Pathfinders: Caring and Sharing

You have a pie, and you have to share part of it with someone else. The question is, how much should you offer? Logically, not much, and logically, the recipient should be happy to accept any amount, no matter how small, since it’s better than nothing. But here’s the rub. If that someone thinks you’re being stingy they might refuse your offer, in which case neither of you gets anything.

In the human version of this ‘ultimatum game’, where the pie is replaced with money, the players tend  to make roughly equal or ‘fair’ offers, showing that human concepts of fairness can override the logic of economics. Exactly why this happens is uncertain. It may be that the donor is motivated by some internalised moral framework, or it may be that the donor feels nothing of the sort but is simply responding to the fear that the recipient is fundamentally irrational and will ruin everything by throwing their proverbial toys out of the pram in response to a perceived injustice.

In studies with chimpanzees involving food, the same does not apply. The recipient is happy to get whatever they can, and the donor shows no tendency towards generosity. However a new study with chimpanzees, using tokens instead of food, has found the same tendency towards ‘fairness’ that is found in human adults and young children (‘Sharing: Chimp study reveals origins of human fair play’, BBC Online, 15 January).

One of the awkward questions in evolutionary theory is the rationale for altruism, which on the face of it contradicts the principle of selfish interest, at least outside close kinship groups. But since we know it does exist in humans there is considerable interest in establishing whether something akin to it is present in our nearest relatives, in other words whether it  is ancient and innate behaviour or modern and socially acquired.

Unfortunately the chimp test is not entirely conclusive. It only used a small number of chimps, and critics argue that with limited abstract capability the animals may not have understood the test all that well, or just had less interest in tokens than in food, hence skewing the result. One would be tempted to dismiss the study altogether were it not for the fact that other studies have suggested suites of behaviour that might be summed up as ‘ethical’ in wolves and coyotes (‘The Ethical Dog’, Scientific American, 19 March 2010). Vampire bats are known for reciprocal meal-sharing, and a type of awareness which among humans would be called empathy has been observed in many other mammals, from elephants to rats and mice.

In game theory, the tendency to cooperate or defect (cheat) depends on how many times the game is played. In one single iteration or turn the logical strategy is to defect, because there is no opportunity for the other player to ‘retaliate’ tit for tat. The same is true if there are a finite number of iterations, because the end point logically dictates a defection,  which strategy then cascades in reverse all the way back to the beginning. But where the number of iterations is infinite, that is when there is no fixed end-point, the most stable strategy is tit for tat cooperation, where defection is punished and cooperation rewarded.

Professor Martin Nowak of Harvard describes how this direct reciprocity can evolve in a number of ways, most interestingly towards indirect reciprocity, where the individual ‘pays it forward’ without immediate expectation of return (Scientific American, January 2013). This behaviour is most developed in humans, possibly because of language and the evolution of gossip and the consequent emergence of ‘reputation’. However, defection still exists. In Garrett Hardin’s classic 1968 study ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, a group of livestock owners who share common land each allow their animals to overgraze, ultimately leading to disaster for all. This ‘Tragedy’ has been offered up as a reason why socialism, based on sharing, won’t work, and real world examples of the Tragedy of the Commons abound, in particular with regard to natural resources and climate change, where humans share the world but are separately and collectively ruining it.

Nowak goes on to discuss game studies where players had to donate a portion of their money into a pool which was used to ‘save the world’. They didn’t always succeed, but cooperation was more likely to occur where the players felt properly informed, and where their acts of reciprocity were public, rather than private (the reputation factor again).

What these studies overlook is the question of private property, and how this motivates behaviour. The players failed to ‘save the world’ because their common interest in doing so was at odds with their personal interest in preserving their ‘private property’.  Here there was a clear temptation to cheat, hoping that other people would make up for the shortfall. Nowak does not describe any version of the game in which the players have no private money but only a common pool, yet it seems likely that behaviour would be quite different where no interests were in conflict.

Similarly, Hardin’s scenario is not a demonstration of why socialism won’t work because it involves livestock owners, whose interests are separate and conflicting, so even though the land is shared the animals are not, and this private ownership leads to conflicting interests resulting in the destruction of the Commons. Were they socialist farmers who shared ownership of the animals as well as the land, their interests would not be in conflict and therefore overgrazing would be a nonsensical strategy that would help none of them.

On a not unrelated note, and demonstrating that charities do fulfil a useful purpose in promoting awareness even if they don’t ultimately solve problems, Oxfam recently produced a report which pointed out in no uncertain terms what the consequences of private ownership are – massive and destructive inequality (The Cost Of Inequality: How Wealth And Income Extremes Hurt Us All, Oxfam, 2013). As they point out, the 100 richest people could abolish poverty for the world’s poorest four times over, and that during this global recession there has been ‘an explosion in extreme wealth’ (BBC Online, 19 January). As their Chief Executive states, ‘We can no longer pretend that the creation of wealth for a few will inevitably benefit the many – too often the reverse is true’. Quite so, and whether the human response to this is intellectual or animal, scientific or ethical, it would do well to look past Oxfam’s feeble and pious demands for tax reforms towards the one thing that really would be a game-changer – socialist revolution and the abolition of private property.

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