The Evolution, Cooperation and Rationality meeting

Posted on September 22, 2009


I have to say that I am a little disappointed with the conference in Bristol. I guess I had very high expectations, which the conference only partially managed to satisfy (it was still quite a valuable meeting for me, nonetheless). I will start by focussing on the highlights before moving on to what I found disappointing.

The most interesting talk, so far as I was concerned, was that presented by Christophe. He talked about the work done by Joseph Henrich and others on the different ways that people from various societies play the dictator or the ultimatum game, but argued that the explanation given by Henrich et al is incorrect, a better explanation requiring social heuristics.

Bounded Machiavellians in action: social heuristics versus social preferences

In my talk, I will analyse the alternative explanations for the cultural diversity of economic prosocial behaviour and the theories on which they are grounded. The main explanation that has been put forward in the recent works of Fehr, Gächter, Henrich and others appeals to variations in social preferences. Against this view, I will defend the hypothesis that variations in prosocial behaviour as observed in experimental games are due to differences in learned economic behavioural routines, exploiting and adapted to the specifics of the local institutions. According to this hypothesis, the social preferences are in fact relatively similar across cultures; the variation is due to differences in the learned solutions, which can take the form of ‘rules of thumb’, to common economic or strategic problems and their specific cultural forms.

Two other talks were of immediate significance for what I do. The first was a talk on explanations of altruism by Stuart West, the second was Gerd Gigerenzer’s talk.

The significance of West’s talk for me is that he did what couldn’t be called anything but a demolition job on DS Wilson’s use of group selection. West argued that such terminology is either unnecessary, in so far as it has been shown that kin selection and group selection are mathematically equivalent, or incorrect, in so far DS Wilson makes claims that cannot be payed out in terms of inclusive fitness. A vital point of West’s talk that I did not fully understand was how he dealt with major transitions that typically involve the emergence of higher level organisation. Another point which was less than clear to me was what West thought of how cultural evolution affects the issue. While I’m not directly interested in the whole discussion around group selection I have to be aware of the lines of argument in so far as I am using DS Wilson’s account of religion. After his talk, I asked Stuart and one of his colleagues whether they thought that Wilson’s views on religion could be made to work without needing to buy into the group selection picture. Although they were not sure of the details they did seem to generally think that it should not be a problem. Definitely, when writing up my Bristol talk I will have to try and put things in a way that avoids the issue.

That Gigerenzer’s talk should be of interest to me should be no surprise to anyone who is familiar with how much I use his work. The talk he gave, however, was an introduction to what he does – not something that I am really in need of. The reason it was interesting is that he focussed on his most recent work, not all of which I have actually read as yet. In particular, I was interested to see what he’s doing in terms of explaining the use of heuristics as related to the problem of overfitting. The reason this is significant to me is that is sounds like a possible alternative to the story that I have been developing in terms of the problem of induction. I will have to catch up on this work before I write up that bit of my own research.

There were a number of other talks that I also found interesting. However, as I said at the start of this post, I found the conference a little disappointing. The reason is that it concentrated far too much on rational choice theory for my liking. I knew, before coming, that RCT was one of the main foci of the meeting but – since Gigerenzer was one of the invited speakers – I had been under the impression that it was going to be much more a meeting at which RCT would come under critical examination. As it was, however, there were only a couple of papers that explicitly questioned the adequacy of RCT. With my unequivocal preference for bounded rationality theory, my views definitely fell outside of the norm at the meeting. As I listened to various speakers putting forward ever more refined ways of saving optimality assumptions, I could not help but get the feeling that I was listening to a meeting of Ptolemy’s faithful building epicycles upon epicycles. This was particularly the case after having listened to Gigerenzer’s talk – at times it felt like some of the people actually had not heard him. Of course, that this is how I felt says nothing really about the truth or otherwise of RCT – it does indicate, however, just how different my own views are. As I said to a number of people at the meeting, it really does come down to a fundamentally different view of human rationality. Often, I heard the reply that talk of ‘rationality’ was something that the people found tiresome and merely wanted to get on with the detailed research. And, that is precisely what those people are doing – researching ever newer and better epicycles. The fundamental problem is not going to be wished away, however.