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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.


Did you just mention privatization, “increase in productivity” and self-interest as a solution? Well, the answer depends a lot if you are in a pre or post equilibrium physical state. The distribution curve in question is more or less a Bell-curve. So maybe it’s time for all of us, to make a proper balance in here, having a brief look onto it from a recent scientific perspective.

Let us consider over-exploitation. Imagine a situation where multiple herders share a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin‘s (1968) example (check his seminal paper below), it is in each herder’s interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the quality of the common is damaged for all as a result, through overgrazing. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all, causing over-exploitation.

Video – “Balance“: Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein (Directors), Germany, 1989. Academy Award for Best Animated Short (1989).

This huge dilemma, know as “The tragedy of the commons” arises from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. On my own timeself-interest” allow me to start this post directly with a key passage, followed by two videos and a final abstract. First paper below, is in fact the seminal Garrett Hardin paper, an influential article titled precisely “The Tragedy of the Commons,” written in December 1968 and first published in journal Science (Science 162, 1243-1248, full PDF). One of the key passages goes on like this. Hardin asks:

[…] In a welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement (13)? To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action. […]

So the question is: driven by rational choice, are we as Humanity all doomed into over-exploitation in what regards our common resources? Will we all end-up in a situation where any tiny move will drive us into a disaster, as the last seconds on the animated short movie above clearly and brilliantly illustrate?

Fortunately, the answer is no, according to recent research. Besides Hardin‘s work has been criticized on the grounds of historical inaccuracy, and for failing to distinguish between common property and open access resources (Wikipedia entry), there is subsequent work by Elinor Ostrom and others suggesting that using Hardin‘s work to argue for privatization of resources is an “overstatement” of the case.

Video – Elinor Ostrom: “Beyond the tragedy of commons“. Stockholm whiteboard seminars. (video lecture, 8:26 min.)

In fact, according to Ostrom work in the study of common pool resources (CPR), awarded in 2009 for the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, there are eight design principles of stable local common pool resource management, possible to avoid the present dilemma. Among others, one of her works I definitely recommend reading is her Presidential address on the American Political Science Association, presented back in 1997, entitled, “A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action” (The American Political Science Review Journal, Vol. 92, No. 1, pp. 1-22, Mar., 1998). Her impressive paper-work starts like this:

[…] Extensive empirical evidence and theoretical developments in multiple disciplines stimulate a need to expand the range of rational choice models to be used as a foundation for the study of social dilemmas and collective action. After an introduction to the problem of overcoming social dilemmas through collective action, the remainder of this article is divided into six sections. The first briefly reviews the theoretical predictions of currently accepted rational choice theory related to social dilemmas. The second section summarizes the challenges to the sole reliance on a complete model of rationality presented by extensive experimental research. In the third section, I discuss two major empirical findings that begin to show how individuals achieve results that are “better than rational” by building conditions where reciprocity, reputation, and trust can help to overcome the strong temptations of short-run self-interest. The fourth section raises the possibility of developing second-generation models of rationality, the fifth section develops an initial theoretical scenario, and the final section concludes by examining the implications of placing reciprocity, reputation, and trust at the core of an empirically tested, behavioral theory of collective action. […]

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

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