Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What Homo academicus can learn from Pan troglodytes

Hogwarts academicusChimpanzee
Homo academicusPan troglodytes

The December 2007 issue of Philosophy of Science contains a fascinating article with important implications for complex social organizations, including universities:
Chimp babiesGame theory has played a critical role in elucidating the evolutionary origins of social behavior. Sober and Wilson (1999) [Elliott Sober & David Sloan Wilson, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (1999)] model altruism as a prisoner’s dilemma and claim that this model indicates that altruism arose from group selection pressures. Sober and Wilson also suggest that the prisoner’s dilemma model can be used to characterize punishment; hence, punishment too originated from group selection pressures. However, empirical evidence suggests that a group selection model of the origins of altruistic punishment may be insufficient. I argue that examining dominance hierarchies and coalition formation in chimpanzee societies suggests that the origins of altruistic punishment may be best captured by individual selection models. I suggest that this shows the necessity of coupling of game-theoretic models with a conception of what our actual social structure may have been like to best model the origins of our own behavior.
Yasha Rohwer, Hierarchy Maintenance, Coalition Formation, and the Origins of Altruistic Punishment, 74 Philosophy of Science 802-12 (2007) (DOI: 10.1086/525628).

The upshot, as I shall explain, is straightforward. When chimp leaders inflict punishment — which invariably comes at some private cost to them as individuals — they do benefit the group as a whole by enforcing discipline. In imposing that social order, however, those chimp leaders reap substantial private gains. I add this gloss to Yasha Rohwer's work: Within certain human organizations, especially academia, altruistic behavior may need a stronger motivator than group competition. Some forms of altruistic behavior may depend on some mechanism for internalizing at least some measure of private benefit for those who incur the cost of enforcing collective norms.

Click the chimps to read all about it.

Altruistic behavior poses a problem for evolutionary psychology because it requires an individual — whether Pan troglodytes or Homo sapiens — to incur a personal cost in exchange for societal benefit. Sober and Wilson addressed punishment within the larger framework of their treatment of altruism as a prisoner's dilemma. As Rohwer explains:
Pensive chimpPunishment is altruistic not toward the punished, but toward the other members of the group, since the undesirable action of the punished is curtailed. A punisher incurs a loss while other members of the group receive a payoff, presumably giving the group at large an advantage against other groups. Therefore, punishment, understood as a form of altruism, can be modeled as a prisoner’s dilemma as well. Since punishment is a form of altruism, and can be modeled by the same game, Sober and Wilson argue that it evolved by the same mechanism: group selection.
A brief digression on group selection (as understood by Sober and Wilson) is warranted.

Imagine that you are a member of a university faculty — indeed, a law school faculty. And imagine that someone, somewhere in legal academia, is unquestionably the worst law professor in America. Hey, someone has to hold that title. Most law professors have no trouble imagining that the person holding this awful distinction is a member of their own faculty.

O-Ren IshiiWhat makes this hypothetical colleague so awful? At the risk of gross overgeneralization, let's describe her behavior as odiously selfish. To protect what she perceives as her prerogatives, she will stab any colleague in the back, or even in the face. Indeed, she plays so poorly with others that blame for an entire exodus of pleasant and productive colleagues can be laid at her feet.

Uma Thurman in Kill BillEnter the avenger. In a market as competitive as legal academia, the presence of an odiously selfish oaf can cripple a law faculty's search for the best available talent. Punishing odious behavior benefits the faculty as a whole. Even though the effort needed to restore collegiality may cost the avenger, Sober and Wilson's model of altruism predicts that it will happen. Group selection — that is, competitive pressure at the level of schools rather than professors — supplies the needed impetus.

Academic experience suggests otherwise. With respect to free-riding, a milder form of selfish behavior that erodes the faculty's overall well-being in the brutal game of group selection, Jeff Harrison observes that the prevailing norm is one of making nice, knowing better, doing nothing. In its worst manifestations, making nice and doing nothing while knowing better will lead to academic kakistocracy, or rule by Arschloch, the very circumstance under which a law school comes to value the worst professor in the land over the former colleagues she has worked so hard to repel and expel. Collective inaction rather than heroic intervention seems to be the academic norm, for no reason more complicated than the fact that heroic intervention carries a price — a very stiff price. In a professional setting where personal reputation is both fragile and paramount, and where tenure guarantees many iterations of the reputational games we academics play, the cost of altruistic behavior often negates the countervailing power of group competition to spur selfless sacrifice.

Yasha Rohwer's evaluation of altruistic punishment among chimpanzees suggests one possible answer to this dilemma:
Sober and Wilson’s model of the origins of altruistic punishment is plausible, and they are correct to take seriously empirical research on the behavior. However, an analysis of the actual behavior of our closest relative, the chimpanzee, suggests an alternative model. . . . In chimpanzee societies, . . . most altruistic punishments can indeed be made to fit Sober and Wilson’s model. However, an analysis of the social structure suggests that altruistic punishment has the function of keeping the top ranking male, or coalition of males, on top, or preserving the troop-level macrocoalition that disproportionately serves the interests of those on top.
The job of enforcing chimpanzee society's "linear dominance hierarchy" brings substantial benefits. Rohwer quotes Christopher Boehm: “a dominant position leads to better access to food resources, and for the typically promiscuous males, high rank confers better mating opportunities.” According to Jane Goodall, alpha males have the power to “monopolize” a female during estrus. Frans De Waal observed that one alpha male, during his reign, “alone was responsible for about three-quarters of all matings”; excluding less contested episodes of “sexual intercourse with young females . . . his share was almost 100 percent.”

In contrast with strictly altruistic situations, doling out punishment among male chimpanzees delivers substantial rewards to the alpha male:
It is the alpha male who is performing the altruistic punishment, but it is also the alpha male who, in preserving the macrocoalition, benefits the most. It is the alpha male who gets first access to the food in the protected territory. And more importantly, because of his status he has the most mating opportunities with females on the protected territory.

Because the alpha male has the most mating opportunities it is likely that he has sired the majority of the troop’s offspring. So, in preserving the macrocoalition, the alpha male also benefits because his progeny are protected by the coalition from the dangers of the jungle.
Jane Goodall and Jou Jou
Making the chimp-to-human connection: Jane Goodall and Jou Jou
Ultimately, what if anything can academia (and, for that matter, human society at large) learn from studies of altruistic behavior among humanity's next of kin? Rohwer's study does not explain the precise causal relationship between (1) the alpha males' private benefit from enforcing discipline within macrocoalitions of male chimpanzees and (2) their corresponding willingness to protect chimp society as a whole by policing the rules that govern those coalitions. That said, the great extent to which academia experiences selfish behavior, from mild sloth to utterly destructive odiousness, and yet sits idle, seemingly powerless to fight back, suggests that higher education has much to learn from Pan troglodytes.


Blogger Nancy Rapoport said...

Hi, Jim--what always puzzled me was how little courage it would take for a full professor (someone with complete job security) to speak up in the face of bad behavior committed by a peer. Deans can't really do much to discourage bad behavior, because they'll be accused of chilling free speech, retaliating, etc. But peers can do so much, and yet they do so little. Never understood that. But in my new life, post-deaning, I've been enjoying my return to free speech. Happily for me here at UNLV, my peers are delightful people: hard-working, too busy to spend much time grousing behind the scenes, and not likely to develop into little clusters of self-perpetuating insularity. Even in the desert, there's precious little hot air here.

6/13/2008 10:01 AM  

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