea of kin selection:

"We hope our new theory for the evolution of eusociality will open up sociobiology to new avenues of research by liberating the study of social evolution from mandatory adherence to kin selection theory. After four decades ruling the roost, it is time to recognise this theory’s very limited prowess."

Kin Selection, as defined by John Maynard Smith (the great mathematical biologist, and likely the inventor of the term) is:

By kin selection I mean the evolution of characteristics which favour the survival of close relatives of the affected individual, by processes which do not require any discontinuities in the population breeding structure.

Say what?

This is a better one:

It seeks to explain why individuals take the seemingly paradoxical step of sacrificing their own reproductive potential in order to care for the offspring of relatives.

OK, think of ants. Worker ants will do all kinds of crazy stuff that results in their death in order to increase the likelyhood that the queen ants can continue to breed.  This SEEMS like a bad idea on the part of the worker ant, since from his own perspective … he’s dead.

The idea, then, has been that over time, the genes of the species evolved in such a way as to cause certain members of the same family-line to sacrifice themselves so that others can breed.  Since they are kin, they share a large portion of their genomes, and therefore it is believed that the sacrifice isn’t actually all that crazy, since the sister will be passing on what basically amounts to YOUR genes.

Kin selection has been the dominant method of explaining the eusociality of hierarchical species such as ants, bees, and even wolves and humans.

What’s amazing here is that Wilson has been a long-time backer of kin selection theory.   So, to see him pull back is something interesting. I’m not sure if I agree with him yet. But, he ain’t no dummy.

Coordinated Punishment Leads to Cooperation

A new study suggests that cooperation is maintained by punishment

Humans are incredibly cooperative, but why do people cooperate and how is cooperation maintained? A new research study by UCLA anthropology professor Robert Boyd and his colleagues from the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico suggests cooperation in large groups is maintained by punishment.

This study looks to be attempting a solution to the “free-rider” problem in human behavior research.  A free-rider is someone who, in a large enough society to support such things, refuses to cooperate, or play by the rules, but still benefits from the cooperation of others.  Think of someone who doesn’t pay their taxes in Canada, but still gets to use their health care system. 

The “problem” we face when dealing with the free-rider issue is not that it exists, but that it doesn’t exist MORE.  It should by any good Game Theoretic reading.  It’s in the best interest of the individual to NOT pay their taxes, and to still get the health care.  That’s a win-win. But, the reality is that the vast majority of Canadians DO pay their taxes.  Why?

But it turns out that most members of large groups cooperate. Why? Boyd and his colleagues suggest cooperation is maintained by punishment, which reduces the benefits to free riding. There are tribes, for example, that punish free-riders who do not participate in warfare by not allowing them to take a bride. Thus, there is the threat of losing societal benefits if a member does not cooperate, which leads to increased group cooperation.

The results of their model look a lot like what is seen in most human societies, where individuals meet and decide whether and how to punish group members who are not cooperating. This is coordinated punishment where group members signal their intent to punish, only punish when a threshold has been met and share the costs of punishing.

The important point being that the cost of punishment (to the society) is not higher than the cost of allowing the person to free-ride. 

Since theft and other forms of (non-violent) crime can be seen as free-riding, one has to ask, if the current system of punishment in the US has not resulted in lowered crime rates (think of marijuana related cases, for instance) then might it be because the cost of the punishments outweighs that of the crime to us as a whole?  Just a thought.

The Return of Karl Popper: Is Social Science Really Different Than Natural Science?

karl-popper Social Scientist have contended for much of the last century that we cannot approach the study of human behavior with the same tools that we would use to study the natural world.  This is hogwash.  And Karl Popper, the great 20th century philosopher, would agree with me. Humans are animals, they are made up of chemicals and cells, their behavior is determined by a complex interaction of chemical processes and their lives are a network of cause and effect relations with other animals (some of which we’d call human).   If we are ever going to get a solid grasp on our own behavior, we’ll need to use the items from the large and well developed toolbox of natural science.

Falsifiability and Objective Reality

Karl Popper believed that a theory is scientific if and only if it is falsifiable.  Most scientists would agree with this statement, and in fact would be shocked by anyone who didn’t.  (This may be why natural scientists and social scientists don’t tend to hang out together!)  But, falsifiability presupposes a belief in an Enlightenment-style “objective” reality beyond that of our own minds.  In much of social science, especially in sociology and psychology, there is a powerful belief in a post-modern relativism that rejects an objective reality. That is to say, they don’t believe that there is a truth that is inherent to the objects of study themselves.

Without a belief in an objective truth outside the mind of the observer, it is impossible to even discuss what it would mean to falsify a statement.  Therefore, you cannot use Poppers falsifiability axiom as a demarcation line for what is and isn’t science.  And now we allow in all sorts of unfalsifiable statements and theories simply because who is to say what is and is not objectively true?  This is not good science.  But, it defines much of what passes for science in the world of social inquiry.

Now, it must be said, that the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. But, most relativists are basing their relativism on what I’d consider a false understanding of some basic ideas.  Among the more common things I hear when encountering someone who is a hardcore relativist, who wants to impress me (knowing that I’m a mathematician) is with the idea of quantum physics.  It usually goes something like this, “hey, man, you know that every time we observe a particle we change it’s state.  So, everything is relative.  Our presence changes what we observe.  There is a reflexivity between us and the object.  There is no way to know what’s what if every time observe something that something changes.  Reality can be and is manipulated.”

OK, true.  But, it’s missing the point.  When we say we change a particles state, we aren’t saying the particle didn’t have a state to begin with.  It was simply a state we can’t directly observe.  That isn’t relativism in the strictest sense.  Sure if I observe it and you observe it, we’ll see different things, but that doesn’t mean the particle didn’t have an objective state before we each changed it. True relativism would be that the particle has no state until someone observes it. But, that isn’t how it is.

Octavian-coin Think of a particle as a coin.  Suppose I spin that coin on a table.  While it is spinning is it heads or tails?  You might say neither, or more accurately, you could say both.  It’s 50% heads and 50% tails.  That’s it’s objective state.  The trouble is, suppose we can’t see a coin spinning.  Suppose we can only see coins when they are heads or tails with 100% probability – that is, when they are flat on the table.  Then if I want to observe the coin, I have to slam my hand down on top of it to stop it from spinning.   Say it lands heads up.

When I leave, suppose it pops back up and begins spinning again.  Then you come by and slam your hand down on it.  Now it’s landed on tails.  We’ve each seen the same coin in different states.  I claim the coin is heads, you claim the coin is tails, but neither of us realizes that it is both.

Many things in the natural world are of this form.  That doesn’t mean we can’t study them objectively, and infer what we can, correct for our own “observation” errors, etc.  Physics is going just fine with far crazier objects than humans could ever hope to be.  There is no reason we have to pretend that studying human behavior is somehow so much harder than studying particle physics.

Popper’s 3 Worlds

There is no doubt that the reality outside our minds is not always in line with the perceived reality we hold within our minds.  Many natural scientists, in light of this, are Cartesian dualists without even knowing it.  That is, they accept that there are two worlds: the world of material things that we study; and the world of the human mind. They accept that these don’t always jive, and that each one has an influence on the other.  But, keeping them separate, at least heuristically, is seen as useful.

In social science there is a stronger emphasis on the effects culture on the mind.  And this is seen as a feedback loop from the mind to itself.

Karl Popper goes one step further with his heuristic and suggests that the universe is really made up of three worlds.  The objective world of objects.  The world of the Mind.  And the world of human-created ideas as manifested in books, paintings, blogs, etc.   The third world includes culture and so brings it out of the second world, thus striping it of some of its recursive properties.

What I like about the idea of the third world is that it allows for this world to undergo it’s own evolution (the way the other two obviously do).  And because of this we can study it (largely) independently using the tools of evolutionary research such as game theory.

One More Time

I contend that Social Science is a proper subset of Natural Science and is in fact a subset of Biology, most specifically Human Biology.   To say that we cannot study Social Science with the same tools we use in Natural Science because we are ourselves of the type we are studying is an act in strange logic. If we follow the strange logic further, then we shouldn’t study any animals like we study the natural world, because we are animals.  We shouldn’t study chemistry as we study the natural world because we are made up of molecules.  And we shouldn’t study physics the way we study the natural world because we are nothing more than a collection of atoms.

There is always some sense of recursion in any attempt we make to study the natural world.  Our brain is made up of cells which use electricity to fire information back and forth.  Whenever we are trying to understand electricity, we are using electricity to understand it!

Popper dealt with this problem in what I consider a most reasonable way, the Popeye way:  Science is what it is, and that’s all that it is.  Scientific statements can only be falsified, not verified.   And the world (including the world of human interaction) has an objective component that must be sought after as truth in its own right.  It isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done.

The only way we’ll ever make headway into the realm of human behavior is if we are comfortable approaching the human animal the way we approach the study of all animals – with science.

Parochial Altruism and War: A Game Theoretic Analysis

Pleistocene North America

North America during the Pleistocene

War, what is it good for?  Apparently, altruism.  In a paper published in Science, Samuel Bowels and Jung-Kyoo Choi took a game-theoretic approach to studying the evolutionary roots of both altruism and parochialism.  They concluded that neither would have likely evolved alone, but instead co-evolved, together being a powerful combination in the survival kit  of our Pleistocene and early Holocene ancestors.


Altruism–benefiting fellow group members at a cost to oneself–and parochialism–bostility toward individuals not of one’s own ethnic, racial, or ther group–are common human behaviors.  The intersection of the two–which we term “parochial altruism”–is puzzling from an evolutionary perspective because altruistic or parochial behavior reduces one’s payoffs by comparison to what one would gain by eschewing these behaviors.  But parochial altruism could have evolved if parochialism promoted intergroup hostilities and the combination of altruism and parochialism contributed to success in these conflicts.  Our game-theoretic analysis and agent -based simulations show that under conditions likely to have been experienced by late Pleistocene and early Holocene humans, neither parochialism nor altruism would have been viable singly, but by promoting group conflict, they could have evolved jointly.


Even Darwin noted that war was a powerful tool “used” by evolution to increase  altruism and solidarity toward ones own group members.  But, there have been two major questions lingering.

  1. What is the process by which war became common enough to support the evolution of altruism in this context?
  2. What is the likelyhood that altruism itself (conditioned on group membership) contributed to the high levels of lethal intergroup conflict among humans?

Neither of these questions has been well enough analyzed and was one of reasons the authors did their study.    Empirically, both altruism and hostility are quite important to members of other groups.

The empirical importance of both altruism and hostility to members of other groups is well established.  Experimental and other evidence demonstrates that individuals often willingly give to strangers, reward good deeds, and punish individuals who violate social norms, even at a substantial personal cost (4), while favoring fellow group members over “outsiders” in the choice of friends, exchange partners, and other associates and in the allocation of valued resources (5).

They site an example of a case in Papua New Guinea, “There exists strong favoritism toward ones-own linguistic group in giving to others,”  and a higher tendency to punish those from different linguistic groups.

They use the term Parochial Altruism in reference to a person to mean that when a person engages in hostile and aggressive behavior with another group, this person incurs a mortal risk, therefore a fitness loss verses those who refrain from such aggression.

Knowing Parochial altruism exists and assuming that neither Parochialism nor Altruism would have evolved in an environment (that is survived a selection process) that favored some other trait that resulted in higher payoffs, then how DID Parochial Altruism evolve?

A Solution

One possibility is that since oiur ancestors lived in a hostile environment where resources were scarce, Parochial Altruism could have evolved and thrived because those groups with high numbers of Parochial Altruists would have been more able to engage in aggressive action and “win” on behalf of their groups.

The two most important correlates of tribal warfare are natural disasters and resource scarcity.  The Pleistocene and early Holocene (roughly 125,000 to 10,000 years ago) are known to have been times of substantial volatility.  They also coincide with the most significant periods of human evolution.

Could Parochial Altruism have evolved in such a climate?

The Game

Bowel’s and Choi’s model consists of 4 types of players.

  1. PA:  Parochial Altruists
  2. TA: Tolerant Altruists
  3. PN: Parochial Non-Altruists
  4. TN: Tolerant Non-Altruists

Note that Parochials of both types are hostile toward other groups.  But, ONLY Parochial Altruists will engage in combat.  This is because PN’s won’t risk death for the benefit of others.

Their model has two types of selection acting at once.  Intra-Group selection favors TN’s and tends to eliminate PA’s.  And, Inter-Group selection which favors PA’s via selective extinction.

In a purely risk vs. reward scenario, it makes little sense to be a PA.  While there exists two benefits to winning a war (namely 1. Greater chance of future survival, 2. Opportunity to reproduce, thereby replacing those PA’s lost in war), the risk of mortal death incured by war “offsets this direct benefit by a wide margin.”  Therefore, each PA would be better off adopting a different strategy, in terms of their own reproductive fitness.  This confirms that PA’s are, indeed, altruistic according to the traditional meaning of the term.

3 Stage Game

The game runs in 3 stages.   In stage one, when two groups A and B meet, there is a probability that they will engage hostilely.  If they do not, then the game ends.  If  their interaction is hostile, they move on to stage two.

Stage two, given that their interaction is hostile, there is a new probability that A and B will goto war.  If they don’t, they move on, game is done.  If they do, stage 3.

Stage 3, they are now at war, the group with the higher number of PA’s has a higher probability of winning.  If this group is A, then A is more likely to win a war against the PA deficient group B.   Given that A is stronger (ie, has more PA’s) there are two options:  A and B draw, and the result is simply that both groups lose a certain number of fighters (PA’s); or A wins, and still loses a certain number of fighters, but also now gains a number of replicas that make up for that loss.

From B’s perspective, given that B is weaker (has less PA’s), there is only Draw or Lose. B could get lucky and draw, and only lose some PA’s.  But, there is a higher likelyhood of a loss.  In this case, B loses both fighters (PA’s) and civilians (made up of the other types).

In the paper they are quite explicit about what these probabilities are and why they chose them.  But, the point is that not every encounter with another group is hostile, not every hostile interaction results in war, and every war is won with a higher probability if you have a large number of PA’s.


They ran this game through a number of iterations accounting for hundreds of generations.  They found that transitions from quite tolerant non-altruistic (read: peaceful) groups to bellicose parochial altruistic groups can happen very rapidly–in about 200 generations, or about 5,000 years.

The markedly higher reproductive success of predominantly parochial altruist groups when interacting with groups with fewer parochial altruists could therefore explain the rapid range expansions that are thought to be common among some late Pleistocene human groups, and thus may partly explain sthe still puzzling second great hominid diaspora that swept from Africa as far as Australia in the course of no more than 10 millennia.

This study aids in the study of why group boundaries have such a profound effect on human behavior, from an evolutionary perspective.

In conclusion they add:

We have explained how Homo Sapiens could have become a warlike yet altruistic species.  But there is no evidence that the hypothetical alleles in our model exist, or that were they to exist they could be expressed in the complex behaviors involved in helping others and engaging in lethal conflict.  Theus, we have not shown that a warlike genetic predisposition exists, only that should one exist, it might have coevolved with altruism and warfare in the way that we have described.

They make a good closing point.  Theoretical (ie, mathematical) biology doesn’t “prove” that certain things are true.  It tests the validity of certain hypothesis and ideas, thereby opening up further possibilities for empirical research.


Choi, Jung-Kyoo, and Samuel Bowles. 2007. The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War. Science 318, no. 5850 (October 26): 636-640. doi:10.1126/science.1144237.

World Happiness Graph: Does Health Care Matter?

Check out the graph bellow that maps out the level  of happiness that many of world’s countries allegedly posses.

The graph comes from an article called Income, Health and Wellbeing Around the World: Evidence from the Gallup World Poll, in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Here’s a part of the abstract:

The US ranks 88th out of 120 countries in the fraction of people who have confidence in their healthcare system, and has a lower score than countries such as India, Iran, Malawi, Afghanistan or Angola . While the strong relationship between life-satisfaction and income gives some credence to the measures, as do the low levels of life and health satisfaction in Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union, the lack of correlations between life and health satisfaction and health measures shows that self-assessed life or health evaluations cannot be regarded as useful summary indicators of human welfare in international comparisons.

Emphasis mine, of course.

The paper goes on to say:

It is far from clear why questions of life satisfaction should be so closely related to national incomes. A good deal of the literature emphasizes the relative nature of such responses; when people answer such questions, they must surely assess their life satisfaction relative to some benchmark, such as their own life in the past, or the lives of those around them. Indeed, in their recent review, Clark, Frijters, and Shields (2007), argue that life satisfaction is sensitive to respondent’s income relative to those with whom they most closely associate, which implies that there should be no relation between average national life satisfaction and national income, unless there is some other aspect of national income that raises everyone’s life satisfaction together.

When we turn to health and its effects on life-satisfaction, the poll results diverge from what would be required in a “capabilities approach” to an understanding of the sources of human well-being. Longer life expectancy surely enables people to do more with their lives, and is arguably the best single indicator of population health. Yet, conditional on income, longer life expectancy has no apparent effect on life satisfaction. Instead, it is changes in the expectation of life that seem to have an effect, no matter whether life expectancy is high or low. Even satisfaction with health, a more focused question, is not related to life expectancy. The extraordinary low health satisfaction ratings for Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union are a testament, not to their poor population health, but to a decline in health among a population that was used to a better state of affairs.

In spite of the positive relationship between life satisfaction and national income, and in spite of the plausibility of unhappiness and health dissatisfaction in the countries of Eastern Europe, neither life satisfaction nor health satisfaction can be taken as reliable indicators of population well-being, if only because neither adequately reflects objective conditions of health.

So, the author is making the argument that we need to beware of using self-assessed measures of heath satisfaction in our evaluations of a countries citizens level of happiness.

I think a lot of Americans (like the ones who were so rabid during the Health care town hall meetings) have become so desensitized to the status quo that they don’t realize what they are missing.

(Hat Tip: Gene Expression)


Check out this example of Animal Behavior.