In “The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War” appearing in the October 26 issue of Science, SFI researcher Samuel Bowles and colleague Jung-Kyoo Choi of Kyungpook National University in South Korea suggest that the altruistic and warlike aspects of human nature may have a common origin.
Altruism—benefiting fellow group members at a cost to oneself—and parochialism—hostility toward individuals not of one’s own ethnic, racial, or other group—are common to human nature, but we don’t immediately think of them as working together hand in hand. In fact the unexpected combination of these two behaviors may have enabled the survival of each trait according to Bowles and Choi.
They show that the two behaviors—which they term “parochial altruism”— may have in fact coevolved. On the face of it joining parochialism to altruism is puzzling from an evolutionary perspective because both behaviors reduce one’s payoffs by comparison to what one would gain by avoiding them. Aggression consumes resources and risks death; altruism, particularly toward those with whom we have no direct relationship, has the effect of helping other genes advance at our expense. But parochial altruism could have evolved if parochialism promoted intergroup hostilities and the combination of altruism and parochialism contributed to the success of these conflicts.
Using game theoretic analysis and agent-based simulations Bowles and Choi show that under conditions likely to have been experienced by late Pleistocene and early Holocene humans neither parochialsim nor altruism would have been viable singly, but by promoting group conflict, they could have evolved jointly.
“But even if a parochial form of altruism may be our legacy,” said Bowles, “it need not be our fate.” He pointed to the many examples of contemporary altruism extending beyond group boundaries, and the fact that hostility toward outsiders is often redirected or eliminated entirely in a matter of years.
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