New books on the evolution of cooperation


Jason Collins


March 12, 2012

Diane Coyle has noted the release of three new books on the evolution of cooperation: Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel, Beyond Human Nature by Jesse Prinz and Together by Richard Sennett. Each was reviewed by Robin McKie in the Guardian

A quick glance at some reviews, such as this by Julian Baggini, suggests that evolution is at the heart of Pagel’s discussion of the development of culture, with a fundamental question being how does human culture affect transmission of genes. In a review in the Telegraph, Tom Chivers pitches Pagel’s book as a response to Dawkins and a corollary to Steven Pinker:

[T]he book could be read as a corollary to Steven Pinker, whose ironically titled The Blank Slate showed that the human mind was anything but – that learning is hugely directed by genes. Pagel says that while that is true of many things, such as language, when it comes to culture, our minds are indeed blank at birth – a Polynesian baby adopted by Westerners would grow up as a Westerner, without any yearning to build an outrigger canoe.

While I am not convinced of the outrigger example – replace outrigger with car and there will be some strong similarities between who in the two cultures are interested – the book definitely seems worth a read.

I am not as keen to read the book by Prinz. McKie quotes Prinz as saying that:

The vast majority of human behaviours – from pub fights to mental illness – vary in form and frequency from culture to culture. “Our actions are not ingrained,” he states.

This excerpt from the Amazon review is of a similar vein:

In this provocative, revelatory tour de force, Jesse Prinz reveals how the cultures we live in - not biology - determine how we think and feel. … He is not interested in finding universal laws but, rather, in understanding, explaining and celebrating our differences.

There is a case to be made for the power of situation and culture, as shown in Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect or evidenced through the decline in violence argued by Pinker, but is there a human culture where pub fights (or their equivalents) are not predominantly the domain of young males? Can any focus on the differences completely ignore the universals?

I also came across the following review in The Age by Nick Miller. Miller interviewed Geoffrey Miller for some context:

[G]enetic differences account for about 50 per cent of the difference in general intelligence between children. This actually increases to 80 per cent by old age, Miller says, because higher intelligence tends to reinforce itself by driving inquiry but low intelligence will lead us to “watch reality TV, not read books and go to NASCAR races”. …

“I think the important thing is for parents to recognise that they aren’t at fault [if they happen to] raise a psychopath - though they might have been at fault in choosing the wrong mate,” Miller says. But should this inspire despair? Doesn’t it mean we can’t improve our kids, that the die is set?

“If you’re single, it’s great news,” he says. You just need to choose the right mate. It also means parents can relax: “You feed them and they will grow … you’re not going to be able to change their basic intelligence or personality very much.”

It even has implications for the education system. “I think the US is wasting hundreds of billions of dollars a year trying to give university educations to young people who can’t actually handle university,” Miller says.

Those are two very Bryan Caplan like arguments (with which I agree).

Prinz responds:

“I think the claims being made are often irresponsible and dangerously so,” he says. “If you really thought there were biologically based differences in intelligence, the thing you should promote is IQ enhancement through education, because this would equalise the differences.”

Prinz goes on to attack twin studies as a tool to assess heritability and argues, in contrast to the evidence with which I am familiar, that parents have a huge effect on outcomes:

“Parents are, in the early years of life, the most important factor in determining intelligence outcomes, because they have so much control over a child’s environment,” Prinz says. “Parents [should] give their children challenging problems, convey an excitement about learning by modelling that enthusiasm, put a child in contact with materials of instruction that are stimulating.”

I try to read a good dose of books that run counter to my understanding of issues, but like to choose the best available. Is Beyond Human Nature worth the effort?