Biological Theory

, Volume 10, Issue 2, pp 134–144 | Cite as

On the Free-Rider Identification Problem

  • Ronald J. PlanerEmail author
Original Article


Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis have argued that individual-selection accounts of human cooperation flounder in the face of the free-rider identification problem. Kim Sterelny has responded to this line of argument for group selection, arguing that the free-rider identification problem in fact poses no theoretical difficulty for individual-selection accounts. In this article, I set out to clarify Bowles and Gintis’ argument. As I see matters, the real crux of their argument is this: solving the free-rider identification problem, even in modestly sized social groups, requires that group members are disposed to share social information with one another. The difficulty for individual-selection accounts, according to Bowles and Gintis, is that these accounts have no explanation for why individuals should be disposed to behave in this way. Having clarified their argument, I then turn to Sterelny’s criticism, and argue that Sterelny underestimates the challenge being raised by Bowles and Gintis. More specifically, I argue that it is unclear whether the expected benefits of having a disposition to share social information would have outweighed the expected costs for an individual belonging to a Pleistocene social group. Importantly, this is not to say that I am persuaded by Bowles and Gintis’ argument; on the contrary, what I claim is that more theoretical (and in particular) empirical work is necessary before the issues under discussion can be settled. I formulate some specific questions which I think future research in this area should aim to address.


Communication networks Group selection Human evolution Information sharing Indirect reciprocity Partner choice Reciprocal altruism Social information 



I would like to thank the two anonymous referees for this journal whose excellent feedback greatly improved this article.


  1. Alexander R (1987) Biology and human affairs. University of Washington Press, SeattleGoogle Scholar
  2. Axelrod R, Hamilton W (1981) The evolution of cooperation. Science 211:1390–1396CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baumard N, André J, Sperber D (2013) A mutualistic approach to morality: the evolution of fairness by partner choice. Behav Brain Sci 36:59–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bowles S, Gintis H (2011) A cooperative species: human reciprocity and its evolution. Princeton University Press, PrincetonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Dawkins R (1976) The selfish gene. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  6. Dunbar R (2004) Gossip in evolutionary perspective. Rev Gen Psychol 8:100–110CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dunbar R, Marriott A, Duncan N (1997) Human conversational behavior. Hum Nat Int Bios 8:231–246CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Emler N (1992) The truth about gossip. Soc Psychol Sect Newsl 27:23–37Google Scholar
  9. Emler N (1994) Gossip, reputation and social adaptation. In: Goodman R, Ben-Ze’ev A (eds) Good gossip. University of Kansas Press, Lawrence, pp 119–140Google Scholar
  10. Farley S (2011) Is gossip power? The inverse relationships between gossip, power, and likeability. Eur J Soc Psychol 41:574–579CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Foster E, Rosnow R (2006) Gossip and network relationships. In: Kirkpatrick D, Duck S, Foley M (eds) Relating difficulty: the processes of constructing and managing difficult interaction. Erlbaum, MahwayGoogle Scholar
  12. Guerin B, Miyazaki Y (2006) Analyzing rumors, gossip, and urban legends through their conversational properties. Pscyhol Rec 56:23–34Google Scholar
  13. Hames R, Vickers W (1982) Optimal diet breadth theory as a model to explain variability in Amazonian hunting. Am Ethnol 9:358–378CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Kurland N, Pelled L (2000) Passing the word: toward a model of gossip and power in the workplace. Acad Manag Rev 25:428–438Google Scholar
  15. Marlowe F (2010) The Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  16. Marshall L (1976) The !Kung of Nyae Nyae. Harvard University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Nowak M, Sigmund K (1998) Evolution of indirect reciprocity by image scoring. Nature 393:573–577CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Nowak M, Sigmund K (2005) Evolution of indirect reciprocity. Nature 437:1291–1298CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Ray V (1963) Primitive pragmatists: the Modoc Indians of Northern California. University of Washington Press, SeattleGoogle Scholar
  20. Sperber D (2000) Metarepresentation in an evolutionary perspective. In: Sperber D (ed) Metarepresentations: a multidisciplinary perspective. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 117–137Google Scholar
  21. Sperber D (2001) An evolutionary perspective on testimony and argumentation. Philos Top 29:401–413CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Sterelny K (2012) The evolved apprentice: how evolution made humans unique. MIT Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Sugden R (1986) The economics of rights, co-operation and welfare. Basil Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  24. Tanner A (1978) Divinations and decisions: multiple explanations for Algonkion scapulimancy. In: Schwimmer E (ed) The yearbook of symbolic anthropology. McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal, pp 89–101Google Scholar
  25. Trivers R (1971) The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Q Rev Biol 46:35–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Turner M, Mazur M, Wendel N, Winslow R (2003) Relational ruin or social glue? The joint effect of relationship type and gossip valence on liking, trust, and expertise. Commun Monogr 70:129–141CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Wiessner P (2005) Norm enforcement among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen: a case of strong reciprocity? Hum Nat Int Bios 16:115–145CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Center for Cognitive ScienceRutgers UniversityNew BrunswickUSA

Personalised recommendations