Article Summary: “Is It Good To Cooperate?” by Curry, Mullins and Whitehouse


Title: Is It Good To Cooperate?: Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies
Author: Oliver Scott Curry, Daniel Austin Mullins and Harvey Whitehouse
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 2.5 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

The researchers test 60 different non-Industrial societies on all continents to determine if they had common moral beliefs that promoted cooperation.

My Comments

There has been a huge debate within social sciences and humanities as to whether humans have common moral beliefs based upon biology or whether moral values are based exclusively on culture and are subject to wide variations.

The theory of “morality-as-cooperation” argues that morality consists of a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life. This study tests the assumptions of that theory.

Key Take-aways

  • Despite vast cultural and economic differences, all human societies have beliefs that support Family, Group, Reciprocity, Bravery, Respect, Fairness and Property (though the relative support for each varies by culture).
  • No societies believed any of those values were bad.
  • This is strong evidence that humans have evolved genetically to believe in morality and cooperation.
  • At the same time, there are vast differences in how societies implement those values and how important they rank relative to each other.

Important Quotes from Book

The theory of “morality-as-cooperation” argues that morality consists of a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life. Morality-as-cooperation draws on the theory of non-zero-sum games to identify distinct problems of cooperation and their solutions, and it predicts that specific forms of cooperative behavior—including helping kin, helping your group, reciprocating, being brave, deferring to superiors, dividing disputed resources, and respecting prior possession—will be considered morally good wherever they arise, in all cultures. To test these predictions, we investigate the moral valence of these seven cooperative behaviors in the ethnographic records of 60 societies. We find that the moral valence of these behaviors is uniformly positive, and the majority of these cooperative morals are observed in the majority of cultures, with equal frequency across all regions of the world. We conclude that these seven cooperative behaviors are plausible candidates for universal moral rules, and that morality-as-cooperation could provide the unified theory of morality that anthropology has hitherto lacked.

Anthropology has struggled to provide an adequate account of morality.

Fortunately, the situation is now beginning to change. In recent years, the study of morality has become the focus of a thriving interdisciplinary endeavor, encompassing research not only in anthropology, but also in evolutionary theory, genetics, biology, animal behavior, psychology, neuroscience, and economics (Haidt 2007; Shackelford and Hansen 2016; Sinnott- Armstrong 2007). A common view in this body of work is that the function of morality is to promote cooperation.

This cooperative account has the potential to provide anthropology with the unified theory of morality it has hitherto lacked. However, previous cooperative accounts have been limited in two main ways.

First, previous accounts have focused on a relatively narrow set of cooperative behaviors (typically kin altruism and reciprocal altruism) and omitted others (e.g., coordination and conflict resolution), and have thus attempted to explain morality from an unnecessarily restricted base.

Second, previous empirical work has not established whether the cooperative account of morality applies cross-culturally, or whether there are cultures that provide counterexamples to the theory.

The theory of morality-as-cooperation argues that morality consists of a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life.

Life begins when molecules start making copies of themselves. These “replicators” are “selfish” in the technical sense that they promote their own replication (Dawkins 2006 [1976]). They can promote their replication at the expense of other replicators. These competitive interactions have a winner and a loser; one’s gain is another’s loss; they are zero-sum games (Maynard Smith 1982; Von Neumann and Morgenstern 1944). But replicators can also replicate in concert with other replicators (Dawkins 1998). These cooperative interactions can have two winners; they are win-win situations; they are non-zero-sum games. Natural selection for genes that employ such cooperative strategies has driven several “major transitions” in the evolution of life on Earth, including the formation of cells, chromosomes, and multicellular organisms (Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1995). Natural selection has also favored genes for cooperation between individuals, in a wide variety of species (Dugatkin 1997), including humans. Humans descend from a long line of social primates; they have spent 50million years living in social groups (Shultz, Opie, and Atkinson 2011), and 2million years making a living as intensely collaborative hunter-gatherers (Tooby and DeVore 1987). Evolution has equipped humans with a range of biological—including psychological—adaptations for cooperation. These adaptations can be seen as natural selection’s attempts to solve the problems of cooperation. More recently, improvisational intelligence and cultural transmission (Boyd, Richerson, and Henrich 2011; Pinker 2010) have made it possible for humans to attempt to improve upon natural selection’s solutions by inventing evolutionarily novel solutions—“tools and rules”—for further bolstering cooperation

To test the prediction that the seven cooperative behaviors would be regarded as morally good, and to establish the cross-cultural prevalence of the moral values that result, we undertook a content analysis of the ethnographic record of 60 societies, using the holocultural method.

The ethnographic coverage of these 60 societies conforms to rigorous ethnographic criteria, including the requirements that at least 1,200 pages of reliable, well-rounded cultural data are available for each society, and that one or more professionally trained ethnographers stayed in that society for more than a year and had a working knowledge of the native language(s).

In 961 out of 962 observations (99.9%), cooperative behavior had a positive moral valence.

Most of these positively morally valenced cooperative behaviors were observed in most societies (see table 3 and figure 2). The average number of behaviors observed per society was: mean p 4.4, SD p 1.5, median p 5, mode p 5.5 (minimum p 1, maximum p 7).

And there were significantly fewer societies in which “fairness” was observed than all other types of moral behavior (P-values ≤.001). All other differences were non-significant.

When aggregated by cultural region, all seven positively morally valenced cooperative behaviors were observed in all six regions—with the sole exception of “dividing disputed resources” in Central America (for which there were no data).12 Crucially, the positively morally valenced cooperative behaviors were observed with equal frequency in all regions: oneway.

There were no counterexamples, that is, societies in which these behaviors were considered morally bad. The survey also found that these cooperative morals were widespread—with most appearing in most societies—and that they were observed with equal frequency across all cultural regions.

As such, these results provide strong support for the theory of morality-as-cooperation, and no support for the more extreme versions of moral relativism. In short, Hume was right, and Locke was wrong.

We have shown how morality-as-cooperation, through the use of game theory, exhibits a theoretical precision and explanatory scope that supersedes that of previous cooperative accounts of morality. And we have shown how one of the theory’s central predictions—that cooperation is always and everywhere considered moral—is supported by an extensive cross-cultural survey of moral values. As such, we have removed two major obstacles to the theory’s wider adoption. Thus, we recommend morality-as-cooperation to the field, and encourage fellow anthropologists to join us in testing its many further implications.

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