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The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 92-94 ( 11 March )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/field.html

Book Review

Altruistically Inclined? The Behavioral Sciences, Evolutionary Theory, and the Origins of Reciprocity
By Alexander J. Field
The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor. 2001

Reviewed by  Craig T. Palmer, Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, USA.

Before reading this book, I held the position that group selection was a means of evolution that had played a role in the evolution of a few forms of life, but there was no evidence it had been a significant factor in human evolution. After reading this book, I hold the same position. Hence, in my case, Alexander Field failed in his attempt to demonstrate that human altruism cannot be explained without group selection. However, this should not be taken to mean this book is unimportant. On the contrary, it is a very engaging work that should be read by anyone interested in explaining human altruism. It is likely to generate renewed interest in this important topic, by both researchers who find his specific group selection argument compelling and those who do not.

Even those who fail to be persuaded about the role of group selection will still find Field’s discussions of many other topics well worth their attention. First, there is his overview of game theory that he makes accessible to novices while simultaneously raising new criticisms and implications. He provides a similar treatment of Robert Frank’s theory of emotions. Although his analysis of the “cheater detection module,” and the evidence for brain modularity in general, lack the original insights found in his discussions of the previous topics, they are clear summaries likely to create interest among a new audience of economists and political scientists. His presentation of the growing evidence for human universals in contrast to the exaggerated claims of cultural variability prevalent in earlier anthropological literature, may also change many reader’s assumptions about the relevance of evolutionary approaches to human behavior. In addition, the book is filled with specific examples of connections between evolutionary principles and a wide variety of economic and political events. Finally, the group selectionist argument that is the focus of the book is formidable and sure to provoke productive discussions among both evolutionists and social scientists.

Field’s main argument is as follows. Prisoner dilemma games fail to conform to the “rational” (i.e., based on material self-interest) predictions of Nash equilibrium models because substantial numbers of people are more altruistic than predicted. This altruism cannot be explained by kin selection because it occurs during interactions with non-kin. Contrary to conventional wisdom, existing evolutionary explanations based on reciprocal altruism and evolutionary stable strategies cannot account for this altruism because these factors only explain the maintenance of such altruistic behavior once it is established at some frequency in a population, not the origin of the first altruistic acts toward non-kin. The origin of this altruism can be explained by group selection. Hence, group selection has been a potent force in human evolution, and any attempt to explain human social behavior must take this into account.

There are two reasons I remain unconvinced. First, Field fails to establish that there is really something that can only be explained by group selection. The assertion that the “first move” of altruism toward non-kin cannot be explained by existing evolutionary explanations is at least open to debate because alternative explanations exist. For example, various evolutionists have suggested that altruistic behaviors first evolved via kin selection and this produced the tendencies toward altruism that were later applied to interactions with non-kin. Although he briefly mentions this possible explanation (p. 125), Field fails, in my eyes, to convincingly discredit it. More generally I don’t think that an “inclination” toward initial acts of phenotypic altruism is nearly the evolutionary puzzle that Field perceives it to be. The only reason Field sees initial acts of altruism to be a puzzle is because he assumes individual level selection will produce essentially the same “selfish” organisms that are assumed in “rational” economic models: “Restricting the operation of natural selection to the individual level closely aligns the results of evolutionary models with those of the standard economic model, since organisms that efficiently pursue their material welfare, choose life over death, and, ceteris paribus, choose more wealth over less, will find their relative fitness increased by individual level selection.” (p. 152, emphasis added). This assumption is false because natural selection only favors what is “selfish” from the standpoint of the gene, and as Field points out, “what is selfish from the standpoint of the gene is altruistic from the standpoint of the acting organism” (p. 152). Hence, “organisms are thus evolved to be altruists, whose beneficence, at least in the environments of history, is eventually directed solely at relatives“ (Alexander 1979:143, emphasis added). When one assumes a population of fundamentally altruistic organisms interacting with other fundamentally altruistic organisms, the chance of an altruistic act being occasionally directed toward an unrelated individual no longer seems improbable. The only question becomes explaining the specific patterns and degrees of altruism that will end up being favored by natural selection, and this is what existing evolutionary theories address, although perhaps not adequately (see below).

The second reason I remain unconvinced of the role of group selection in human evolution is that no serious attempt is made to even try and establish that humans actually lived in exactly the kind of groups necessary for group selection to occur. As a cultural anthropologist, I kept waiting for the argument that the group size, migration rates, patterns of altruism, and group extinction rates among our ancestors (or at least contemporary human foragers) met the precise criteria necessary for group selection to become an important force. It never came. Evidently Field omitted this kind of ethnographic evidence because he thinks that the group selection occurred much earlier in our evolutionary history before the split with chimpanzees (see chapter five). If this is true, then models based on contemporary human foragers would be largely irrelevant. Although this hypothesis is certainly possible, such an argument would then seem to hinge on detailed evidence that chimpanzee group size, migration rates, patterns of altruism, and group extinction rates meet the precise criteria necessary for group selection. This evidence is also never provided. Instead Field only describes the existence of reciprocal altruism among chimpanzees. This seems far from sufficient, especially considering the previously mentioned problems with the argument that the initial acts of altruism in these acts can only be explained by group selection.

There is an irony in the relation between these two flaws in the book. It is the actual pattern of human social interaction in traditional human societies that reveals the true puzzle facing evolutionary explanations of altruism among humans. In contrast to the assumptions of Field, and many other evolutionists, the social world of such people is not divided into “immediate kin” (i.e., individuals related as first cousins and closer) where kin selection has led to altruism, and non-kin where only reciprocity has evolved. Instead there is an extended gradation of altruism where close kin are favored over more distant kin, and more distant kin are favored over still more distant kin, and so on and so forth, until eventually everyone recognized as kin (a category that includes several hundred thousand people in some instances) are favored over individuals not recognized as kin (Palmer and Steadman 1997). This pattern, totally ignored by Field, is the puzzle for existing explanations of human altruism, and group selection is of no help in solving it because the webs of social relationships based on these gradations of kinship fail to produce the kinds of groups necessary for group selection (Palmer et al. 1997). Following the ideas of Lyle Steadman, I suggest that the key to this gradation of altruism toward different degrees of kin, because of the mere fact they are recognized as different degrees of kin, is found in the observation by Field that “parents limit aggression [and encourage altruism] among siblings” (p. 242). If only Field would consider the implications of the fact that parents also encourage their offspring to influence their own offspring in the same way, and so on and so forth throughout numerous generations, he would be on the path to solving the real puzzle of human altruism.

I hope readers of this review will forgive me for transgressing into a discussion of my own pet explanation of why humans are altruistically inclined, and see it as an example of how this book will stimulate new theories and new research on this important topic. Field is correct in his basic premise that human altruism has not been adequately explained, and his book will motivate researchers in numerous fields to rectify that situation whether or not they choose to follow his particular ideas about group selection. That makes this book important.

References cited

Alexander, R. D. 1979 Darwinism and Human Affairs. University of Washington Press: Seattle. Amazon US

Palmer, C. T., and L. B. Steadman 1997 Human kinship as a descendant-leaving strategy: A solution to an evolutionary puzzle. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 20:39-51

Palmer, C. T., B. E. Fredrickson, and C. Tilley 1997 Categories and gatherings: Group selection and the mythology of cultural anthropology. Evolution and Human Behavior 18:291-308.

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© Craig T. Palmer.

Craig T. Palmer is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Dr. Palmer is co-author of A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, MIT Press, 2000 [synopsis].


Palmer, C. T. (2002). Review of Altruistically Inclined? The Behavioral Sciences, Evolutionary Theory, and the Origins of Reciprocity by Alexander J. Field. Human Nature Review. 2: 92-94

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