Theology and Evolutionary Psychology, Chapter 7: Reciprocity and the Widow's Mites

We've been exploring how human cooperation can get off the ground among Darwinian agents. Specifically, we noted that kin selection provides a psychological mechanism that can get harnessed and applied, with intentional commitment, to non-familials. A second source of cooperative behavior is reciprocity.

Reciprocity in human evolution was first mathematically modeled in 1971 by Robert Trivers in his famous article The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Since that time, lots of attention has been devoted to the dynamics of reciprocity, much of it coming from game theory (for more on game theory see my sidebar).

Trivers' paper focused initially on a simple question: Why do some animal species share food with non-familials? In a Darwinian and Malthusian world food-sharing with non-familials seems very odd. Yet food-sharing is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom. Why does this behavior thrive? Why share food with non-familials?

A part of Trivers' answer is simplicity itself: We discount surpluses.

The more I have of something the less valuable it is to me. Conversely, if I find myself in scarce supply of something (take FOOD for example) then the value of that something tends to soar. Think of the kid who has ten rare rookie cards of Superstar X trading with the kid with none of those cards.

The point is that when Darwinian agents encounter each other they find each other in various levels of need. Some are flush and others are going hungry. Now imagine that the one going hungry begs for food from the one with surplus (food begging is commonly seen in these exchanges). Given that the agent with the surplus can discount his/her surplus (sharing some food in no way jeopardizes filling themselves up), he/she is free to share. And many species of animals do.

But this still makes no Darwinian sense. Why not hoard the food and starve the non-familial competitor? The answer is that at some future time the tables will turn. Thus, if the agent with surplus today can give a little in the hopes of future payback then it seems to be a good investment (because it costs so little given the surplus).

The point here is that reciprocity is leveraging off of an asymmetry:

Surplus = Low Cost < Scarcity = High Cost

Thus, when we see "sharing" we see Low Cost transformed to High Cost. Which is simply to say that when I share with you out of my surplus it means very LITTLE to me but it means A LOT to you.

Thus, for very little cost I can create a huge impact upon you, a sense of "indebtedness" that, if I need it in the future, I can leverage into a favor. Sharing, then, becomes simply an investment in my own future. Building up IOUs that I can cash in if I need to in the future. Reciprocity is evolution's version of insurance.

I'm leaving a ton out of this discussion. I'm mainly focusing on the role of asymmetries of surplus in fueling "cooperation" in the animal kingdom. As we noticed with family values (i.e., kin selection) seemingly "cooperative" acts can be very self-interested. I help you do X. Later, I need a ride to the airport and I cash in that favor. My helpfulness can seem, at times, very self-interested.

I believe this is why the bible is so keen on focusing on giving out of scarcity. Giving out of surplus is, like kin selection, an evolved mental trait. As such, like kin selection, it is, at root, self-interested. Interestingly, then, we see the bible again highlight an explicitly non-Darwinian moral norm. In this case, giving out of scarcity. Compare and contrast:

Evolved Darwinian Psychology: Kin Selection = Devoting time, effort, and resources on genetic relations
Biblical Witness: "If you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?"

Evolved Darwinian Psychology: Reciprocity = Giving out of surplus
Biblical Witness: "As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. "I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on."

Jesus was an amazing evolutionary psychologist. It is as if he had read the very latest literature on the subject and explicitly spoke to transcending the subtle but selfish grooves of human nature.

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5 thoughts on “Theology and Evolutionary Psychology, Chapter 7: Reciprocity and the Widow's Mites”

  1. Richard,

    I started reading "the moral animal" which you recommended. The book mentions some guy (I forget his name) who came up with a whole moral system based behaviors counter to our evolutionary instincts. His thought was that evolution=selfish, moral behavior=unselfish. Perhaps you know of whom I am referring since you seem to be thinking along these lines? I don't have the book with me...

  2. Richard,

    Given this particlar topic, this url might be of interest to your blogwatchers:


    George C.

  3. "It is as if he had read the very latest literature on the subject and explicitly spoke to transcending the subtle but selfish grooves of human nature."

    I'm curious as to what makes altruism "transcendent". We're placing human behaviors on a spectrum from "natural" to "transcendent", and I'm not sure how such a spectrum is arrived at or justified.

  4. Pecs,
    There are a few people that make that claim. I'd have to dig out my copy to find out specifically who Wright is referring to.

    Thanks for the link. I still owe you an e-mail about the Fall. Sorry for the delay. It's finals week and my Inbox is way backed up.

    I guess I'm using "transcendent" as poetic shorthand for "not reducible to biological imperatives." Pushing further on this, "transcendent" also reflects my hunch that these moral impulses come from "outside" the human and Darwinian sphere. That is, it seems very odd that a Darwinian system (human evolution) would produce values such as giving from scarcity. It just makes no sense, reductively speaking. So, perhaps the "sense" isn't reductive but, well, transcendent.

  5. Trivers needs to be on meds.

    He won the big Craaford prize, then soils it by writing this uncollegial screed in the WSJ actually threatening another academic for their opinions:

    Wall Street Journal
    Letters to the Editor
    Wednesday, May 23, 2007

    In regard to Alan Dershowitz’s commentary “Finkelstein’s Bigotry” (editorial page, May 4): In it he asserts that “He [Norman Finkelstein] has encouraged radical goons to email threatening messages; ‘Look forward to a visit from me,’ reads one. “Nazis like [you] need to be confronted directly.”

    But all of this is untrue. I wrote the letter in question (April 15, 2007), but without Prof. Finkelstein’s knowledge, interest or approval. The key sentences had nothing to do with Prof. Finkelstein: ‘Regarding your rationalization of Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians, let me just say that if there is a repeat of Israeli butchery toward Lebanon and if you decide once again to rationalize it publicly, look forward to a visit from me. Nazis – and Nazi-like apologists such as yourself – need to be confronted directly.

    As for being an academic goon: I am late responding because I was in Europe lecturing after receiving the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

    Robert Trivers
    Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences
    Rutgers University
    Somerset, NJ

    According to Wikipedia:

    Robert L. Trivers, (born 19 February 1943) is an American evolutionary biologist and sociobiologist...Trivers originally went to Harvard to study mathematics, but wound up studying U.S. history in preparation to become a lawyer. He took a psychology class after suffering a breakdown, and was very unimpressed with the state of psychology. He was prevented from getting into Yale law school by his breakdown, and wound up with a job writing social science textbooks for children (never published, due in part to presenting evolution by natural selection as fact). This exposure to evolutionary theory led him to graduate work with Ernst Mayr at Harvard 1968-1972 (he never got a bachelor's degree anywhere). He was on faculty at Harvard 1973-1978, then moved to UC Santa Cruz.

    He met Huey P. Newton, Chairman of the Black Panther Party, in 1978 when Newton applied (while in prison) to do a reading course with him as part of a graduate degree in History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz. Trivers and Newton became close friends, Newton was godfather to one of Trivers' daughters. Trivers joined the Black Panther Party in 1979. Trivers and Newton published an analysis of the role of self-deception by the flight crew in the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 (Trivers, R.L. & Newton, H.P. Science Digest 'The crash of flight 90: doomed by self-deception?' November 1982, pp 66,67,111).

    The Black Panthers bit show really bad judgment. The failure to get into Yale law makes me wonder if the guy is jealous of Dershowitz, the famous Harvard lawyer.

    In any case, with scientists conducting themselves like this, it's no wonder the public has lost its trust in scientists.

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