Sunday, November 09, 2008

Sharing as social exchange was a social construct, never a biological adaptation

Why economists should study the origins of bargaining?
from Adam Smith's Lost Legacy by Gavin Kennedy
European Association of Evolutionary Political Economy,
Rome, November 2008

The Pre-History of Bargaining: a multi-disciplinary treatment (Part 1) [i]
© Gavin Kennedy (Heriot-Watt University)

The whole point of the quasi-bargain was to share the spoils between the catchers and the matrifocal family. Therefore there had to be a social mechanism to ensure that the chasers shared with the non-chasers, otherwise individuals and the group faced local extinction. In a Darwinian sense, the individual may not care about the group (natural selection works on the individual not the group) but an individual had to care about the fate of some minimum number of other individuals if he was to achieve his own survival goals. A chase was more successful if it was conducted by several of the most fleet-footed individuals, backed by the best stone toolmakers and the bravest perimeter skirmishers and pickets who warded of rival predators. A race with each other it was not.

To succeed in worthwhile scavenging the Ancients had to discover that there was safety in numbers and how to make noise near the carcass to ward off intruders. Scavenging induced co-operation, supported by stronger-willed enforcers. It also induced stone-tool creation and use. While predators were busy in a stand-off, or a snarling fight, the scavengers had time to risk a sneak snatch at whatever meat they could get. On such occasions their stone cutting and scraping tools and their disciplined numbers gave them a small enough advantage. Chimpanzees in a display charge can chase off a leopard; several Ancients screaming in an aggressive charge, catching predators with accurately aimed heavy stones, waving heavy branches, beating a predator’s body with clubs, and generally creating mayhem, could drive off even fearsome predators, at least for a short while. Meanwhile, the cutters would get to work. Skilled and brave distracters were party to the quasi-bargain too.

In principle, gatherers shared most of what they gathered, killed or found. In principle, strong quasi-bargains within the band’s matrifocal families embraced them all.[xxvii] Did this mean they all pulled their weight together in whatever way they could best contribute? Probably not; they were as riven by the usual dissents found in any group of Homo before or since. When it ‘worked’ reasonably well, it was an evolutionary stable compact. But there were wide variations in the behaviours of the individuals whose co-operation was essential for it to ‘work.’ Groups fell apart when laggards predominated; they were destroyed by careless acts in the vicinity of predators; they were scattered by internal discord and, in consequence, survivors may have endured generations of misery.

Gathering plant food, insects, and small animals, was more reliable than relying on opportunistic scavenging. But gathering was subject to variability, which imposes a cycle, sometimes severe, of ‘feast or famine.’ Some variability was the ‘fault’ of the individual, such as a lack of skills, effort or learning, and sometimes it was bad luck, injury, illness, the chosen search pattern, or attacks by predators. Where there was variability, there was pressure for sharing among sociable hominids. With multi-lateral promiscuity, sharing whatever food was collected was a small but significant behavioural step for males from merely feeding themselves. Establishing the sex-for-food norm, and policing it effectively, took generations to evolve into a culture of sharing, with additional norms to cope with exceptions, to constrain selfish behaviours and to establish taboos that enforced the metanorms. Sharing undoubtedly enhances the survival of the individual amidst scarcity. Sharing as social exchange was a social construct, never a biological adaptation.[xxviii]

It arose directly from the psychology and practise of the quasi-bargain. If the Ancients suffered cycles of scarcity and abundance, and the cycles were asynchronous (while one individual enjoyed a feast, the other endured famine) a transfer of resources between each other to even-out the cycle proved beneficial (though that does not mean it always happened!). Over the cycle, sharers benefited. But could they co-operate despite the nature of their ‘prisoner’s dilemma problem (whether to do what was best for oneself or what was best for one’s partners and one’s self)? [xxix]

Frank Marlowe identified six useful distinctions between types of food sharing and by changing the order we glean its possible social-evolution:[xxx]

  • Mutualism: food for foraging partners, particularly, but not exclusively, for kin;[xxxi]
  • Tolerated scrounging (TS) - food for peace (sometimes known as ‘tolerated theft’);
  • Costly signalling (CS) – ‘food for non-food benefits, such as sexual access’ -
  • Reciprocity:
  • Not-in-kind exchanges - ‘food A for food B’; [xxxii]
  • In-kind exchanges with delayed reciprocity – ‘food now for same food later’ (e.g., human equivalent of bats with blood);[xxxiii]

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