On the origin of sharing and its role in Tory view of a fairer society

David Willetts wants a debate on the evolutionary role of co-operation. Melanie Newman reports

January 8, 2009

Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species is 150 this year, and David Willetts, the Shadow Universities Secretary, has an anniversary wish: that 2009 may see a "flourishing debate" on the political relevance of evolutionary theory "freed from the 19th-century evils of social Darwinism".

In a recent lecture at the London School of Economics, Mr Willetts noted that even Margaret Thatcher had realised that there was "more to life than markets". She turned to religion in a bid to improve community cohesion in a free-market economy. A secular society requires a different solution, and Mr Willetts said that research on game theory and the evolution of co-operation might be it.

"The literature has been around a long time ... but we in the political classes have been very slow to incorporate it into our day-to-day understanding of politics," he said.

"You can't just instruct people from above - 'you must be good'; you have to look at ways in which 'good' or co-operative behaviour will emerge rationally," he said.

"In the past, we've tended to do this by appealing to self-interest."

Game theory, which examines human behaviour in specific social situations or "games", has been used to show how co-operation can be in the individual's best interest and how "equilibria" can be reached, where it is in no one's interest to change the behaviour.

In his speech at the LSE, Mr Willetts said that game theory could help people on the Left and Right "to think about what the available options are". He said: "Socialists ... are forever proposing reforms that are unworkable because they call for behaviour that will never materialise in equilibrium." Conservatives, on the other hand, have erred in the past by concentrating on "sustaining the existing social contract that we lose sight of the opportunity to select a better equilibrium".

But he acknowledged that game theory has its limitations. It assumes that people always operate to maximise the benefits to themselves; in practice, however, they do not always act self-interestedly, for reasons including altruism and irrationality.

"We need to appeal to people's sense of fairness and create the environment in which fair behaviour thrives and is rational," Mr Willetts told Times Higher Education.

The fairness factor

He said that evolutionary theory could explain how this might be done, citing Natural Justice, the 2005 book by Ken Binmore, emeritus professor of economics at University College London.

The work, which Mr Willetts said was "of enormous significance", suggests that ethical rules - "fairness norms" - have evolved in tandem with humans to create stable cultures. In Natural Justice, Professor Binmore writes: "All the societies ... that survived into modern times with a pure hunter-gathering economy had similar social contracts. They tolerate no bosses, and they share on a very egalitarian basis." The fairness and efficiency of these "contracts" ensured the survival of the societies using them.

The book refers to vampire bats, which share on a reciprocal basis.

Mr Willetts believes that this sense of reciprocity - that if someone commits to doing something as part of a reciprocal exchange they are more likely to complete the task - is of great importance. "Tuition fees have created a sense of reciprocal exchange; students are more interested in what they're getting for their money," he said. "That's sometimes described as consumerism: in fact it's the matter of exchange becoming more explicit."

Mr Willetts said he was also attracted to Professor Binmore's theory of an evolved "deep-seated sense of fairness" in people. "If people don't think that what's being offered is fair, they will behave in ways that may appear irrational."

In an essay that summarises the book's message, Professor Binmore concludes: "I hope that the scientific study of how societies really work will eventually make the world a better place ... by clarifying what kind of reforms are compatible with human nature and which are doomed to fail because they aren't."

Not everyone is as taken by Professor Binmore's argument as Mr Willetts. One academic who isn't wholly convinced is John Dupre, professor of sociology and philosophy at the University of Exeter. "I'm very critical of the standard ways of applying Darwinian ideas to human nature. Most of what goes on under the evolutionary psychology banner is based on antiquated biology."

Environmental variables

Evolutionary psychologists work on the premise that humans evolved by genetic changes over millennia to adapt to Stone Age conditions and have barely changed since then, Professor Dupre said.

"The genome is constantly responding to the environment," he said. "Information flows into the genes from the womb, the family, the school and out again, and we can study how these environments affect human development."

Professor Binmore, he suggested, was still working on the basis that "human nature" involved a fixed genetic blueprint that was separable from its environment.

Although Mr Willetts acknowledged Professor Dupre's argument, he took from Professor Binmore's work a clear validation of the traditional Tory belief in institutions.

"Institutions are places where co-operative strategies become rational and frequent interaction leads to direct reciprocal exchanges," he said.

Mr Willetts is also interested in the new(ish) discipline of "neuro-economics", which studies brain activity during decision-making. In a famous experiment researchers showed brain parts associated with disgust "lighting up" when game participants were offered a low share of a pot of free cash. "This could explain which bit of the brain we need to disable temporarily so that you'll gratefully accept the low offer," Mr Willetts said.

If he has one major concern, it is about the lack of work on the application of the theories. "With quite a lot of this academic research, you wish that equal sophistication had been applied to what consequences might follow from the discovery as were applied in the process of discovery."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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