Consciousness Blog 16 February 2014


Classically, altruism and a sense of fairness are reckoned to have evolved among early populations of primates as coping strategies in a group environment. But the exact cognitive mechanisms that might have led to such a development have been a matter of speculation.

Now, using a computer simulation of interactions between individuals, two researchers are suggesting that fair behaviour may have evolved as a response to spiteful behaviour. Associate Professor Patrick Forber in the Department of Philosophy, Tufts University, and Rory Smead, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Northeastern University, Boston, in a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society describe how in a series of iterations of the Ultimatum Game, the "Easy Rider" strategy (accept anything you are given and make only fair offers) is the most successful.

"A lot of biologists these days think that fairness and the evolution of fairness is tied up with the evolution of morality. Fair behaviour is usually associated with altruism and co-operation," says Forber. "What we found was something strange. In one setting ... if you introduce spite, and the conditions that favour spite, you actually get fairness."

In the face of spiteful behaviour (only make unfair offers but reject them when they are made to you) the other two possible strategies, 'Fair Man' and 'Games Man' die out, leaving only 'Easy Rider' to survive.

The new findings show fairness does not need co-operation, altruism and morality to evolve, says Forber. "The idea here is that we are fair not because we are being co-operative and want to be nice to our fellow man," he says. "We're fair because we're worried that our fellow man is a vicious spiteful bastard that might exploit us and this is the best way to defend against it."

Of course, a computer simulation will have a tough time reflecting the actual conditions in which primates' behaviour evolved, not least because we don't have a clue as to exactly when or where or over what period fairness evolved. In fact, that development, which did indubitably take place, always seemed to me to be an improbable response to survival-seeking behaviour, and this new theoretical approach is intuitively more satisfactory than the previous deus ex machina of the magical arrival of altruism in the primate brain.

Read more in Chapter Three of Agent Human by Michael Bell, The Evolution of Social Consciousness in Humans.


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