Reciprocity and Abstraction

Fukuyama’s suggestion is intriguing but needs further development and empirical support before it can be considered more than a hypothesis. To be mildly repetitive, ideology derived from scientific theories should be subject to even more scrutiny than religious-political ideologies if for no other reason than it can be. But in order to drill down into the questions surrounding how reciprocal altruism might enable the evolution of linguistic and mental abstractions, we need to simplify the problems down to basics, then work outward.

So let’s start with reciprocal altruism as a mere mathematical game. The iterated prisoner’s dilemma is a case study: you and a compatriot are accused of a heinous crime and put in separate rooms. If you deny involvement and so does your friend you will each get 3 years prison. If you admit to the crime and so does your friend you will both get 1 year (cooperation behavior). But if you or your co-conspirator deny involvement while fingering the other, one gets to walk free while the other gets 6 years (defection strategy). Joint fingering is equivalent to two denials at 3 years since the evidence is equivocal. What does one do as a “rational actor” in order to minimize penalization? The only solution is to betray your friend while denying involvement (deny, deny, deny): you get either 3 years (assuming he also denies involvement), or you walk (he denies), or he fingers you also which is the same as dual denials at 3 years each. The average years served are 1/3*3 + 1/3*0 + 1/3*3 = 3 years versus 1/2*1 + 1/2*6 = 3.5 years for admitting to the crime.

In other words it doesn’t pay to cooperate.

But that isn’t the “iterated” version of the game. In the iterated prisoner’s dilemma the game is played over and over again. What strategy is best then? An initial empirical result showed that “tit for tat” worked impressively well between two actors. In tit-for-tat you don’t need much memory about your co-conspirator’s past behavior. It suffices for you to simply do in the current round what they just did in the last round. If they defected, you defect to punish them. If they cooperated, you cooperate.

But this is just two actors and robust payoff matrixes. What if we expand the game to include hundreds of interacting agents who are all competing for mating privileges and access to resources? Fukuyama’s claim is being applied to human prehistory, after all. How does a more complex competitive-cooperative landscape change these simple games and lead to an upward trajectory of abstraction, induction, abduction, or other mechanisms that feed into cognitive processes and then into linguistic ones? We can bound the problem in the following way: the actors need at least as many bits as there are interacting actors to be able to track their defection rates to the last interaction. And, since there are observable limitations to identifying defection (cheating) with regard to mating opportunities or other complex human behaviors, we can expand the bits requirement to floating point representations that cast past behavior in terms of an estimate of their likelihood of future defections. Next, you have to maintain individual statistical models of each participant to better estimate their likelihood of defection versus cooperation (hundreds of estimates and variables). You also need a vast array of predictive neural structures that are tuned to various social cues (Did he just flirt with my girlfriend? Did he just suck-up to the head man?)

We do seem to end up with big brains, just like Vonnegut predicted and lamented in Galapagos, though contra-Vonnegut whether those big brains translate into species-wide destruction is less about prediction and more about policy choices. Still, Fukuyama is better than most historians in that he neither succumbs to atheoretical reporting (ODTAA: history is just “one damn thing after another”) nor to fixating on the support of a central theory that forces the interpretation of the historical record (OMEX: “one more example of X”).

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