Both the Sci Foo Camp at the GooglePlex and the symposium at the Evolution meeting in Snowbird were extremely productive and enjoyable experiences. I’ll write about some of the sessions I went to at the Sci Foo later. BTW, my own session on the strange decline of cooperation in America went very well; other highlights were two sessions on space exploration. The great thing about Sci Foo is its ability to break beyond the usual disciplinary boundaries – an impressive feat even for someone like me, who is decidedly transdisciplinary in my research approaches.
The organizers of the Snowbird symposium did a great job of putting together an exciting series of talks. My talk was in the afternoon, preceded by the evolutionary economist John Gowdy and by the evolutionary theorist Erol Akcay. What was quite remarkable was how the three of us raised very similar themes, talking about ultrasociality, the evolution of prosocial norms and institutions, and cultural multilevel selection, all topics of central importance to this Forum, of course. I have written earlier about my perception that the study of social evolution is undergoing a phase transition, and the commonality of themes and approaches in the Snowbird symposium only strengthen my conviction that this is indeed happening.
The next talk after mine was by Joan Roughgarden on the evolution of intimacy. One aspect of her talk that struck a chord was her emphasizing the pleasurable side of cooperation.
Let me backtrack and try to explain why I found this emphasis so stimulating. Anyone who studies cooperation from a scientific point of view quickly realizes that cooperation is not all sweetness and light. There are two ‘dark sides’ of cooperation. First, cooperation can be used for truly horrible purposes. Genocide, especially in a world before atomic weapons, requires a large and highly cooperative group to perpetrate. Just think about the degree of cooperation and coordination that was needed to implement Die Endlösung.
Second, even when cooperation is used for entirely benign purposes, it is still highly vulnerable to free riding, so the suppression of selfishness is a necessary component. This means that the punishment of free-riders, or threat of it, is a necessary ingredient of preventing collective, cooperative action from unraveling.
All of this leads one to a rather joyless view of cooperation. We study the evolution of norms and institutions that make us more cooperative and the evolution of moralistic punishment, which is based on a kind of grim satisfaction that moralists derive from retaliating against the free riders.
Recently my colleagues David Rand, Martin Nowak, and others have argued that rewards are more important than punishment in promoting cooperation. However, in their experiments ‘rewards’ are simply punishments with a negative sign (you can either impose a fine on a free rider, or you can fork over some money as a reward to a cooperator). It’s still very materialistic.
Over the last two years I have been learning from my friend Harvey Whitehouse about the other side of cooperation, rituals. Rituals, which are based on non-materialistic, psychic mechanisms, provide us with an extremely useful alternative way of thinking about cooperation (it is an alternative, but also a complementary and a completely compatible approach to that based on norms and institutions).
Yet even here the emphasis of Harvey and his co-workers such as Jon Lanman is on dysphoric, that is, painful, unpleasant, frightening, or humiliating rituals and on how sharing traumatic experiences forges intense bonds through psychological kinship. Is the study of cooperation becoming yet another ‘dismal science’??
I am not saying that the theories of moralistic punishment or of imagistic modes of cohesion are wrong. Far from it. But we should also not forget that cooperation does not have to be grim and dysphoric. It can also be a joyful and fun experience. Most humans have the psychological machinery to derive psychic benefits from cooperation that are entirely separate from any materialistic benefits.
After the symposium the speakers moved to a restaurant where we all participated in a euphoric ritual called the post-symposium dinner. The fun part was not just consuming good food and enjoying good conversation – there was something extra, the feeling of camaraderie (CAMARADERIE: a spirit of friendly good-fellowship [Merriam-Webster Dictionary]). This was a relatively trivial and small-scale ritual, but it reminded me of how much fun it is to cooperate with people. Just the process of cooperation can be a reward in itself, completely apart from any material public goods that are produced.
And this thought takes me back to the series of blogs I recently wrote about evidence of large-scale cooperation before the rise of agriculture (see Another Nail in the Coffin: Poverty Point and blogs preceding it).
In an e-mail exchange following these blogs, an economist colleague asked, but where did the surplus needed to underwrite the construction of the Poverty Point mound, or the Göbekli Tepe complex, come from? His conclusion was that it had to be trade. But I think this is the wrong way of thinking about it.
Instead think about communal barn raising, as is done by the Amish.
Or, as Stephen Duplantier wrote in a comment on the Poverty Point blog:
What a month of work and celebration it must have been for the people during that mound-raising! What comes to mind is a massive southeastern Burning Man-type of event.
I couldn’t agree more. We should seriously consider such huge communal cooperative projects as a model for how early ritual sites were constructed. And much of the benefit of these structures for the social cohesion could have been not in structures themselves, but in people cooperating together to erect them and deriving a lasting feeling of shared camaraderie that could later provide a basis for producing other public goods – such as collective defense against external enemies.