Pragma Synesi – interesting bits

Compendium of interesting bits I come across, with an occasional IMHO

Altruistic punishment

Interesting blog found on the web:

Altruistic Punishment Seen As Explanation For Mass Political Behaviors

UC Davis political scientist James Fowler mathematically models altruistic punishment.

A new UC Davis study about the origin of cooperation may shed light on why nations punish other countries for human rights violations or why people sanction those who do not vote.

Political scientist James Fowler has created a mathematical model of human behavior that suggests that “moralists” who voluntarily pay a cost to punish “misbehavers” can come to dominate a population and ensure cooperation among its members.

“This may help explain mass political behaviors like voting,” Fowler said. “When individuals say, ‘It doesn’t really matter if I vote,’ others — programmed genetically or by social norms — may seek to punish them, even though it means a self-sacrifice.”

He believes that humans may have physically or developmentally evolved to altruistic punishment. Previous studies found that “acting the moralist” stimulates the reward center in the brain.

Some researchers have suggested that cooperation may make sense in a society with altruistic punishers — essentially, moralists who are willing to pay a personal cost to punish free-riders.

Fowler said his theory can also be used to explain some behaviors in international politics. For instance, the U.S. advocacy for human rights in China has continued for years, despite financial incentives to ignore them. “Our security risks from China’s human rights abuses are tenuous at best, but we seem to be engaging in altruistic punishment anyway,” Fowler said.

The United States government is willing to have both political and economic losses from its stance because of the stable international system that has evolved so that it is dominated by the “moralists,” Fowler says.

Fowler’s mathematical model simulates interacting behaviors in a society over time. He found altruistic punishers can enter a population of cooperators and non-cooperators and change the dynamics of the group.

Under certain conditions, altruistic punishment is so beneficial to the population that it will come to dominate the behavior of the group and keep non-cooperators at bay.

Fowler’s article, “Altruistic punishment and the origin of cooperation,” was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

You can read the full paper in PDF format.

The full paper brings up a number of interesting points. One idea is that selection for altruistic punishment could be enhanced if the punishers punish not just violators of rules for cooperation but also if the punishers punish anyone who does not participate in doling out punishment. Make the punishment severe enough (say death) one can envision how in a small isolated group a small number of altruistic punishers could purge many non-punishers and violators.

The urge to dole out altruistic punishment must have a genetic basis. When germ line genetic engineering (i.e. genetic engineering done on eggs, sperm, and embryos) becomes feasible one of my fears is that key genetically controlled qualities of human nature will be modified by parents and governments in ways that will threaten civilization. Genetic engineering to raise testosterone levels and dominance behavior would have obvious political consequences. But the urge to altruistically punish others is another crucial component of human nature which is going to become more or less strongly felt in future generations as a result of germ line genetic engineering. See my previous posts “Brain Rewards For Carrying Out Altruistic Punishment” and “Altruistic Punishment And Genetic Engineering Of The Mind”.

By Randall Parker at 2005 May 13 10:17 AM  Brain Altruism

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May 6, 2010 - Posted by | behaviour, evolutionary psychology, politics | , ,

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