Monthly Archives: October 2016

evolution, game theory, and the morality of modern human beings

It’s valuable to model the development of phenomena like altruism and spite (harming someone else at a cost to oneself) by combining game theory with evolutionary theory. The results should be seen as predictions to be tested against empirical evidence about actual organisms. My question is what this combination tells us about our situation as human beings in historical time.

The basic assumptions are:

  1. Organisms interact with each other so that each one can win or lose. For instance, a parent feeds its child, a predator eats its prey, a mite hitches a ride on an insect. These interactions can be modeled as games in which each player makes a choice (e.g., kill or don’t kill), and positive or negative outcomes result for each as a joint result of their decisions. (“Choice” is a metaphor, because completely non-sentient organisms can be modeled as players in a game. For instance, a plant can release a chemical or not.)
  2. Changes in how organisms interact in game-like situations arise more or less randomly. As a result of a genetic mutation, an organism may begin to mimic another species. Or, as a result of a change in climate, an organism’s prey may become scarce.
  3. If playing a game in a particular way increases the odds that a species will reproduce, that behavior will become more common. For instance, if mimicking works, it will spread.
  4. This means that the payoffs that matter from game-like interactions among organisms are best measured in terms of evolutionary fitness. Whatever an organism may want or think or feel, what matters is whether its chances of reproducing increase or decrease.
  5. Given the first four assumptions, under certain conditions, behaviors that we might consider proto-moral, such as helping offspring, helping others outside the family lineage, or even sacrificing oneself to punish another for violating a norm, predictably arise. By being altruistic (or punitive) in game-like interactions, an organism may gain evolutionary fitness.
  6. Thus we can explain proto-moral behavior through a combination of game theory and evolutionary theory. The behavior is a consequence of background conditions. This form of explanation applies to homo sapiens, who have cognitive capacities and instinctive drives for things like fairness and punishment because of the conditions that pertained before historical time when we evolved into our current form.

Game theory is part of my own toolkit. I believe it clarifies many situations that confront human beings as we interact with each other and helps us to devise solutions to collective problems. I also acknowledge that we are a biological species that evolved with certain capacities and drives, and that inheritance must be taken into consideration as we diagnose and try to address our problems as a species. However, I tend to believe that Darwinian evolution gave us certain capacities that now fundamentally change the premises described above (points 1-6):

  1. We can design games. The original Prisoner’s Dilemma, for example, is a situation intentionally created by a prosecutor within a legal system. The prosecutor could change the game, or he could be required to change it by a legal reform. A shared pasture is a very different game from a Prisoner’s Dilemma, but it’s also intentionally designed.
  2. We can choose goals. If natural selection determines change in a whole population, then it doesn’t matter what each organism wants; it matters what promotes survival and reproduction. But human beings can choose what we want in specific interactions. Sometimes we want things that reduce our chances to survive and reproduce, but we compensate with other strategies.
  3. We can change our identities. If a person’s main identity is a parent, his impact on his own offspring is central. But he could instead choose to identify primarily with a church, a community, a nation, or other grouping.
  4. We can design and change the groups within which our interactions occur. As an example, the size of a group influences how organisms interact. But we human beings can merge small groups to form vast nations, decentralize governance to small groups, nest communities within states, or place people in multiple overlapping groups. We can intentionally vary not only the size of groups but also their internal diversity, spatial extension, equality of influence, and cost of entry and exit.
  5. We can influence individuals’ predilections to play games in various ways, e.g., to be altruistic, trusting, selfish, spiteful, or punitive. We can influence children in lasting ways by raising and educating them to have certain character traits. We can also influence behavior in local and temporary ways by changing messages and contexts to encourage desired behaviors.
  6. We are influenced in all the above choices by norms, but we disagree about the best ones, and the available norms are the results of deliberate human creativity. In short, we invent and choose norms.

Game theory remains relevant–in fact, it is an especially useful toolkit for a creature that is capable of designing and redesigning its own interactions. I am less sure that evolutionary theory is relevant, except insofar as it explains certain proto-moral tendencies and limitations that now contribute to our challenges.

Notes: Points 1-6 are guided by my Tufts colleague Patrick Farber and specifically his excellent paper “Reciprocal Spite” (with Rory Smead). Points 7-12 are heavily influenced by Elinor Ostrom, who emphasized the diverse outcomes that result when people face collective action problems and the importance of their intentional choices about groups, rules, and norms.

John Stuart Mill, Stoic

I sometimes envy my fellow academics in the humanities who regularly renew their acquaintance with fundamental works that have slipped pretty deep into the well of my own memory because my job is to conduct and administer empirical research about current politics. For just that reason, I am thoroughly enjoying reencountering some major works as I teach first-year undergraduates this semester.

For instance, I now see Mill’s Utilitarianism in an entirely new way thanks to re-reading it with students after our extensive discussions of authors like Epicurus, Buddha, and Emerson. It seems much less an explanation of the utilitarian principle of justice (maximize everyone’s happiness) than I had remembered, and more an exploration of how an individual should pursue happiness. It thus belongs to a genre that Mill knew very well, the tradition of therapeutic philosophy inaugurated by the Hellenistic schools and revived by Montaigne.

In the text of Utiliarianism, Mill refers several times to Epicureanism and Stoicism. For instance: “I do not, indeed, consider the Epicureans to have been by any means faultless in drawing out their scheme of consequences from the utilitarian principle. To do this in any sufficient manner, many Stoic, as well as Christian elements require to be included.” This passage suggests that Mill is interested in constructing the kind of “eclectic” view (drawing from multiple Hellenistic schools) that was popular from the time of Cicero and continued in early Christianity. Continue reading

CIRCLE breaks down the youth vote

When CIRCLE’s Millennial survey was conducted (9/21-10/3), Clinton was beating Trump by 21 points (49% vs. 28%). Clinton may do better when the actual votes are cast, because there seems to be a trend in her favor among youth. That said, the CIRCLE poll allows detailed comparisons between young Americans who were favoring the two candidates at a moment when Trump was drawing one in four.

Young Trump and Clinton voters were starkly different people, and today CIRCLE has published an analysis that compares them by demographics and by opinions. For example, this graph shows Trump winning a plurality of non-college-educated men under 30 even as he was losing college-educated young women by almost 2-to-1.


A couple of other illustrative findings from the report, which deserves to be read in full:

  • 85% of young Trump voters are dissatisfied with the way things are going for the country, and they are far more likely than Clinton supporters to believe that the country’s best days are behind us.
  • Trump supporters are less experienced with various types of political engagement, and more likely than Clinton supporters to say that they would “never, under any circumstances” do things like volunteer for a campaign or attend a political rally, suggesting that Trump supporters are overall less likely to be politically engaged.

the floating “that”: a linguistic innovation?

(Orlando) “You’ve got to eat those vegetables and do that exercise every day.” “We’re concentrating on those metrics, that whole assessment piece.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m noticing this speech pattern lately. People use “that” to intensify a noun. I think they’re mimicking a situation in which you have already talked about an important topic–and perhaps achieved agreement on it–and now you use “that” to refer back to the previous discussion. But in this new linguistic phenomenon, there’s no previous discussion to refer back to. “That” simply stresses the following noun.

No value-judgment implied. People are endlessly inventive; language constantly changes. I just find this new speech pattern interesting. (I wouldn’t use it in written text, however.)

social class does predict Trump support

Some say that Trump has captured the support of working-class Whites who are economically stressed or anxious. Others reply that Trump voters are relatively upscale but motivated by racial resentment alone. The former premise suggests that Democrats must do more to empower the working class, including Whites. The latter suggests that White nationalism is our fundamental problem today. Although I see truth in both positions, I’ve argued for addressing the economic and political vulnerability of the White working class. I present that as a strategy for countering Trumpism, but it’s a misguided strategy for that purpose if Trump voters are relatively affluent.

The raw story is that White people with lower incomes are Trump’s strongest backers.

Presidential Candidate Preference for Whites with Family Income <75K (Reuters)

Presidential Candidate Preference for Whites with Family Income <$75K (Reuters)

But it’s not just about income and race. Education levels, age, and gender are also strongly related to voters’ preferences in this election, as I illustrate with data from YouGov:


The question is what to make of those middle-aged White men without college degrees, who are preferring Trump over Clinton by more than two-to-one in the YouGov polls (and by 59%-25% in Reuters). Is it economic anxiety, racial identity, or what?

One of the most widely cited pieces of evidence against the economic-anxiety explanation is Jonathan Rothwell’s paper, “Explaining nationalist political views: The case of Donald Trump.” Rothwell, who works for Gallup, conducted a regression analysis of almost 100,000 Gallup survey responses collected over the year that ended in July (i.e., mostly during the primary season). I have no quarrel with the paper, but I would note that it does not debunk a class analysis of the Trump vote.

Rothwell finds that holding a favorable view of Trump correlates with higher, not lower, income. Nate Silver is also widely cited for his finding that Trump voters during the primary season had higher median incomes than Clinton and Sanders voters (but the same as Cruz voters and lower than Kasich voters).

However, Rothwell also looks at whether household income remains a significant predictor of Trump support once you consider the fact that Trump voters are disproportionately White, male, and older. Using one measure of income, it remains a significant predictor; with a different measure, it ceases to predict Trump support.

At the same time, Rothwell’s model shows that you are more likely, to a statistically significant degree, to favor Trump if you: (1) hold a blue-collar job; (2) did not attend college; and (3) live in a community with high White mortality rates. Those relationships appear in the whole sample but are especially strong when the model is restricted to non-Hispanic Whites. Further, “more subtle measures at the commuting zone level provide evidence that social well-being, measured by longevity and intergenerational mobility, is significantly lower among in the communities of Trump supporters.”

If social class means income, then class is not a strong predictor of Trump support in Rothwell’s model. At least during the primary season, Trump voters were actually wealthier than the mean American voter. But if class means social status, and status involves occupation and education, then Trump voters tend to be downscale Whites in downscale White areas.

Rothwell’s paper uses a binary outcome of Trump support versus non-Trump support. The non-supporters include Republicans who were still favoring Cruz, Rubio, and others, plus Democrats for Sanders. That makes the analysis a bit dated now that we’re down to Clinton v. Trump. Reuters data suggests that Trump widened his lead among working class White men once he won the nomination.

Presidential Candidate Preference, White Men Without College Degrees (Reuters)

Presidential Candidate Preference, White Men Without College Degrees (Reuters)

Meanwhile, Clinton is now doing very well among the top 1 percent of the income distribution.

In sum, the relationship between working class status (measured by education) and Trump support seems strikingly strong for the White population. This doesn’t mean that class is the only issue. Race/ethnicity and gender are obviously very significant. But it means that there is some truth to the class analysis.

See also why the white working class must organize and it’s hard to talk about tough issues if no organization represents you.