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Has punishment played a role in the evolution of cooperation? A critical review

Abstract

In the past decade, experiments on altruistic punishment have played a central role in the study of the evolution of cooperation. By showing that people are ready to incur a cost to punish cheaters and that punishment help to stabilise cooperation, these experiments have greatly contributed to the rise of group selection theory. However, despite its experimental robustness, it is not clear whether altruistic punishment really exists. Here, I review the anthropological literature and show that hunter-gatherers rarely punish cheaters. Instead, they avoid dealing with them and switch to other partners. I suggest that these data are better explained by individual selection, and in particular by partner choice models, in which individuals are in competition to be recruited by cooperative partners. I discuss two apparent problems for partner choice theories: large-scale cooperation and punishments in economic games. I suggest that rather than favouring group selection theory, these two phenomena provide evidence in favour of individual selection: (1) people produce large-scale cooperation through institutions in which punishment is not altruistic but rewarded on an individual basis; (2) punishment in experimental games can be explained without altruism and is indeed often better explained by individual interests.

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Notes

  1. This theory raises the problem of second-order punishment (some individuals may free-ride the cost of punishment by contributing to the common good but refusing to punish those who do not cooperate). Boyd et al. have proposed a solution (Boyd et al. 2003). We will see in Sect. 2.2 that this solution is empirically implausible.

  2. Among the Inuits, as a double safeguard against blood revenge on the executioner, close kinsmen may themselves be called upon to carry out the community will (Hoebel, 1954).

  3. These associations are widespread in countries where access to credit is difficult. They are made up of individuals who agree to make regular contribution to a fund that is given, in whole or in part, to each contributor in rotation.

  4. Group selection supporters also claim that group selection is necessary to explain the emergence of large-scale institutions (and not only their stabilization through punishment). Good institutions would flourish and out-compete bad institutions. However, common pool resources are just the cases that contradict this point. Indeed, as Ostrom shows, each institution with its rules, its symbols, its participants, is precisely adapted to its environment. It cannot travel easily and replace another institution. Moreover, empirical studies clearly show that institutions do not evolve by mutation and selection but rather by adjustment and conflict resolution.

    When appropriators design at least some of their own rules (design principle 3), they can learn from experience to craft enforceable rather than unenforceable rules. This means paying attention to the costs of monitoring and enforcing, as well as the benefits that accrue to those who monitor and enforce the rules. (p. 96).

  5. The same analysis can be used for the Prisoners’ Dilemma (Dreber et al. 2008; Wu et al. 2009). In each round, participants chose between cooperating, defecting, or punishing the other participant. Here punishment is not altruistic, since individuals are directly involved in the interactions and may benefit considerably from threatening their partners. By punishing, they show their partner that they are not going to allow themselves to be exploited in the following rounds. Again, this behaviour may have been adaptive in the ancestral environment, where it was not uncommon to interact again and again with the same individuals.

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Baumard, N. Has punishment played a role in the evolution of cooperation? A critical review. Mind Soc 9, 171–192 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11299-010-0079-9

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Keywords

  • Punishment
  • Group selection
  • Partner choice
  • Hunter-gatherers
  • Institutions
  • Behavioural experiments