Our ancestral environment differed greatly from our current environment, for the better (we enjoy better, safer and longer lives than our ancestors) but also for the worse. In his text, Dunbar points out, in particular, that while we used to spend our whole life with the same people, we now live mostly with strangers, people we have not known for long and with whom we will probably not interact in the future. This, Dunbar argues, may threaten the very foundation of our social life: “in the kinds of weakly interconnected communities in which we now live, people are no longer so willing to intervene either in minor infringements of social mores or in the abuse and mistreatment of others. We are no longer prepared to protect the wider interests of the community.”
It might be, however, that things are not that much worse, for two reasons linked to the evolution of human cooperation. Let’s first consider the biological aspect of human cooperation. In his text, Dunbar assumes that social cooperation is sustained by third-party intervention (in line with group selection, see for instance Boyd et al. 2005). However, empirical studies demonstrate that actually, third-party intervention plays a minor role in the prevention of cheating. Among hunter-gatherers, punishment is rare if not absent (Marlowe 2010, Wiessner 2005, for a review, see Baumard 2010 and Guala 2012). Instead, what leads individuals to cooperate is the prospect of losing their partners. As Dunbar points out, humans’ ancestral groups were highly fluid, and individuals were constantly moving from one group to another, seeking better and more reliable partners. In this situation, what prevented individuals from cheating others was the prospect of losing their reputation as reliable partners and deterring future partners from cooperating with them (Baumard et al. in press).
If this view is correct, then it might be the case that our modern environment is more (and not less) favorable to cooperation than the ancestral environment. Indeed, we may move from one university to the other, from one job to the next, but our administrative identity, our Facebook page, our credit rating always follow us. Today, information circulates much better than before and the whole planet is now totally connected. It is thus harder to escape from a bad reputation and as a result the costs of a bad reputation are higher than before.
Now consider the cultural dimension of human cooperation. Dunbar is right that networks have their limits in regulating individuals’ behavior. As we move from hunter-gatherer groups to bigger and bigger societies, reputation becomes less and less useful in cooperation involving thousands of people who often do not have the time and resources to inquire into their partners’ reputations. However, since the Neolithic revolution, humans have developed a new way to sustain cooperation: namely, institutions. Economists define institutions as second-order collective actions: that is, collective actions that regulate first-order collective actions such as collective fishing, collective defense, collective insurance, etc. (North 1990). In his article, Dunbar evokes the army (that is, the state) as an example of such second-order collective actions, but empirical studies show that people spontaneously set up associations and organizations, appoint watchmen and arbitrators, define rules and fines for breaking these rules, and do so without any kind of state support (Ostrom, 1990).
Institutions allow humans to regulate herding in a common pasture, fishing in a common fishery, water consumption in an irrigation system, etc. More generally, history suggests that institutions have been very successful, decreasing the level of violence, creating large markets, redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, etc. Thus, while as Dunbar points out, we are more and more surrounded with strangers, our society has also appointed more and more strangers to help us. We now have policemen, firemen, judges, teachers, journalists, epidemiologists, therapists, etc.. In fact, the welfare state now accounts from a third to half of GDP in most developed countries.
To conclude, while there are indeed some reasons to worry – trust is in decline (Putnam 2001) and well-being is not progressing as much as it used to do (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009) – this might not be because networks are becoming looser, but rather because the foundations of our institutions are not as strong as they were. Many studies, for instance, suggest that equality is an important factor in the creation of open, fair and efficient institutions (Alesina and Glaeser, 2004; Fukuyama, 2011). If this is true, then the rise of inequalities might be an central problem in the years to come.
University of Pennsylvania
Alesina, A. & Glaeser, E. (2004) Fighting poverty in the US and Europe: A world of difference. Oxford University Press.
Baumard, N., André, J.B. and Sperber, D., (in press) A mutualistic approach to morality, Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
Baumard, N. (2010) Has punishment played a role in the evolution of cooperation? A critical review. Mind & Society 9(2):171–92.
Boyd, R., Gintis, H., Bowles, S. & Richerson, P. (2003) The evolution of altruistic punishment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 100(6):3531–35.
Fukuyama, F. (2011) The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Guala, F. (in press) Reciprocity: Weak or strong? What punishment experiments do (and do not) demonstrate. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
Marlowe, F. (2009) Hadza cooperation: Second-party punishment, yes; third-party punishment, no. Human Nature 20(4):417–30.
North, D. (1990) Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, Cambridge University Press.
Ostrom, E. (1990) Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Political economy of institutions and decisions. Cambridge University Press.
Putman, R.D. (2001). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Wiessner, P. (2005) Norm enforcement among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen: A case of strong reciprocity? Human Nature 16(2):115–45.
Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. Harmondsworth: Allen Lane.