The Origin and Evolution of Cultures

By Robert Boyd; Peter J. Richerson | Go to book overview

10
Why People Punish Defectors
Weak Conformist Transmission
Can Stabilize Costly Enforcement
of Norms in Cooperative
Dilemmas

With Joseph Henrich

In many societies, humans cooperate in large groups of unrelated individuals. Most evolutionary explanations for cooperation combine kinship (Hamilton, 1964) and reciprocity (“reciprocal altruism,” Trivers, 1971). These mechanisms seem to explain the evolution of cooperation in many species including ants, bees, naked mole rats, and vampire bats. However, because social interaction among humans often involves large groups of mostly unrelated individuals, explaining cooperation has proved a tricky problem for both evolutionary and rational choice theorists. Evolutionary models of cooperation using the repeated n-person prisoner's dilemma predict that cooperation is not likely to be favored by natural selection if groups are larger than around 10, unless relatedness is very high (Boyd and Richerson, 1988). As group size rises above 10, to 100 or 1000, cooperation is virtually impossible to evolve or maintain with only reciprocity and kinship.1

Many students of human behavior believe that large-scale human cooperation is maintained by the threat of punishment. From this view, cooperation persists because the penalties for failing to cooperate are sufficiently large that defection “doesn't pay.” However, explaining cooperation in this way leads to a new problem: why do people punish noncooperators? If the private benefits derived from punishing are greater than the costs of administering it, punishment may initially increase but cannot exceed a modest frequency (Boyd and Richerson, 1992). Individuals who punish defectors provide a public good, and thus can be exploited by nonpunishing cooperators if punishment is costly. Second-order free riders cooperate in the main activity but cheat when it comes time to punish noncooperators. As a consequence, second-order free riders receive higher payoffs than punishers do, and thus punishment is not evolutionarily stable. Adding

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