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Video – TED lecture: Empathy, cooperation, fairness and reciprocity – caring about the well-being of others seems like a very human trait. But Frans de Waal shares some surprising videos of behavioural tests, on primates and other mammals, that show how many of these moral traits all of us share. (TED, Nov. 2011, link).

Evolutionary explanations are built around the principle that all that natural selection can work with are the effects of behaviour – not the motivation behind it. This means there is only one logical starting point for evolutionary accounts, as explained by Trivers (2002, p. 6): “You begin with the effect of behaviour on actors and recipients; you deal with the problem of internal motivation, which is a secondary problem, afterwards. . . . [I]f you start with motivation, you have given up the evolutionary analysis at the outset.” ~ Frans B.M. de Waal, 2008.

Do animals have morals? And above all, did morality evolved? The question is pertinent in a broad range of quite different areas, as in as well Computer Sciences and Norm Generation (e.g. link for an MSc thesis) in bio-inspired Computation and Artificial Life, but here new fresh answers come directly from Biology. Besides the striking video lecture above, what follows are 2 different excerpts (abstract and conclusions) from a 2008 paper by Frans B.M. de Waal (Living Links Center lab., Emory University, link): de Waal, F.B.M. (2008). Putting the altruism back in altruism: The evolution of empathy. Ann. Rev. Psychol. 59: 279-300 (full PDF link):

(…) Abstract: Evolutionary theory postulates that altruistic behaviour evolved for the return-benefits it bears the performer. For return-benefits to play a motivational role, however, they need to be experienced by the organism. Motivational analyses should restrict themselves, therefore, to the altruistic impulse and its knowable consequences. Empathy is an ideal candidate mechanism to underlie so-called directed altruism, i.e., altruism in response to another’s pain, need, or distress. Evidence is accumulating that this mechanism is phylogenetically ancient, probably as old as mammals and birds. Perception of the emotional state of another automatically activates shared representations causing a matching emotional state in the observer.With increasing cognition, state-matching evolved into more complex forms, including concern for the other and perspective-taking. Empathy-induced altruism derives its strength from the emotional stake it offers the self in the other’s welfare. The dynamics of the empathy mechanism agree with predictions from kin selection and reciprocal altruism theory. (…)

(…) Conclusion: More than three decades ago, biologists deliberately removed the altruism from altruism.There is now increasing evidence that the brain is hardwired for social connection, and that the same empathy mechanism proposed to underlie human altruism (Batson 1991) may underlie the directed altruism of other animals. Empathy could well provide the main motivation making individuals who have exchanged benefits in the past to continue doing so in the future. Instead of assuming learned expectations or calculations about future benefits, this approach emphasizes a spontaneous altruistic impulse and a mediating role of the emotions. It is summarized in the five conclusions below: 1. An evolutionarily parsimonious account (cf. de Waal 1999) of directed altruism assumes similar motivational processes in humans and other animals. 2. Empathy, broadly defined, is a phylogenetically ancient capacity. 3. Without the emotional engagement brought about by empathy, it is unclear what could motivate the extremely costly helping behavior occasionally observed in social animals. 4. Consistent with kin selection and reciprocal altruism theory, empathy favours familiar individuals and previous cooperators, and is biased against previous defectors. 5. Combined with perspective-taking abilities, empathy’s motivational autonomy opens the door to intentionally altruistic altruism in a few large-brained species.(…) in, de Waal, F.B.M. (2008). Putting the altruism back in altruism: The evolution of empathy. Ann. Rev. Psychol. 59: 279-300 (full PDF link).

Frans de Waal research work does not end up here, of course. He is a ubiquitous influence and writer on many related areas such as: Cognition, Communication, Crowding/Conflict Resolution, Empathy and Altruism, Social Learning and Culture, Sharing and Cooperation and last but not least, Behavioural Economics. All of his papers are free on-line, in a web page I do vividly recommend a long visit.

Video – Finland’s educational system: Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian discuss the revolutionary educational system Finland has instituted and the results of that system on the education of their children. Read more about it at: Anu Partanen, “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success“, The Atlantic magazine, US, Dec. 2011.

[…] Nash: See if I derive an equilibrium (link) where prevalence is a non-singular event where nobody loses, can you imagine the effect that would have on conflict scenarios, arm negotiations… (…) currency exchange? […], in Memorable quotes for “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), movie directed by Ron Howard, starring Russell Crowe, along with Ed Harris.

Book – Karl Sigmund, The Calculus of Selfishness, Princeton Series on Theoretical and Computational Biology, Princeton University Press,  ISBN: 978-1-4008-3225-5, 192 pp., 2009.

[…] Cooperation means that a donor pays a cost, c, for a recipient to get a benefit, b. In evolutionary biology, cost and benefit are measured in terms of fitness. While mutation and selection represent the main forces of evolutionary dynamics, cooperation is a fundamental principle that is required for every level of biological organization. Individual cells rely on cooperation among their components. Multicellular organisms exist because of cooperation among their cells. Social insects are masters of cooperation. Most aspects of human society are based on mechanisms that promote cooperation. Whenever evolution constructs something entirely new (such as multicellularity or human language), cooperation is needed. Evolutionary construction is based on cooperation. The five rules for cooperation which we examine in this chapter are: kin selection, direct reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, graph selection, and group selection. Each of these can promote cooperation if specific conditions are fulfilled. […], Martin A. Nowak, Karl Sigmund, How populations cohere: five rules for cooperation, in R. M. May and A. McLean (eds.) Theoretical Ecology: Principles and Applications, Oxford UP, Oxford (2007), 7-16. [PDF]

How does cooperation emerge among selfish individuals? When do people share resources, punish those they consider unfair, and engage in joint enterprises? These questions fascinate philosophers, biologists, and economists alike, for the “invisible hand” that should turn selfish efforts into public benefit is not always at work. The Calculus of Selfishness looks at social dilemmas where cooperative motivations are subverted and self-interest becomes self-defeating. Karl Sigmund, a pioneer in evolutionary game theory, uses simple and well-known game theory models to examine the foundations of collective action and the effects of reciprocity and reputation. Focusing on some of the best-known social and economic experiments, including games such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Trust, Ultimatum, Snowdrift, and Public Good, Sigmund explores the conditions leading to cooperative strategies. His approach is based on evolutionary game dynamics, applied to deterministic and probabilistic models of economic interactions. Exploring basic strategic interactions among individuals guided by self-interest and caught in social traps, The Calculus of Selfishness analyses to what extent one key facet of human nature–selfishness–can lead to cooperation. (from Princeton Press). [Karl Sigmund, The Calculus of Selfishness, Princeton Series on Theoretical and Computational Biology, Princeton University Press,  ISBN: 978-1-4008-3225-5, 192 pp., 2009.]

What follows comes partly from chapter 1, available here:

THE SOCIAL ANIMAL: Aristotle classified humans as social animals, along with other species, such as ants and bees. Since then, countless authors have compared cities or states with bee hives and ant hills: for instance, Bernard de Mandeville, who published his The Fable of the Bees more than three hundred years ago. Today, we know that the parallels between human communities and insect states do not reach very far. The amazing degree of cooperation found among social insects is essentially due to the strong family ties within ant hills or bee hives. Humans, by contrast, often collaborate with non-related partners. Cooperation among close relatives is explained by kin selection. Genes for helping offspring are obviously favouring their own transmission. Genes for helping brothers and sisters can also favour their own transmission, not through direct descendants, but indirectly, through the siblings’ descendants: indeed, close relatives are highly likely to also carry these genes. In a bee hive, all workers are sisters and the queen is their mother. It may happen that the queen had several mates, and then the average relatedness is reduced; the theory of kin selection has its share of complex and controversial issues. But family ties go a long way to explain collaboration. The bee-hive can be viewed as a watered-down version of a multicellular organism. All the body cells of such an organism carry the same genes, but the body cells do not reproduce directly, any more than the sterile worker-bees do. The body cells collaborate to transmit copies of their genes through the germ cells – the eggs and sperm of their organism. Viewing human societies as multi-cellular organisms working to one purpose is misleading. Most humans tend to reproduce themselves. Plenty of collaboration takes place between non-relatives. And while we certainly have been selected for living in groups (our ancestors may have done so for thirty million years), our actions are not as coordinated as those of liver cells, nor as hard-wired as those of social insects. Human cooperation is frequently based on individual decisions guided by personal interests. Our communities are no super-organisms. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pithily claimed that “there is no such thing as society“. This can serve as the rallying cry of methodological individualism – a research program aiming to explain collective phenomena bottom-up, by the interactions of the individuals involved. The mathematical tool for this program is game theory. All “players” have their own aims. The resulting outcome can be vastly different from any of these aims, of course.

THE INVISIBLE HAND: If the end result depends on the decisions of several, possibly many individuals having distinct, possibly opposite interests, then all seems set to produce a cacophony of conflicts. In his Leviathan from 1651, Hobbes claimed that selfish urgings lead to “such a war as is every man against every man“. In the absence of a central authority suppressing these conflicts, human life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short“. His French contemporary Pascal held an equally pessimistic view: : “We are born unfair; for everyone inclines towards himself…. The tendency towards oneself is the origin of every disorder in war, polity, economy etc“. Selfishness was depicted as the root of all evil. But one century later, Adam Smith offered another view.An invisible hand harmonizes the selfish efforts of individuals: by striving to maximize their own revenue, they maximize the total good. The selfish person works inadvertently for the public benefit. “By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it“. Greed promotes behaviour beneficial to others. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages“. A similar view had been expressed, well before Adam Smith, by Voltaire in his Lettres philosophiques: “Assuredly, God could have created beings uniquely interested in the welfare of others. In that case, traders would have been to India by charity, and the mason would saw stones to please his neighbour. But God designed things otherwise….It is through our mutual needs that we are useful to the human species; this is the grounding of every trade; it is the eternal link between men“. Adam Smith (who knew Voltaire well) was not blind to the fact that the invisible hand is not always at work. He merely claimed that it frequently promotes the interest of the society, not that it always does. Today, we know that there are many situations – so-called social dilemmas – where the invisible hand fails to turn self-interest to everyone’s advantage.

If you want to be incrementally better: Be competitive. If you want to be exponentially better: Be cooperative“. ~ Anonymous

Two hunters decide to spent their week-end together. But soon, a dilemma emerges between them. They could choose for hunting a deer stag together or either -individually- hunt a rabbit on their own. Chasing a deer, as we know, is something quite demanding, requiring absolute cooperation between them. In fact, both friends need to be focused for a long time and in position, while not being distracted and tempted by some arbitrary passing rabbits. On the other hand, stag hunt is increasingly more beneficiary for both, but that benefice comes with a cost: it requires a high level of trust between them. Somehow at some point, each hunter concerns that his partner may diverts while facing a tempting jumping rabbit, thus jeopardizing the possibility of hunting together the biggest prey.

The original story comes from Jean Jacques Rousseau, French philosopher (above). While, the dilemma is known in game theory has the “Stag Hunt Game” (Stag = adult deer). The dilemma could then take different quantifiable variations, assuming different values for R (Reward for cooperation), T (Temptation to defect), S (Sucker’s payoff) and P (Punishment for defection). However, in order to be at the right strategic Stag Hunt Game scenario we should assume R>T>P>S. A possible pay-off table matrix taking in account two choices C or D (C = Cooperation; D = Defection), would be:

Choice — C ——- D ——
C (R=3, R=3) (S=0, T=2)
D (T=2, S=0) (P=1, P=1)

Depending on how fitness is calculated, stag hunt games could also be part of a real Prisoner’s dilemma, or even Ultimatum games. As clear from above, highest pay-off comes from when both hunters decide to cooperate (CC). Over this case (first column – first row), both receive a reward of 3 points, that is, they both really focused on hunting a big deer while forgetting everything else, namely rabbits. However – and here is where exactly the dilemma appears -, both CC or DD are Nash equilibrium! That is, at this strategic landscape point no player has anything to gain by changing only his own strategy unilaterally. The dilemma appears recurrently in biology, animal-animal interaction, human behaviour, social cooperation, over Co-Evolution, in society in general, and so on. Philosopher David Hume provided also a series of examples that are stag hunts, from two individuals who must row a boat together up to two neighbours who wish to drain a meadow. Other stories exist with very interesting variations and outcomes. Who does not knows them?!

The day before last school classes, two kids decided to do something “cool”, while conjuring on appearing before their friends on the last school day period, both with mad and strange haircuts. Although, despite their team purpose, a long, anguish and stressful night full of indecisiveness followed for both of them…

[...] People should learn how to play Lego with their minds. Concepts are building bricks [...] V. Ramos, 2002.

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