Morals and the Free Society: 6a. Addendum on Cultural Group Selection

Apropos of Hayek’s claim that the mores needed to sustain the extended order (namely, several property and personal responsibility) evolved by a process of cultural group selection, I want to add a note about the origin of the prosocial attitudes (or values, behaviors, etc) needed to support the operation of the free market. To return to part 6 (on Hayek), click here. To advance to the next chunk of the main argument, click here. The complete essay is posted here.

Bowles and Gintis, in A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution (2011), provide a helpful chart of the different theories of how prosocial behavior might have evolved (page 53). The main division is between some form of genetic evolution and cultural evolution. Genetic evolutionary theories basically depend either on some sort of kin selection mechanism (organisms are benevolent toward family members because they share their genes) or on group selection (prosocial traits like honesty spread because groups of honest individuals out-compete groups of dishonest individuals). Cultural evolutionary theories generally depend on some sort of mechanism of reciprocity, either direct (tit-for-tat) or indirect (benefits of having a good reputation).

None of these provides a good explanation of how the sort of virtuous behavior that brings the free market into existence could have evolved, especially in large scale societies. Genetic theories based on kin selection won’t work because market transactions are often impersonal and even anonymous. Group selection theories could avoid this problem, but apparently they have stiff requirements to operate: namely, group selection pressure must be intense, within-group variance must be small, and between-group variance must be large. This last requirement is particularly troublesome. Human beings just don’t differ genetically very much from group to group, for instance between neighboring communities of hunter-gatherers. If not, then a simple genetic group selection model cannot explain the evolution of prosocial traits.

On the cultural side, direct reciprocity (tit-for-tat) requires a history of transactions and the prospect of future transactions. But the kind of honesty (say) that we need has to appear—and is observed to appear—in one-shot transactions. As for indirect reciprocity in the form of reputation, both mathematical modeling and empirical observation seem to show that the benefit of a good reputation falls dramatically with increasing group size. In a society of more than a few hundred people, the benefit of having a good reputation does not exceed its cost. This makes sense: in a large scale society, prospective business associates are less likely to know each other or to have associates in common. Anonymity grows as population grows.

Some theorists attempt to elude these difficulties by positing that prosocial behavior is the result of a collective “big mistake”: prosociality did in fact evolve through kin selection, say, or from reciprocity, where these were appropriate in hunter-gather bands, and today they continue to operate in our large-scale societies even though they are actually maladaptive for individuals in large-scale societies. We are honest with strangers, in other words, because we mistakenly treat them like family members or like people with whom a good reputation could bring substantial benefits. We do this because in our primeval past, living in small bands, it was in fact true that most of the people we encountered were genetically related to us or could benefit us through our good reputation or both. So we never learned to be discriminating: we respond to everybody in ways appropriate to family members or to members of tiny communities. But this “big mistake” hypothesis also fails. It is not true that everybody our hunter-gatherer ancestors encountered was kin or a member of their own community, or that there were no anonymous encounters. It is also not true that we do not discriminate between family/in-group members and other people with respect to these behaviors. Moreover, if such mechanisms explain prosocial behavior in humans, why don’t nonhuman primates exhibit such prosocial behaviors?

These considerations suggest that cultural group selection, along the lines Hayek suggested in The Fatal Conceit, might best explain the emergence and maintenance of free market-supporting prosociality. Being cultural, the process can explain why people behave prosocially toward people who are not close kin. And being a process of group selection, it can explain why people behave prosocially in anonymous, one-shot interactions, not just in situations where they can expect their actions to be eventually somehow reciprocated. Finally, being cultural, it can account for the fact the different cultures exhibit prosocial behavior in different domains (food sharing versus warfare versus barn-building versus respect for property, etc.) and in different amounts ranging from very little outside the immediate family to levels capable of sustaining social organizations encompassing millions of people.

As far as I have been able to determine, the leading theorist of cultural group selection is the anthropologist Joseph Henrich. The best source for his theory that I have found so far is his 2004 paper, “Cultural Group Selection, Coevolutionary Processes, and Large-Scale Cooperation.” I also recommend his new book, The Secret of Our Success, which situates his cultural group selection theory in a grand, mind-bending conception of the human species as a fundamentally cultural species, so much so that our cultural achievements have permanently altered our genetic constitution in profound and ubiquitous ways. Indeed, he argues that cultural evolution is now the main driver of human genetic evolution (page 316).

However that may be, his cultural group selection theory can be put briefly as follows. As noted above, for group selection to work, variation must be large between groups but small within groups, and intergroup competition must be strong. The first point is addressed by cultural learning. We have a strong tendency to adopt the beliefs, strategies, habits, practices, etc. that predominate among those around us. That is, human beings have a way of assuming that what the majority does is right, or is at least a safe bet. We also prefer to learn from prestigious others; that is, people who are conspicuously successful or capable or who are shown deference by others. These mechanisms work to reduce variation within communities, as people copy each other’s behavior and that of prestigious people. They are driven by a perfectly general, self-interested need for information: it is usually more efficient to learn from others than to try to reinvent the wheel. But, being a general mode of cultural learning, we apply it fairly indiscriminately. That is, we apply it to learn all manner of things without necessarily scrutinizing them for their rationality or sensibility. After all, scrutinizing the wheel may be less arduous than inventing it, but it is still an often needless effort. Thus, cultural practices can come to differ widely between societies, as the members of each society copy each other even with regard to incidental details and relatively arbitrary practices.

Now, cooperation can emerge when a society adopts it as a cultural practice through the mechanisms just described. Coordinated activity is obviously in people’s self-interest, and cooperative activity—meaning activity where individuals might do better as free riders than as cooperators—might emerge from that. Of course, cooperative activity is not in people’s economic self-interest. Nevertheless, a minimum amount of cooperation might be sustained this way, if the cost of cooperation is sufficiently low and the impulse to learn by uncritically copying others is sufficiently strong. However, the cost of cooperation will often not be low, and people cannot be expected in general to be very uncritical. Therefore, for serious cooperative activity to be sustained requires an additional mechanism. Henrich actually suggests two. First is punishment. If people come to regard cooperative activity as a norm—i.e., as what should be done—with violators liable to punishment, and if people thereby acquire a penchant for punishing norm violators, then the costs of violating cooperative norms can be significantly increased, to the point where cooperation becomes economically rational for self-interested agents. In such a case, cooperative activities can become stable norms in a society.

(As a side note, there still remains the problem of why people won’t free ride on the duty of punishment. Henrich has a clever way of addressing this, to the effect that the duty of punishment is only second-order cooperation: it only comes into play when there are first-order violations, so the problem is reduced because it can arise but rarely. Next, the problem of why people won’t free ride on the duty of punishing punishment evaders [i.e., second-order violators] is in turn a matter of third-order cooperation, and so the problem is progressively reduced until the copying impulse is sufficient to handle it.)

The second additional mechanism is that when a certain practice comes to be regarded as a norm, people become self-policing with regard to it. People tend to internalize group norms, to find conforming with them intrinsically rewarding and violation aversive. Our tendency to do this might result from the institution of punishment, since internalizing a norm is an effective way of following it and thus avoiding punishment and being above suspicion. But however it arose, it seems to be a psychological fact. And obviously it also helps stabilize social norms.

Thus, the phenomenon of cultural learning together with a penchant for punishing norm violators and for internalizing norms can explain how norms can arise and become stable in a society. I have spoken of cooperative norms, but notice that the mechanism doesn’t require this. Any norms, from sexual or food taboos to clothing styles can arise and be maintained this way. But it’s cooperative norms we’re interested in. Why might they tend to emerge, especially considering that from the standpoint of economic rationality, individuals have reason not to embrace them? Here the answer is group selection. If different social groups have substantially different norms, and if these groups are in direct competition, then the groups that win the competitions will proliferate, and with them their norms. So, if certain norms help their groups to win group competitions, those norms will tend to spread. Cooperative norms do help groups to thrive as groups—that is just their raison d’être—so wherever there is group competition, cooperative norms should appear. One obvious form of group competition is warfare, but Henrich emphasizes that it is not the only one. One group can also succeed while another fails (a) by surviving shocks better (floods, famines, droughts, plagues etc.), (b) by attracting members to emigrate from the latter to the former, (c) by inspiring the latter to adopt its norms in imitation of it, or (d) simply by prospering and reproducing better. (For a persuasive mathematical model showing that cooperative norms can evolve through intergroup competition, concentrating on warfare, see Bowles 2006.)

Thus, the theory in essence is that human cultural learning reduces variability within groups and raises it between groups, and with a little help from our penchant for punishment, it can also lead to the formation and maintenance of strong norms of behavior, even norms that are not particularly in the self-interest of the individuals who embrace them. And with that as a basis, intergroup competition favors the survival of groups with cooperative norms, and thus favors the survival of cooperative norms.

The similarity with Hayek’s theory is obvious. Henrich’s theory is more detailed with regard to the formation of social norms, and is supported by mathematical modeling and by a wealth of empirical evidence. But both agree that the process is mainly cultural, not genetic; that it depends on group selection, not individual selection; and that the process is blind: cooperative norms need not have been—and almost certainly weren’t—invented deliberately, for the sake of succeeding in intergroup competition or for any other purpose.

So Hayek stands, if not necessarily vindicated, at least as ahead of his time. And I find that this is generally recognized. The leading theorists all give Hayek credit (Wilson 2002, 240 n. 2; Bowles and Gintis 2011, 111; Henrich 2004, 21 n. 12; Henrich 2016, 196, 354 n.2; Norenzayan at al. 2016, 5).

Of course, the problems I raised in the paper are still hanging around. They were, basically, (1) that we see “failed societies” today (for instance, many Latin American economies since independence) that haven’t disappeared, and (2) that the institutions that seem to matter most for prosperity (such as mores of honesty, trustworthiness, and respect for others—and, interestingly, individualism [see Gorodnichenko and Roland 2010 and 2011]) do not seem to change very quickly or easily (Putnam 1993; Grosjean 2011). As Henrich and his colleagues would be quick to acknowledge, cultural group selection theory is in its infancy. However, I am coming to think it is essential to understanding the emergence of cooperative institutions, especially in large scale societies.

Works Cited

Bowles, Samuel. 2006. “Group Competition, Reproductive Leveling, and the Evolution of Human Altruism.” Science, 314: 1569–1572.

Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. 2011. A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton University Press.

Gorodnichenko, Yuriy and Gerard Roland. 2010. “Culture, Institutions, and the Wealth of Nations.” NBER Working Paper 16368.

———. 2011. “Which Dimensions of Culture Matter for Long Run Growth?” American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings, 101: 492–498.

Grosjean, Pauline. 2011. “The Weight of History on European Cultural Integration: A Gravity Approach.” American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings, 101: 504–508.

Hayek, F. A. 1988. The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. Edited by W. W. Bartley III. University of Chicago Press.

Henrich, Joseph. 2004. “Cultural Group Selection, Coevolutionary Processes, and Large-Scale Cooperation.” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 53: 3–35.

———. 2016. The Secret of Our Success. Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara, Azim F. Shariff, Will M. Gervais, Aiyana K. Willard, Rita A. McNamara, Edward Slingerland, and Joseph Henrich. 2016. “The Cultural Evolution of Prosocial Religions.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 39: 1–65.

Putnam, Robert D. 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press.

Wilson, David Sloan. 2002. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. University of Chicago Press.


5 thoughts on “Morals and the Free Society: 6a. Addendum on Cultural Group Selection

  1. Pingback: Morals and the Free Society: 6. Hayek | Policy of Truth

  2. Pingback: BC’s weekend reads | Notes On Liberty

  3. I have a naive, frankly ignorant question about the entire enterprise of providing an evolutionary account of prosocial behavior: given how speculative it’s bound to be (or so it seems to me), why is it important to provide one at all? Why isn’t it sufficient, for purposes of normative theory, to note that we are capable of prosocial behavior, to note that we’ve somehow evolved to be capable of it, and to leave things at that?

    The evolutionary explanation enterprise seems to me to have a strong and a weak version. The strong version says that an evolutionary explanation of prosocial behavior is an adequacy condition for normative theorizing: if you don’t provide one, your normative theory is radically incomplete. The weak version says that an evolutionary explanation gives your normative theory extra theoretical mileage it would have without such an explanation: providing one yields big theoretical dividends. I don’t see why either the strong or the weak version should be true. Put simply, why do we need a just-so story about how cooperative norms could have evolved if we know that they somehow have–especially if the just-story is likely to be that, i.e., a story?


    • The neo-Aristotelian eudaimonist approach I take to ethics says that fundamental values should be derived from human nature; specifically, from our characteristic human functions. So my approach, more than most, requires that we have sound knowledge of human nature. I’m afraid this means that a full development of my approach is a long way off! The main place to look for sound knowledge of human nature, surely, is the social sciences, and they are in a primitive state—though I am truly impressed with the swiftness of their advancement in the past 30 years. But whatever their state, we really have no choice but to work with the best we’ve got and hope to hell that people a century from now don’t look upon our present state of knowledge of human nature the way we look upon, say, the behaviorism (and Freudianism—just sayin’) of a century ago.

      Scientific knowledge of human nature, as opposed to what everybody knows from everyday observation, is important because what “everybody knows” doesn’t actually amount to much. Think of classic controversies, such as: nature vs. nurture; whether everybody is really always selfish (psychological egoism); whether human nature is fundamentally good or evil; whether people are naturally hostile to other races and ethnolinguistic groups or “you’ve got to be taught” racial animosity; whether society is a corrupting influence on the “noble savage” or civilization is all that keeps us from barbarism; whether the traditional family is somehow natural or an arbitrary social construction; whether pleasure is the ultimate good or the ultimate enemy; whether history is mainly made by heroic individuals or by collective cultural forces; and so forth. These controversies are “classic” just because everyday experience has not been sufficient to settle them. I believe they have all been more or less settled at this point, however—or we’re getting there—and it is the advance of scientific knowledge that has brought this about. (The answers aren’t always simple. Also, I don’t mean to suggest that controversy about them has disappeared, even from the scientific community. Also—final caveat—I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t have more to learn about them, including things that would cause us to revise current understanding.)

      In this regard, look at Hayek’s theory of the cultural evolution of moral principles. He is saying that the principles of personal responsibility and respect for individuals are relatively new, cultural constructions that evolved because they facilitate large-scale cooperative social systems, whereas the principles of social solidarity and altruism are old, genetically evolved instincts that promoted the success of very small groups, and that the two sets of principles are not compatible in that each causes harm when applied in the other’s domain. Therefore, we must learn to keep them separate and especially not to think of the more primitive solidarity and altruism as universal moral principles. If true, this is obviously important. But he did not get these ideas by contemplating his everyday experience, and I don’t think he could have gotten them that way. Rather, he got them by reflecting on economic theory. What I’m doing in this paper is similar: using Transaction Costs Economics to derive some specific proposals about social morality (though I’m mainly interested in promoting this research program than in actually deriving substantive normative principles, obviously). A recent book that pursues the same strategy is David Rose’s The Moral Foundation of Economic Behavior.

      Or again, think about the idea of pro-group traits that evolved by group selection. If this idea is true, then it implies there are real group-functional traits in human nature. This would mean that pro-group norms and impulses aren’t unnatural, which changes the status we attribute to prosocial norms. Again, is group selection genetic or cultural? And if cultural, what does this say about cultural traits and norms? The Hayekian model seems to imply that we should regard ourselves as to some extent creatures of culture—culture being a system that evolves according to its own principles, without much or any human planning—and our cultural acquisitions (for example, an internalized norm that it is important for me to discharge my debts or marry the mother of my children or care for my aged parents) as part of our nature. All this would substantially change the range and status of the natural functions on which we base a neo-Aristotelian account of virtue.

      So I don’t think we can just say, “well, obviously we have prosocial impulses,” and go on from there to do ethics. The specifics matter, for both normative and meta-ethics. And the specifics should be discerned by disciplined formal research, to the extent possible. I mean, what alternative is there for learning such things? I am less disturbed than you by the precariousness of scientific knowledge claims. Pace Kuhn, science is mostly cumulative. (On this, a brilliant paper I’d love to discuss is John Worrall’s “Structural Realism: The Best of Both Worlds?”) And anyway, if we stumble, we stumble. There’s no help for it. Knowledge of the contingent world is uncertain, even in philosophy.


  4. Pingback: Morals and the Free Society: 10. Aristotelianism—Economic Analysis Can Reveal Natural, Social Human Functions | Policy of Truth

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