Category Archives: cooperation

Using evolution to improve neighborhoods: The Neighborhood Project

David Sloan Wilson is undertaking an interesting project to try to learn the rules for evolving cooperation while improving his community (Binghamton, NY), a city of 47,000 in upstate New York that has fallen on hard times with the industrial flight of corporate mainstays. A March 2011 Gallup poll found Binghamton to be one of the five least liked cities in the US.  His effort is change all that is called the Binghamton Neighborhood Project (BNP).  It raises all the usual interesting questions about being dispassionate and objective in one’s research, and not attempting to alter the very metrics one is measuring.

BNP has done interesting mapping work (relevant to those of you that are interested in doing the same thing in your areas). For example, students dropped lost letters in different parts of the community and measured the percentage that reached their destination.  They charted the density of Halloween and Christmas decorations as an indicator of community pride, participation, and goodwill.  And they mapped their data in interesting ways, using krig maps to show pro-social peaks as well, peaks.  [See: Wilson, D. S., O’Brien, D. T., & Sesma, A. (2009). Human Prosociality from an Evolutionary Perspective: Variation and Correlations on a City-wide Scale. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30: 190-200.]  [See great sample of 3-D visualization of crime data for San Francisco here.]

Efforts include: a design your own park effort, a Regents Academy for at-risk youth where students are incentivized for good behavior and cooperation, the Binghamton Religion and Spirituality Project to survey and map Binghamton’s religious diversity.

The Design Your Own Park initiative seeks to transform abandoned lots into community playgrounds. Groups submit ideas and the community votes on the idea the most like.  The United Way of Broom County helps secure funding for the transformation and community groups agree to maintain the park.  The goal is to foster parks throughout the city and there are 5 park projects underway including a BMX bike park and a dog park.

At Binghamton’s Regents Academy, a higher percentage of at-risk students took and passed state tests than in other Binghamton schools, but no formal assessment has been done of the school.  Moreover, at least as of June, the regime of rewards was still changing weekly and the principal, Miriam Purdy, while believing in the importance of the incentives, did not believe that the incentive program is about evolution.

The Religion and Spirituality Project is motivated by Wilson’s belief that religion can play a central role in producing community cohesion and giving residents a sense of life meaning.

Wilson believes that community residents (using his biological training) can behave either like water striders (which pursue their goals single mindedly, ignoring others) or wasps (which work together subconsciously for their collective good).  Pro-social groups can outcompete those lacking social cohesion, so he believes there is an evolutionary element to encouraging prosocial behavior.  He believes the seven key elements to more effective collective efforts are: 1) a strong sense of group identity; 2) proportional costs and benefits for all residents; 3) consensus decision-making; 4) monitoring those who are anti-social; 5) providing graduated sanctions (ranging from minor slaps on the wrist to more serious sanctions for chronic infringers); 6) fast, fair conflict resolution system; and 7) autonomy/authority, nested within polycentric governance (which links these localized efforts together).  Above and beyond these factors, he believes that residents need lots of practice at cooperating, and often our affluence buys us out of community, in the same way that David Brooks refers to the Haimish line.

Listen to NPR story ‘Can Evolution Breed Better Communities?

Interesting Nature story (9 June 2011) on this called “Darwin’s City

Read “The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time”; excerpt available here.

Socializing expands brain size?

Flickr photo by taod

This is by no means an overnight phenomenon.

Scholars at Oxford have refuted the notion that all mammals over time developed larger brains.  Instead Dr. Susanne Shultz and Prof. Robin Dunbar found over a span of 60 million years that more social creatures, among them humans, had the most rapidly expanding brain sizes to cope with the complexity of collaboration, social norms and coordination.

“The research team analysed available data on the brain size and body size of more than 500 species of living and fossilised mammals. It found that the brains of monkeys grew the most over time, followed by horses, dolphins, camels and dogs. The study shows that groups of mammals with relatively bigger brains tend to live in stable social groups. The brains of more solitary mammals, such as cats, deer and rhino, grew much more slowly during the same period.”

They noted that the fact that cats’ brains did not expand while dogs’ and horses’ brains did, can be accounted for by the far more solitary lives that cats lead in relation to dogs and horses, which interact far more with humans.

Obviously, since these evolutionary anthropologists couldn’t go back in time to distinguish social cavemen from more solitary cavemen, it is impossible to tell whether the expansion of brain size was related to the average levels of socialization of a species or whether this same pattern would have held true at the individual level: with offspring of more social parents having larger brains than offspring of less social humans.

Nonetheless, food for thought…  The implication: get out and socialize and help our species to continue to grow our average brain size, although the results may not be noticeable within your lifetime.

See “Socialising led to bigger brains in some mammals

The study is called “Encephalization is not a universal macroevolutionary phenomenon in mammals but is associated with sociality” (PNAS Journal, November 30, 2010, by Susanne Shultz and Robin Dunbar).  Abstract here.

Shultz and Dunbar’s center, Oxford University’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, is here.

Our genes influence our social networks

Chromosomes magnified - photo by BlueSunFlower

Chromosomes magnified - photo by BlueSunFlower

If you don’t have enough friends or aren’t the social butterfly of your class, now you can blame your genes.

Nick Christakis (Harvard Medical School) and James Fowler (UCSD political scientist) are back with more controversial findings suggesting some genetic determination in our social networks (both in forming friendships and determining where we are in social networks).  Christakis: “the beautiful and complicated pattern of human connection depends on our genes to a significant measure.”  Previous work by Christakis looked at how our social networks and who is in them shape our likelihood of obesity, happiness, and smoking, among other outcomes.

They researched 1,100 same-sex twins in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (colloquially called “Add Health”). Add Health examined high school students in 1994-1995 and asked questions regarding economics, physical health and social involvement. Christakis and Fowler compared the social networks and patterns of identical same-sex twins against fraternal ones to separate nature (genes) from nurture (upbringing).

Their findings go far beyond what people might think about the genetic influence on personality traits (being outgoing, shy, etc.). For example, how often the subject was named as a friend and the likelihood that the subject’s friends knew one another were strongly genetically influenced, but interestingly not the number of friends that the subject listed. This suggests a genetic determinant of being popular (beyond a simple disposition toward being outgoing); further buttressing this interpretation, whether the subject was more the center of attention (central to these networks) or more of a social outcast (peripheral to these networks) was also heritable.

Christakis admits that some of the findings are puzzling, like the fact that the likelihood that my friends Bill and John know each other is attributable to my genes; what this likely means is that some people are genetically disposed to introduce their friends to each other more or to host or arrange social events where these friends would have chances to meet each other.

‘Given that social networks play important roles in determining a wide variety of things ranging from employment and wages to the spread of disease, it is important to understand why networks exhibit the patterns that they do,’  Matthew Jackson, a Stanford University economist, wrote in a commentary accompanying the study called “Do We Inherit Our Positions in Life?”.

James Fowler… said its implications go beyond the theoretical. For some time, scientists have suspected a genetic role in certain conditions, such as obesity. Now, Mr. Fowler wants to investigate whether the dynamics of social networks might affect public-health outcomes, for instance, by exposing people to certain behaviors, such as smoking.”

“Our work shows how humans, like ants, may assemble themselves into a ‘super-organism’ with rules governing the assembly, rules that we carry with us deep in our genes,” says Nicholas Christakis.  Christakis et al. also believe that there may be an evolutionary explanation for their findings since one’s position in social networks had costs or benefits to the survival of one’s genes. Being central to a group likely contributed to survival during periods of food scarcity since one could learn where food supplies were, while being peripheral to groups helped genes survive in periods where deadly germs were being transmitted by social contact. Christakis: “It may be that natural selection is acting on not just things like whether or not we can resist the common cold, but also who it is that we are going to come into contact with.”  The paper notes: “There may be many reasons for genetic variation in the ability to attract or the desire to introduce friends.  More friends may mean greater social support in some settings or greater conflict in others.  Having denser social connections may improve groupsolidarity, but it might also insulate a group from beneficial influence or information from individuals outside the group.”  The authors note that more work is required to understand what specific genes are at work and what possible mediating mechanisms might be.

The authors acknowledge some controversy in studies comparing identical twin studies to fraternal twins, with critics noting that identical twins may have a stronger affiliation with  each other that causes them to be more influenced by each other than fraternal twins.  The authors note that twin studies have been validated by comparing identical twins raised apart versus together (suggesting that it is not the shared environment).  The authors further note that personality and cognitive differences between identical and fraternal twins persist even among twins mistakenly believed to be identical by their parents (indicating that parental patterns in raising these ‘identical twins’ can’t explain the outcome).  Finally, they note that that once twins reach adulthood, identical twins living apart tend to become more similar with age, which doesn’t fit with a notion of the importance of their shared environment.

The study appeared online in James Fowler, Christopher Dawes and Nicholas Christakis,  “Model of Genetic Variation in Human Social Networks” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal (January 26, 2009).

“More specifically, the results show that genetic factors account for 46% [95% confidence interval 23%, 69%] of the variation in in-degree (how many times a person is named as a friend), but heritability of out-degree (how many friends a person names) is not significant (22%, CI 0%, 47%). In addition, node transitivity [the likelihood that two of a person’s contacts are connected to each other] is significantly heritable, with 47% (CI 13%, 65%) of the variation explained by differences in genes. We also find that genetic variation contributes to variation in other network characteristics; for example, bertween-ness centrality [the fraction of paths through the networks that pass through a given node] is significantly heritable (29%, CI 5%, 39%).”

See also “Genes and the Friends You Make” (Wall Street Journal, 1/27/09 by Philip Shishkin)

See other articles by Christakis et. al on social networks.

Helping strangers may be strange in most of the world

There has been a host of research and experiments (some reported on here and on the Saguaro website) about cooperation with strangers and punishing of defectors (cheaters) in order to restore the culture of cooperation.

A recent article by Benedikt Herrmann (University of Nottingham), Simon Gachter (economist at University of Nottingham in England) and Christian Thoni (University of St. Gallen in Switzerland) suggests that social scientists may have been skewed by where the research took place.  Most of the research on cooperation and altruism has occurred in indvidualistic societies, but most of the world’s people live in collectivistic societies.

Herrmann et al find (using data from the World Values Survey) that the more a country’s citizens support the rule of law and civic cooperation (disapproving of tax evasion, welfare abuse and fare-avoidance on public transport), the more positively they respond to being chastised by others for their stinginess.  In contrast, in more collectivist countries, there is less altruism displayed and social punishments (done to send a chastising signal against non-cooperation) are more likley to strike back in revenge than mend their scourgeful ways.

In collectivist societies that stress interdependence and pursuit of group goals, people cooperate with those inside their network (families and friends) but are less likely to cooperate with strangers.  Conversely, as Gachter explains “In modern, market-based [individualistic] societies, group boundaries aren’t very important…You have to be able to cooperate with unrelated strangers.”

The research makes me think that we may have certain set points that induce us to cooperate a certain amount with strangers.  Push us too hard to cooperate, and we wind up trusting strangers less to return to this set point.  Raise individuals in a more individualist society and they may be more expressly cooperative with strangers to get to this set point.  We found similar results with levels of bridging social capital in communities.  In places with greater diversity, it looked like people held back on making bridging social friends from what one would expect randomly;  put in more homogeneous settings, it looked like people went out of their way (relative to the numbers of people of other races) to form racially bridging friendships.

The paper “Antisocial Punishment Across Societies” available here.

Cheaters (and now diehard punishers) never prosper

As AP reports it “Screaming sports coaches and cutthroat tycoons have it wrong: Nice guys do finish first, a new study suggests.”

The current issue of Nature summarizes the results of a Harvard study with 100 college students from Boston playing prisoner’s dilemma game.
The AP reported: “Common game theory has held that punishment makes two equals cooperate. But when people compete in repeated games, punishment fails to deliver, said study author Martin Nowak. He is director of the evolutionary dynamics lab at Harvard where the study was conducted….”On the individual level, we find that those who use punishments are the losers,” Nowak said his experiments found.” And those who punished the most, did the worst.

Nowak and all found that none of the top 5 finishers used costly punishment and the use of costly punishment didn’t help groups overall. Effective players used a *tit for tat* strategy, much as Axelrod found earlier. Punishment may force others to do what you want, but researchers found that the situation could rapidly deteriorate.

See article on their story “It Pays to be Nice.”

And a related article in Nature called *Punisher Pays* by M. Milinski and B. Rockenbach. Abstract: The tendency of humans to punish perceived free-loaders, even at a cost to themselves, is an evolutionary puzzle: punishers perish, and those who benefit the most are those who have never punished at all.
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Journal Nature

Play prisoner’s dilemma (without Nowak’s costly punishment) against a computer.

Evolving to cooperate

Nowak points out that: “The most competitive scenario of natural selection, where everybody competes with everybody else, can actually lead to features like generosity and forgiveness….That I find great.”

Originally modeling cooperation in the prisoner’s dilemma, he developed a theory that also applied to professional cyclists. “Last year, cyclist George Hincapie came to a professional road race championship with only one teammate to help him set the pace and battle the wind; and both Levi Leipheimer and David Zabriskie came alone. Even though they were some of the best cyclists in the world, it would be nearly impossible for any one of them to win facing teams with many more riders. So all four worked together trading the lead, so three could conserve energy while one battled the wind. Hincapie and Leipheimer finished one-two.”

“Cooperation means someone pays a cost and someone else gets a benefit,” Nowak said. “I study what makes cooperation a winning strategy. I analyze it using a metaphor that comes from biological evolution natural selection and mutation,” and these basic principles, he said, can be described by exact mathematical equations.

“Nowak defines evolution more broadly than simply the changing of genes, which is what brought him into the study of language. The Nature paper, researched by some of his students, concludes that most English verbs behave in an extremely regular way, evolving, for instance, to end in “ed,” such as “helped,” “laughed,” “reached,” “walked,” and “worked.” Certain irregular verbs, including “be” and “think,” haven’t made that transformation, even though they are 38,800 and 14,400 years old respectively, because they are used so frequently. “The study reveals a simple mathematical law of language evolution,” said Nowak. “If a verb is used 100 times less frequently, it regularizes 10 times faster.’ ”

“Human societies are made up of individuals that cooperate. Whenever evolution is doing something amazingly new, cooperation is involved,”  Nowak said.

“The most successful cooperators, his equations show, choose generosity over greed, forgiveness over retaliation, but there’s a message, he believes, that goes beyond his mathematical models.”

See Cooperation Counts for Math Professor (Boston Globe, 10/15/07, by Heather Wax)