Turi: Today we are over the moon to be talking to Nicola Raihani Nicola is a British psychologist who is professor of evolution and behavior at university college, London, where she runs the social evolution and behavior lab. A career long interest has been on cooperation and collaboration, almost certainly as a result of growing up amongst six siblings.
We are here to talk with her about her first book, the social instinct, how cooperation shaped the world, which we’ll link to of course, in the show notes. Nichola. It’s a great pleasure to have you with us. Thank you for joining us.
Nichola: Thanks very much for having me on your podcast.
Turi: We are interested to talk to you about cooperation because it’s so critical to the work that we do around opinion and polarization and politics.
Um, democracy itself is a fundamentally cooperative collaborative project. Um, and so what I wanted to do really is to dig in and ask you to help us understand what your work in cooperation can teach us about the ways in which we come together. And the ways obviously in which we also break apart, but where I wanted to start was sort of at the, at the most nano level, um, uh, properly micro, um, that the genes and genomes, you say something lovely, which is that, um, every living thing is composed of genes cooperating with genomes. You say that every multicellular being as a collective, that operates as a whole, rather than a collection of parts in a sense, individuals. Are already collectives. You talk about evolution, inventing the individual. Can you help us understand how, what we think of as the selfish gene in fact comes together into this beautiful collaborative working thing?
Nichola: Sure. Um, so the way I like to think of it is the hue. Imagine yourself just looking at yourself in the mirror and what do you see? And what’s actually really there. So I think for most of us, when we look in the mirror, we see ourselves and we S we see ourselves as a coherent individual. Um, you know, you know, you see yourself as a, as a whole organism standing there looking at you.
And in some sense, that is true. But in fact, you’re not only this coherent individual that you see standing before you, you’re also a collective and you’re a collective that’s made up of genes cooperating within genomes and cells, all working together and all doing their part to generate this higher level. Unit that we call the individual that you call you and may, and every other living multicellular thing on this planet is a feat of cooperation. And that sense, and the big insight, um, of evolutionary biology and the last sort of 50 years or so has been that we can conceive of individuals as being these goal-driven agents. But we also can view all the genes from which were made up as being their own, um, goal-driven entities in some sense. And these entities that have. A desire if you’ll permit any sort of, um, non scientific use of the word, desire, a desire to find their way into subsequent generations and, and to do that, they join forces and they work together and they make this level unit, which. We call the organism or the individual.
Turi: So you’re not going against this fundamental idea of sort of the genes imperative, that selfish imperative of the gene. It’s just really that the idea that the gene understands that to be its most selfish. Um, it needs to collaborate with others. Is that right?
Nichola: So cooperation is often a means by which entities, whether they are gene cells, organisms compete and improve their position in the world. And that’s very much the view that was championed very famously by Richard Dawkins in the eighties with his book, the selfish gene.
Turi: So Nichola moving from the very small back into this level, which we understand as the self, um, you and me and others, this strand that you pick up about individual units working together to better, to better advance their own interests. We can see also at, uh, at an individual level at a group level.
Um, and you trace that back to, um, a key moment in our evolutionary history, which is when we sort of descend from the trees into the Plains. Is that right?
Nichola: So, yeah, so for most of our time on, uh, um, we haven’t habitated, uh, sort of fabric our edge and quite difficult environments. So he, um, the modern worlds in which humans live in and our large scale societies and cities and all these things, which are very familiar to the listeners of this podcast at least are kind of a blink of an eye in terms of, um, human evolution and the, the, the scenarios and the contexts in which we have historically and still do in some societies live on earth.
And our best guess about the environments that humans evolved in, in the sort of formative periods of our evolution is that we. Evolved in the what’s now the East African rift Valley. And it was an environment that was pretty difficult to sort of eat out and existence. And so the, the, the climate would have been quite dry. Um, food was probably quite hard to come by, uh, in the Pleistocene sort of this long period during which humans lived in this, in this area, in Sub-Saharan Africa, we were also surrounded by the full compliment of deadly predators. So we have, we had a difficult. Joe, but in a way we have to find food and, um, eco and existence in this pretty difficult environment. And also we have to avoid somehow becoming food for some of the organisms that might have thought that a human looked like tasty by for lunch. Right. So, um, and it’s, and what are the ways or the primary way?
I should say that we think that humans were able to survive in these incredibly challenging environments is that we were so very co-operative. We, we we’re so, um, good at working together and collaborating to defend ourselves from predators, collaborating to find food, to raise offspring. And it’s really telling, I think that when we look at the other great apes, the ones that are alive now, like the gorillas, Bonobos, chimpanzees, none of them are really as. Co-operative as humans. That’s not to say that they don’t cooperate, but the extent of the cooperation that we see is nowhere near the scale that we see in our own species. And it’s probably no coincidence that when we look at the fossil record of the species that were, that we find in those areas where humans first evolved, we don’t really see any fossil remnants of those other great ape species.
We see those, those environments. You could only survive in those kinds of environments if you were working together. And if you were collaborating and cooperating together and probably those other non-human primate species just wouldn’t have been cooperative enough to have made a living in those environment.
Turi: What are the kinds of differences we see between say a Chimp and a chimps and humans when it comes to collaboration and cooperation.
Nichola: That’s loads of really interesting points of difference. Um, so chimpanzees aren’t just uncooperative. They will help one another. And there’s lots of very elegant experiments showing that chimpanzees will help one another in laboratory tasks to solve a laboratory puzzle. If they need the help of a partner.
Chimpanzees can work together and they can find, uh, a partner to cooperate, then they can solve these kinds of challenges. But some of the differences that we see in say, um, chimpanzees and humans, and the extent of cooperation, enroll things, um, around, for example, spontaneous process reality.
So for example, if you give, um, a human child or even an adult as well, if you get them a resource that they really like, like, say, for example, in children, you get them, you get them, you get them ice creams or stickers or sweeties or something like that. And then you get them a chance to share those with, um, a pair by the time kids are hitting about. Six or seven years of age, they often will want to share those resources with another child, whereas that kind of voluntary sharing of anything, any precious resource, we just don’t really see that in chimpanzees, chimpanzees are basically pretty focused on what, what do, what can I get what’s what’s for me, if I need you to help me, I’ll recruit you, but I’m not going to reward you for helping me.
And I’m not actually that concerned whether you get anything for, from this interaction or not, but I will work with you to achieve a goal, but that’s because I want to achieve something. So that’s kind of like in the book, I say the chimpanzee mindset is me. Whereas the human mindset is way. And I think there is this really fundamental difference that, um, we are just inherently concerned. With the outcomes that our interaction partners get. And that’s what economists sometimes call having an other regarding preference. We care about other people’s wellbeing and other people’s, um, happiness and fairness and things like that. And there’s just no real evidence that these kinds of concerns are felt by our closest living relatives.
Turi: Perhaps two things to ask you about there. One is how much this relates to what people called theory of mind and the capacity to empathize with other people, the capacity to project, the fact of existence in somebody else inside oneself, which is a very human trait and perhaps is a fundamental part of consciousness, um, which I think hasn’t been shown, or at least it’s difficult to, to, to demonstrate another primate species.
But the other is also this other thing, which is that there’s always an element of selfishness here. Isn’t there because, um, You in your book, you talk through the importance of reputation and actually to be considered to be a generous person. Somebody who does share is a pretty good mating strategy. It turns out for humans as well. So it’s as if that selfishness has just been taken to kind of a, a meta level.
Nichola: I think those points have really linked because to have a concern for reputation often involves being able to take the perspective of another individual. And that is one of the hallmarks of theory of mind is the ability to understand that how your behaviors and your. Um, your actions might influence the thoughts and the beliefs that are held by another individual. And you’re right, that there really is no evidence that chimpanzee is, or in fact, any other non-human primate species attempts to strategically manage their reputation. Um, and in fact, this is something that even human children struggle with before they hit the age of about five years old, even kids aren’t that concerned with their reputation.
And it’s kind of obvious to anyone, you know, even if you don’t have kids, but if, especially, if you do have children, they just really don’t care what you think for like quite a long time. You, you can see it and they tell you that habits and things like that. Like they just don’t, they don’t have embarrassment, but at some point they get to the age of about five years old and they start to you start to see that they start to have this kind of concern about, Oh, if I do this. I’ll be embarrassed. So I don’t want to take my clothes off here because someone might see me and that’s embarrassing. Or if I say this, then that I, you know, that will be embarrassing. And so those kinds of self-referential or self-conscious emotions rely fundamentally on the ability to take another person’s perspective and to understand how, how, what you’re doing might influence their thoughts about you and their beliefs about you. And chimpanzees just don’t do that as far as we know.
Turi: I was going to say that as a parent with children who are a little bit older, I’ve also seen with this may, how that desire for social reinforcement can overplay this. The reputation becomes much more important than actual personal desires.
And I think it’s a tricky thing for perhaps adolescents. So yes, it is a, it’s a constant negotiation there. Um, but talking of kids. You flag, um, something which I never really thought of as cooperation, but it’s beautiful because it’s intergenerational, you talk of teaching as profoundly cooperative and also something. Very much that chimps do not do no do Bonobos to orangutans, et cetera, help us understand what that means.
Nichola: Yeah. So I think when we think of teaching, we tend to think as humans, we tend to think of formalized classroom settings, where you have an institutionalized person standing at the front of the teacher, and then you have a bunch of people that needs to be taught in the classroom. And that obviously is one form that teaching takes. But in reality, teaching, if you want to put a definition on what teaching is, it doesn’t have to be restricted to classroom setting. And in fact, um, a functional definition of teaching, which would allow you to look for it in other species that don’t have schools and classrooms and formalized institutions like that is simply any active instruction whose function is. Primarily to help a pupil learn a skill that otherwise wouldn’t learn or to help the people learn a skill more quickly than it would otherwise be able to. So, um, The first example of teaching, that was where it was a really conclusive demonstration came from a species of ant called the 10 minute thorax tandem running. Um, and so in this species, it’s actually really interesting what they, what, how, what the teaching does in a way, um, So 10 with the right sense, we’ll have a nest, but then during the day they leave the nest to forage and they find profitable food patches.
And sometimes they also have to move house. They have to find a new nest site. So you’ve got a few individuals in that species that are, that are like the Scouts and they go off and find the food or the new nest. And then they come back to the colony where there are thousands of other individuals and they have to somehow get the message across, like, where is it?
Where are we going? Where is this place we should all be going to. So one way they can do that. The knowledge about the one way the knowledgeable ants can, can sort of get the rest of the culinary to go, where they ought to go is simply by picking them up and carrying them on their back. And that is actually the fastest way to get individuals where they want to go. So, um, another way they can do it so that they can recruit more knowledgeable individuals that can then. Um, carry, the majority of the individuals to these places, these desired destinations is that they can actually teach a subset of the colony, how to get to the place that they want to get to.
And the way that they do this is not by carrying them on their back because they answered that courage. Actually can’t learn the way probably because they’re carried facing backwards. Um, which is a bit weird. And also I’m also the other reason why they can’t learn it is that it turns out that to learn a route, the ants actually have to walk there themselves and they have to meet a number of excursions on the journey so that they can learn the landmarks on the routes and that they, they then really learn the way to this place that they need to get to.
And that’s exactly what the, the teacher, and instead they allow these, the pupils, if you’d like to walk behind them. And this is why they’re called tandem running aunts, because they run one behind the other, the teacher in front of the people behind, um, And they stopped several times to let the pupil make its little excursions, find out what the landmarks are, find out the way to this place that they’re going to. And once the people has had this experience of being led by the teacher, then they can effectively become a teacher themselves. So there’s basically no evidence in the amps that teaching. Relies on sophisticated cognitive mechanisms. It doesn’t rely on what we’ve already discussed about theory of mind or knowing what the people knows, um, or any of these kinds of quite sophisticated forms of cognition that we think are often used in human, um, teaching examples.
But nevertheless, when we look for it, we see the other organisms have solved these challenges in kind of remarkably similar ways. Turi: That’s a wonderful story. Um, but also is a very nice segue because in certain species like ants or. B. So there are very, very specific roles in a sense, cooperation is built into this superstructure of the hive or the, or the nest I’ll get this wrong, but soldier ants look different from other kinds of ants and bees detain, etc. We don’t quite have that. Humans don’t quite have that, but, um, if we think of ants and bees as super organisms, how far can we go down the road of thinking of humans as super organisms? Nichola: I think so just to back up a little bit, and I think that it is super interesting, this idea of what’s an individual and what’s a collective because we talked about this already, but like when we look in the mirror, we S you know, if you, if I say to you, do you think you’re an individual?
I don’t know, a single person in my social network who would say no. I mean, I think we all have this idea that we are individuals and that, um, something like a herd of wildebeest. Even though it might be a group is not an individual. We think of the individual, we’ll build a beast in that herd as being individuals. And yet when we look at something like a colony of ants or a colony of honeybees, there is a sense in which it makes sense to think of the individual ants or bees as being individuals, but of the colony itself as being a new, higher unit of evolutionary organization and the colony being the individual.
And when you look through that lens, when you consider these, these, um, highly social insects as being what we call super organismal, super organisms, um, what you start to see is that they, these, these colonies have several properties that we see in multicellular bodies like our own. So for example, um, and. Um, colonies, like you’ve mentioned, there are workers that do different jobs. Well, inside our bodies, there are cells that look different and there are cells that do different jobs. And there’s really on a conceptual level. There’s not really that much difference between these kinds of different worker casts in an ant society and the different cell types that we have in our body. Um, when you look at, um, again, if you think about an ant colony or a bee colony, you’ve only got one reproductive individual, that’s the queen. And then you have all the sterile workers whose job is basically to just help the queen reproduce. And in some ways that’s not so dissimilar to the situation that your cells and your body find themselves.
And because you only really have your reproductive cells and your reproductive organs, and most of the cells that make up your body of what we call somatic cells. And they are. Non reproductive. They are not sex cells and they don’t find their way into the next generation. And so I think there are a number of like really nice parallels between if you look at a colony and then look at a multicellular body, you see like lots of really nice examples of where the colony really functions as this kind of super organism.
Turi: I want to take it. I, of course, and the question I’m asking you is if, could we take it one level further up, which is to say, if you look at an ant colony and you have workers and you have warriors and you have Queens, et cetera, and we look at a human society where we have scientists like you and poets and musicians and extroverts and introverts, et cetera, can one think of society as a colony in that sense where all of us have evolved, where our genes have evolved a sort of collective system, which is sort of a higher order than the individual.
Nichola: I think the difficulty with thinking about humans as being. Um, as human groups, as being sort of nascent super organisms is that fundamentally there were too many conflicts of interest between the different individuals that comprise a human group, which basically limits the potential for those, for those individuals to act as a coherent whole. So I’ll just explain why I think that’s the case. So if you take, for example, an ant colony or a bee colony, one of the key things about our culinary like that is that they are highly related. And what that means is that the genes inside the individuals that are, that comprise that colony, uh, very have, have a lot of vested interest in one, another individuals have a vested interest in helping that colony to, um, replicate and to produce new.
Um, offspring and new, new Queens and new workers, the same, isn’t true in humans because we basically aren’t, our groups are typically not made up of highly, highly related, um, groups of individuals and we’re not clonal, or like we see in some species of aphids where the, where the colony really is lots of clonal individuals. And for that reason, Although our groups are highly cooperative. I think it makes more sense to think of what biologists would call the unit of selection. That doesn’t preclude cooperation at a group level or cooperation that results in group benefits. But it just means that it’s not the case that over the entire lifespan and individual’s interests will always align with the interests of his or her group, because that is, that is basically, um, seldom the case in humans. And so yes, sometimes it will be in our interest to do things that benefit our group. And in particular, for example, if you think about between group competition or war, as we might more often call it, we might have a strong incentive in helping our group to do well. Because that our survival is so caught up with, with the, with the success of our group. But once that war what’s that between group composition finishes or once those interests are no longer aligned, then individuals will often continue to pursue their own interests. And so I don’t think it really makes sense to think of humans as being super organismal in the same way that say honeybees are, or, um,
Turi: um, so a couple of things that are for the first, just a quick question, because I know it’s been an huge debate in your community for the last 30, 40 years or longer, which is this idea of group selection and whether it exists and you seem to be coming down against group selection, which was certainly as a theory was considered absolutely wrong until a few years ago, groups, lecture has become slightly more in Vogue. Hasn’t it? Amongst biologists as an idea.
Nichola: Yeah. So this is like a really confusing area for people that, and even for people that are in the field, it’s still quite hard to keep track of. But often people talk about what we call old group selection and new group selection. And the old group selection is, has been completely debunked. With the newer group selection, which is completely accepted and in our field is this idea of multilevel selection. And it’s the idea that evolution kind of principle operate at many different levels.
It can operate at the level of the gene. It can offer it at the level of the cell at the level of the individual or in some cases, probably not that common at the level of the group and for, to determine which level evolution is really acting at, or to try to theoretically determine where we’re going to see evolution acting at which level it helps to think about, um, the degree of conflict that might be occurring between the lower level entities below the level of selection that you’re interested in.
So for example, We think in humans, our cells are all basically more or less identical to each other. And our, and it makes sense to think of ourselves in some ways as being, um, entities, where selection act at a group level. If we consider that if we consider ourselves as being groups of cells and groups of genes, you could, in some ways, make a case to say selection is acting at a group level or what we call the individual really for us, but, and in social insects, in the honeybees and the ants, it probably makes sense to think of selection as acting at the colony level. And that’s the level of organization whereby conflicts within that colony of pretty much, um, absent because of the very, very high relatedness between the members of that colony. For selection to act at the group level, in terms of, if we’re thinking about human groups and groups of individual humans, we would want to be able to show that there was basically negligible conflict between individuals in that group. And that assumption is just not very often met our own species
Turi: to put it mildly, um, you know, abs. Absolutely. And that’s, I think where I wanted to take you next, which is, um, what you frame you frame you frame cooperation as both are sort of our USP, our killer feature, but killer in two senses, it’s suppose it’s both the cause of our success and also the great threat to it. Because as you say, we compete, we, we cooperate to compete and we compete amongst ourselves.
Nichola: Yeah. So, I mean, I think it’s important to just note that I’m not can a case here that people cooperate because they’re aware of the benefits of cooperation or that when people cooperate in their mind, they have this calculating other motive that’s hidden and it’s a motive to compete like this isn’t at all the argument, but the argument is more like on an evolutionary level organisms that have cooperated, um, in the past have tended to out-compete those who didn’t cooperate in some contexts.
And so one of the, the key things, and the point you make about cooperation is the reason why we are so successful as a species, but it could also be our biggest downfall is that cooperation. Often has victims. And one really nice example of this that I found it was, it was a newspaper article about Uber drivers arriving at an airport. And, um, how the Uber drivers basically would arrive at the airport and switch off the app when they got there, because this would generate search pricing. And then when all the passengers came off the plane and they start looking for an Uber, then they will basically have to pay a slightly higher price to get taken to that destination. And in some senses, how do you view that as an example of cooperation or not? It really depends on the lens that you look through because on the one hand. The Uber drivers have to cooperate with each other to agree, to switch off the app, to agree, to not switch it back on again, before they’ve generated the search pricing.
So there is cooperation at one level, but there is, it’s also very obviously to the detriment of another set of people, which is the passengers. He will have to pay the search pricing. And I think that that’s maybe one of the counterintuitive things about cooperation is that it’s not always, uh, it’s not always something which is only upsides. Like some cooperation is, is something is a means by which individuals improve their position in the world quite often. And because that improvement is relative, it will often be the case that cooperation will. Generate costs to some other individuals or to some of the cells. If you’re thinking about cooperation inside your body and things like that.
Turi: So that’s this fundamental thing. If all, if we were truly a colony and we could think of human beings as a super organism in that sense, then all of us would be working all the time for the collective. Good of all. It turns out that doesn’t play. And so we’re constantly competing at different levels. Sometimes it’s national, you know, with the third goes off to war against a comrade, which French King it is, and that two nations cashing at each other. Sometimes it’s internal to society, the rich screwing, the poor or the poor, trying to topple the rich. Um, and sometimes it’s set up smaller level. You talk of corruption or nepotism as elements of, of, of, of cooperation.
If I give a job to my cousin, rather than the better qualified person whom I don’t know I’m collaborating, but I’m collaborating, it’s a family at a kinship level. So yes, it’s this idea of competing in groups, competing collaborative levels, um, which is perhaps also something that you’ve just flagged as you describe the ways in which evolution could work at her. Gene level at a cell level at an individual level, et cetera, these different levels fighting each other. Um, I’d like to take this to talk about incense, the politics of cooperation, because we’ve spoken about the biology, where it comes from the fact that our genes collaborate with each other. We spoken about individuals collaborating to hunt, to teach, to, um, to protect themselves as a group.
But there’s also a fascinating sort of story to tell about the history of collaboration in societies and where you started is at the profoundly egalitarian nomad level of social organization. And it takes a very Mandering and messy course thereafter. Can you walk us through the history of societal level collaboration in that way?
Nichola: So there’s it, this is obviously like painting a picture and really broad brushstrokes. Um, but if we think about how humans evolved and how our society’s evolved, what we know about the last common ancestor with humans and chimpanzees is that. It probably was more Chimp like than human, like, and chimpanzee societies are pretty despotism. So you have an alpha male who, uh, effectively clings on to that position for as long as he possibly can. He will have halo, Saya, most of the offspring, not all of the offspring, but most of the offspring and the grip. And it’s a pretty sort of grim and tenuous existence to be the alpha male in a chimpanzee society.
And often quite, um, grizzly and barbaric, so we’re probably the earliest humans. We’re more likely to have that kind of despotic, um, social structure then than what came, what followed, um, next, but basically, um, what happened with humans is that we, as I said, we evolved in these really, really difficult environments where, where basically, um, we’d come down from, we, we we’d gone from being eight that swung through the trees to being eight that walked on the ground and walked on two feet. And that basically meant these changes in how we lived, meant that we had. We were more able to also change the structure of our hierarchy. So one sort of very, uh, Glip way of putting anyways, that if you’re, if you’re walking on two feet, your hands are free to carry things and your hands are free potentially to throw things, throw projectiles, not just that things that you might want to eat or practices, but also other members of your group.
And essentially for humans, power and dominance became tied up, not just in our muscles and our abroad and how able we were to offend other individuals often to retain a dominant position through strength alone, but in our social networks. So once you can, once you have weaponry and, uh, individuals can throw, uh, can throw projectiles the teacher, there were there weren’t, they’re living together in these, in these more cooperative groups. Anyway. There’s a shift that takes place, which means that it’s no longer tenable for a dominant individual to hold on to that position through brute force alone. And there’s this transition to egalitarian as it is what the anthropologist Christopher Bowman is called the reverse dominance hierarchy, where essentially that kind of big shot throwing your weight around behavior became proscribed and, um, aggressively prescribed in some cases.
Essentially Peter Turchin who is, um, an evolutionary anthropologist, talks about the Zed shape, pattern of egalitarian aneurysm in human societies. Where if we think about the last common ancestor with humans and chimpanzees, it probably was more despotic. Then, then, then human forages societies, human wish, which are actually quite egalitarian. If you measure a Galatarian aneurysm in terms of how many offspring. Uh, sired by, um, the average male in the group. Is there a big disparity in the number of offspring that are sighted or if they’re relatively equal?
Turi: And just to open that up, just to make, just to be clear that we understand why is that in non-egalitarian societies, one alpha will sire almost all the children and an egalitarian societies. All the men have a chance to reproduce.
Nichola: Yeah. I mean, that’s kind of the definition in a way of likeegalitariansim, if you’re looking at societies before you really have things like possessions and money and all these markers of w what we have of the galitary in isn’t today. It got a terrorism would have been measured in terms of reproductive. That’s how that is the definition in some ways it’s reproductive success. So then you have the two relative egalitarianisms, but then we swing wildly back again to despotism with the advent of agriculture and, um, with the, with as humans settled down essentially and stopped wandering around and became settled and started farming, it became. Difficult for individuals to upstairs and leave.
If they found themselves in a situation where they were, they were not being, you know, where things weren’t good for them, where they were not getting a good share of resources and a good share of reproductive success. And that, that, that transition from being nomadic where you can quite easily walk away from a bad situation and find a better one to being sedentary, which occurred co occurred roughly with the agricultural revolution also is linked to them, the rise of sort of inequality again in human societies. And that’s when you start seeing massive disparity and reproductive success among males in human societies. Again,
Turi: We moved from despotic to egalitarian and back through to despotic again with the farming moment, where does it go from there? Where does the Zed move from there? Nichola: So I guess nowadays, even though it probably sounds a bit strange to say that we live in more egalitarian societies. I mean, we, we, we do live in much more authoritarian societies than many humans did at the Dawn of the agricultural revolution. And I think that probably does come as a bit of a surprise in the sense that for many of us we see in the news and even in our personal experience, we see that. Stories of rising inequality. We may, you know, have experienced that ourselves. Um, but again, it comes back to this idea of how do we define egalitarianisms to some extent. Um, and when we look at the measure that we’ve, that we’ve been using throughout this kind of piece on thinking about human society, when we look at gala Tyrion, they got a tire aneurysm as measured through differential reproductive success.
Then what we see is that actually we’re now quite far from that the agricultural model of, you know, Unix and emperor is fathering thousands of children and some people really having known. And, um, for the most part that reproductive, the differential reproductive success is quite small in humans, in most human societies now. And, um, yeah, I think. It’s quite interesting to think about like economic egalitarianisms versus, uh, versus measures of reproductive success. Because I think on the one hand, you know, by that, by the evolutionary measure, it seems like society is quite egalitarian. And I think a lot of the principles of egalitarianisms that, that w that are present in contemporary furniture societies and would have been present probably throughout our evolution, things like resenting individuals who, um, who aggressively assert dominance, who throw their weight around, who have more than you, um, having an aversion to, uh, inequality, particularly if their inequality has disappeared contagious to you. Like those kinds of preferences, social preferences or cognitive preferences have probably always been there, but they’ve just been. Differentially kind of able to be acted upon throughout these kind of broad shifts in human tests, human history.
Turi: What we haven’t spoken about. Nicola are some of the floor, some of the failures of cooperation, um, and there are two I’d like perhaps to ask you about, um, one is the problem of the freeloader and the other is the problem what’s called the tragedy of the commons. Um, perhaps we could start with the second and I might ask you about an experiment you did, um, involving your sink in, um, in your office.
Nichola: So, yeah, so this experiment is one that, um, I did, uh, quite a few years ago now involving the sink, as you say, in the shed staffroom at the department where I worked at the time Um, essentially if you think about a public good, a public good is a resource that’s available for all individuals that have access to it to use. And often a public good is something that needs to be actively maintained through cooperation. So things like clean air to breathe as a public good or clean water to swimming in a stream or something as a public. Good. And it can be polluted by individuals or organizations that, um, that, you know, want to, for some, for reasons that. Uh, for reasons of expedience, find it easier to act in a self short-term self-interested manner rather than to preserve this public. Good. And another thing that’s a public good in a way is a clean sink and a shad written like tea room in a department. And as anyone who’s ever been in a situation where you share a sink with other individuals like that, it comes as no surprise that often these kinds of public goods are quite difficult to maintain. And even if they, um, even if they start out clean, they can often unravel quite quickly with the presence of what we call free riders or individuals that don’t contribute to maintaining the public good.
Um, and in this situation, we, and this experiment, we basically just wanted to test what the impact of free riding was on the. The state of the public. Good. And so to do that, I just snuck into the department early for a few weeks and manipulated the cleanliness of this shed sink either by cleaning everything that was there and leaving it really pristine, um, at the start of the day, or by adding a variable number of used items to the same, uh, teaspoon or cup and things like that.
And the results are kind of unsurprising, but they offer a proof of principle of this effect that when you start the day with the, with dirty items in the same, more people are likely to add their own couple of dirty carpet, dirty fork or something to the sink during the day. So the presence of free riders in the system. Licenses are the people to free ride in some way. And it prompts this downward spiral of defection whereby even people who might otherwise have been prepared to cooperate by washing up their cup actually, um, are more like, you know, feel licensed to defect because they see evidence of defection there.
And so. This is kind of also the tragedy of the commons in a way it will be, it will be best for it. It would, it would be best for everybody. If we could all agree to cooperate, we would have a nice sync. Everyone presumably prefers the clean sink, but there is an individual temptation to cheat or to Freeride or to defect, uh, by leaving your own item in the scene. And that cost, um, is shared among everybody who has access to that public. Good.
Turi: I had not obviously made that language is of course direct, which is if the problem that the tragedy of the commons, the fact that it’s so very difficult to get everybody to agree to do something, which is very slightly detrimental to them, but very, very positive for them as collect as a collective is actually the problem of free writing at large people.
Often think about it in the context of climate change, who is the first country that’s going to give up on coal, which is the first people who are going to stop taking airplane rides, et cetera, et cetera. It’s tough. It’s super tough. Um, but so. I feel like your answer to the problem of, um, three writers and by extension, the tragedy of the commons is institutions and its rules it’s and the way you describe institutions is very beautiful. They seem to come alive. They seem to be an, an extra moving part in the process of evolution. Tell me how you think of institutions in that sense.
Nichola: So I think if you think about the games of life and often as economists, we think about these kinds of cooperative scenarios as being games in a way. And they actually are called economic games when we studied them in the lab. So something like the sink problem that I just talked about would be a classic public goods game, where the incentives seem to be, um, as to your own personal benefit to defect, to leave your dirty item in the sink. And, um, the, the, the costs of doing that as shared among everybody. And so there’s this personal benefit shared costs, and that can then lead to the scenario that I described, where you get this spiraling defection and the destruction of the public. Good. I think the thing that humans do that I, that no other species has. Is able to do, uh, or has, has the cognition required that would be required to do is to actually change the rules of the games that nature has given us. And so, um, we have a game, we met, we have several games actually that we face in our daily lives.
Yeah. That broadly fair. The incentives of what we call social dilemma, social dilemmas, which has just like the tearoom game that I told you about. It’s like deciding, um, whether it’s pick up your rubbish or throw it in the bin or take it home with you and things like that. We faced so many social dilemmas in our daily lives where the incentives would seem to suggest that the yes they can, if you want to maximize payoffs or to maximize utility. Yeah. As to the fact, even though that actually results in the worst outcome for everybody, and yet. We so often resolve these dilemmas that we’re faced with by changing the actual payoffs of the situation. I checked by adding institutions. Um, and in a way I like to think of institutions as being a bit like icing that you put on a cake. So if the cake is the underlying dilemma, then the institution can change their parents of the dilemma and one institution that we have used to great effect to change the incentives, to cooperate in these dilemmas that we, your face is punishment.
And so quite often, uh, in many scenarios that we face informally and formally, there will be a threat of punishment for failure to cooperate, um, and the threat of punishment that the threat of incurring the cost for failing to cooperate can in principle change the incentives, such that the payoff maximizing option. Becomes actually not to defect, but to cooperate instead. And this is one institution that humans have, um, do use to great effect to encourage cooperation.
Turi: And so when you look at the world today, as we’ve gone through this very, very rapid sort of history of individual cooperation and social cooperation and the systems that we have in place, what for you, should we be focusing on to make sure that we continue to cooperate in good ways? And that defecting from cooperation is, um, is less appealing.
Nichola: I think actually one of the interesting things from. From the book is this idea of interdependence. Um, and it’s this idea that quite often with our interaction partners, we have a stake in their wellbeing, such that it can pay for us to cooperate with them, even if we don’t expect cooperation necessarily in return. And this is a bit of a departure from the classic view of why. Individuals might cooperate, which was often predicated on reciprocity. So, um, tip, tap, I’ll scratch your back. You scratch mine. I’ll cooperate with you on the premise that you’re going to cooperate with me in the future and this kind of bookkeeping account of cooperation, which has been really influential and is important.
But when we think about interdependence, what we see is this shift in emphasis, which is that actually in some cases where interaction partners are interdependent, it can be in their interest to help one another and to, um, cooperate with one another. Even if the partner might never return that favor because the benefit can come from having this shared stake and that partners wellbeing and that partners, um, fitness
Turi: What’s an example?
Nichola: So an example, well, anyone, if you, if you have, if you’re married, for example, and you’re raising children, you’ll be highly interdependent on your spouse to be able to successfully raise the offspring. And you know, it’s in your interest that the spouse is sticks around and is able to do the things that they need to do to help you to raise offspring. Another sort of 20 example that I use in the book is if you imagine that you’re in a boat and the boat Springs, a leak, and then you you’re with you’re with a friend and you both need to work together to bail out the water.
It, it can be in your interest to do things, to help your friend, to continue to bail out water. For example, if you find a chocolate bar in your pocket, it can be directly beneficial to you to share that chocolate bar with the friend, if that helps them to continue bailing out the water, because you’re, you now suddenly have a much stronger stake in that. Being able to do this thing and then their survival essentially. Um, the thing that I think to get back to your question, the reason why I think interdependence is an interesting idea for thinking about where human cooperation is going, is that we are only interdependent in these obvious cases where it’s like, Oh, it’s a friend or a spouse or cases where it’s kind of really obvious that you have a stake in that individual’s wellbeing and survival.
We’re actually, I think now it’s really obvious in this time of, um, pandemic and thinking about vaccines and where vaccines ought to be distributed and whether they should be kept in a, in one country or should they be shared more globally with other countries we’re actually interdependent on a much broader scale than I think we often realize, and our fates are. Often intertwined with the fates of people that we don’t know that we might never meet that might not live in our country. Um, and I think that if there could be a way to engender that sense of interdependence and that sense in which, for example, sending vaccines to other countries, isn’t just, um, an altruistic thing to do. It’s actually a self-interested rational thing to do because we are so interdependent in this situation. Um, I think that, to me seems like one of the biggest interesting areas where we, where we might start to see changes in how we relate to one another and how we think about global cooperation in our species.
Turi: That’s a lovely place to wrap Nicola. I’m hugely grateful and, um, and considerably better informed on the back of this conversation. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.
Nichola: Cool. Thanks Turi. Thanks for having me.