Discriminating altruism as a model for human societies

Stephen Heyer (sjh@network.com.au)
4 Nov 1996 08:12:47 GMT

Discriminating altruism as a model for human societies

Anyone interested in the forces the shape human societies should read the
article "Born to trade" in the New Scientist dated 26/10/96. It is a fairly
good attempt at summarizing a field of research that has been quietly
developing for several decades.

I believe the implications of this work largely invalidate the centuries
old social models that have shaped both the left's and the right's efforts
at social engineering. It may be wise to rebuild those models in the light
of recent research before their forced application causes further harm.

Put crudely, it has been discovered that a stunningly simple tactic -
repaying favors and selfish acts in kind - is remarkably effective in
winning games designed to model real life social interactions. Even more
remarkable, is the discovery of behavior that resembles this strategy
(tit-for-tat) in species as diverse as baboons and vampire bats.

At least in computer simulations, discriminating altruists ( those who play
only with others who have never defected [betrayed] on them before) are
more successful than defectors, solitaires or selective defectors.
Surprisingly, discriminating altruists easily "invade" more antisocial
populations (of, say, defectors).

Even more surprisingly, a population of discriminating altruists is able to
resist infiltration by defectors, solitaires or selective defectors. The
key to this resilience seems to be social ostracism; if people recognize
defectors they can simply refuse to deal with them.

The question is, do real people behave like this?

Well, our language and lives are loaded with ideas of social reciprocity;
ideas such as obligation, favor and exchange. Tests on tribal peoples
indicate that they are just as obsessed with social exchange and

Actually, my readings of original texts by people who encountered
"uncorrupted" tribal and hunter-gatherer peoples suggest that such people
are even more conscious and concerned with these matters than we are.

Humans seem to have an instinct for social and economic exchange, just as
they do for language. Being an instinct, people can engage in quite complex
behavior without really being conscious of what they are doing, let alone

This could well be one of the things that is special about humans; they are
uniquely good at reciprocal altruism. Along with language, this may well
have driven the evolution of the huge human brain, and our dominance of the

The ability of discriminating altruists to infiltrate a less social
population may explain a couple of puzzling observations, given that at the
individual level this ability translates into greater personal success.

Some research suggests that a homogeneous society will tend to split into
subgroups that in time become increasingly different. This can be easily
explained if people are able to gain advantage by forming like minded
groups, the members of which are more easily able to predict each other's
behavior (trust each other).

The same explanation would lie behind the relative success of some minority
ethnic groups.

The implications of all this will take a lot of working out, but a few
things seem obvious.

To begin with, if there really is a strong instinctual base to some human
behavior, then forcing it too far from the natural pattern is likely to
produce social instability. On the bright side, if the discriminating
altruist theory is correct, it can be harnessed to build decent and stable

Second, it's a good idea not to harm people who think they are your
friends. If you do, you may well turn them into bitter lifelong enemies.

Mind you, this ties in with common sense. People forgive "honest" enemies
who have harmed them long before they forgive friends who betrayed them.

The problem, especially for politicians, is that you may have never counted
the person or group you harmed as friends, or even liked them. The
important thing is what they think.

Third, societies that lack a strong sense of cultural identity may have
difficulty defending themselves from subversion by those that do.

The wider implications for practical social and economic organization will
take a lot of working through.

Stephen Heyer, Queensland Australia
E-Mail: sjh@msn.com
Dated: 4 November, 1996

Love Truth; be tolerant; do good where practical.
Accept the sin when you must, or chose, to do evil.

No representation is made regarding the accuracy or even sanity of
the opinions expressed in this communication. They may not even be
those of the author.