Thursday, 5 January 2012

The evolution of supposedly-altruistic punishment

I am pretty sceptical about many of the proposed applications of cultural group selection. It seems as though most of the features which advocates of cultural group selection propose can be explained more simply in other ways.

For example, the paper entitled The evolution of altruistic punishment explains the origins of human punishment using a model of cultural group selection.

However: there are many individual-level benefits to punishing others - in particlar, punishment is a high-status activity, which increases the punisher's rank at the expense of the rank of the recipient of punishment. Punishing others thus signals high status and improves your reputation - which may produce future benefits.

The finding that some people still expend resources punishing in anonymous one-shot interactions is probably best explained largely by resource-limited cognition - in conjunction with the unnatural nature of such interactions.



  1. It is tempting to restate in another form, Skinner's generalization that punishment, although it might work in the short term, always has undesirable long-term consequences:-
    Punishment is a cultural maladaptation, but not a genetic one. (It exists because it brings out the Lord Justice Jeffreys in all of us).

    Is it possible to push Skinner this far?

  2. I don't buy the whole "punishment is bad" business. I doubt that punishment always has undesirable long-term consequences. It's important to be able to provide prompt negative feedback - and removing carrots just doesn't cut it.

  3. We are talking hard-headedly about how behaviour can be extinguished most effectively, and there is a great deal of it that needs to be extinguished in a relatively short time. One criterion of effectiveness is not provoking a significant aggressive response, which may be directed at the controller or elsewhere. Another is not shaping significant degrees of what has become known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Another is not provoking flight (assuming one wishes to maintain an investment in the person/animal concerned). Falconers were amongst the first behaviorists. Unlike dogs on many occasions, eagles hawks and falcons do not reinforce punishers, quite the opposite. From the earliest written accounts, we know falconers worked by gentleness and eschewed punishment. But like us, they maintained it for each other. The explanation is likely to be that under a range of circumstances, punishing each other is adaptive for our genes. That would be sufficient to explain why it is still here. But is punishment adaptive for memes?

    Punishment is a big problem now. Most of the reaction against environmental action have been response to the punitive controls that are trotted out. In capitalism punishment goes down and up with boom and bust. America as a living memeplex is facing extinction that seems to me to be taking the form of a frenzy of punishment, directed inside and especially outside. It's such a big problem that the rest of the world is struggling to avoid an American armageddon.

    By the way, I still consider the vast majority of what you write to be first rate.