Monday, January 30, 2012

Pinker's "Better Angels": A Review

Steven Pinker's Better Angels of our Nature (2011) is one of the most reassuring books I have ever laid hands on.  I am recalibrated, pondering an important set of changes which have driven humanity into a state of peace – relative peace, at least.  He’s convinced me that despite how it might seem violence has declined dramatically throughout the world, at most every geographic scale, in every sort of time period, for just about every type of violence, based on evidence I don’t doubt and for reasons I can understand.

That is really quite a claim, as popular wisdom says the past was a time of peace, tranquility, and safety; and that we live today in a heightened threat of violence.  It is so nice to learn, based on a great deal of evidence and analysis, that he opposite appears to be true: we live in peaceful times.

In the first seven long chapters -- half of the book -- he delivers the data and the historical record: dozens and dozens of line graphs drifting or shuddering downward – many quite sharply.  These are for homicide rates, judicial torture, execution, frequency and duration of wars, military servitude, length of conscription, average number of deaths in wars, legality of slavery, capital punishment for non-murder crimes, genocides, death rates from terrorism, rape, domestic violence and homicides by intimate partners, abortions, approval of spanking, wife abuse, child abuse, school fights, bullying, intimidation of homosexuals, animal cruelty, hunting, and more.

The trends have blips and periods of relapse but the message is clear – abundantly clear.  In the long sweep of history, and especially since WWII, we don’t only live in good times, they have gotten better and better.

It’s not just that it’s less dangerous now as we tend to believe, but it was much, much, worse in the past:  Through the middle ages people tortured animals for fun, but when it came to humans they were simply merciless.  Maybe 19 million people were executed for trivial offenses, like criticizing the royal garden, cutting down a tree or stealing a rabbit.  Between  60-100,000 “witches” were tortured and killed in France and Germany alone.  What’s more, sadism appears to have been an art form and a public spectacle judging from the ingenious instruments and number of times they were used -- 1.2 million tortured and killed by the Aztecs alone in less than 100 years. It made my skin crawl to read how many were killed, for what insignificant reasons, how casually, and with what devious methods, and before such callous and amused crowds. 

Homicides have fallen too, though these still outnumber war deaths.  hen it comes to war, the record is less clear, with more spikes and what at time seems a statistical jiggering to find trends.  But then, how do you measure war death -- should it include famine caused by war, should it me measured in numbers or a portion of the population -- or the combatants -- killed.  Or the number or duration of wars, for that matter.  Given Pinker's analysis, there is reason for optimism, it seems.

Given everything from animal cruelty to nuclear disarmament, I was convinced of the overall trend toward non-violence.  And as always I have to admire Pinker’s thoroughness with the evidence and explanation.

But the best part o the book is the second half, where he examines the changing psychology of violence in earnest.  I’ll mention just a few insights that struck me.  

One major change appears to have occurred when feudalism/tribalism gave over to what he calls the Leviathan – the state (initially, often a monarchy -- though democracies are much more peaceful and, by the way on the rise).  Where there had been fear, mistrust, preemptive attacks, retribution, vengeance, and raids against neighbors, a state-run judicial system and police force were in place.  Crimes which had been committed against a neighbor (and his survivors) became a crime against the state.  There was justice. And violence fell.  

There is a psychological shift at this time as well.  Without a state system, one's personal reputation -- one's "honor" -- had to be defended, often fiercely.  But in a state system, appealing to officials became more profitable than fighting with neighbors.  "Warriors became courtiers," as the feudal territories became centralized kingdoms.  This is what Pinker calls the Civilizing Process.  And violence declines.

Another major force for change was the rise of commerce and specialization --the positive sum game of trade.  The well-being of others was suddenly recognized as being in one’s own interest.  A third force was what the growth of science and reason, the “Humanitarian Revolution,” with its impact on empathy, and the expansion of consciousness which routed slavery, opposed animal cruelty, and increased protection and rights of women, children, homosexuals, foreigners, and so on. This is all great stuff.

Pinker’s last chapters tweak the Prisoner's Dilemma (see my blog Morality #3); he calls it the Pacifist’s Dilemma and shows how governments can coax players to the positive-sum top left cell.  I’ve scanned one of his graphs (government influence) to show how this works.  By imposing penalties on various outcomes (e.g., international sanctions to an aggressor state, represented by the -15 in diagonal boxes), governments can arrange things so cooperation (top lefe, the best choice overall) is also the best choice for individual states.  This is true at the community level as well, of course.  The penalties for armed robbery, when added to whatever is stolen, makes jumping passersby too costly.  One armed robber holding up another (bottom right) ends badly for both, that's why it's rarely done I guess.  Pinker shows how social stigma, commerce,  and even empathy all usher players to the top left square.

Pinker’s prose is clear, rich, and intellectually entertaining but if you look closely, it’s also very methodical.  What are the 6 causes of violent behavior?  How do the 3 moral frameworks affect one’s behavior toward others?  How are sacred values treated within each framework?  What are the 6 ways in which self control is modulated?  So many lists, I found myself writing “SEVEN LINKS BETWEEN REASONING AND PEACE,”: “FOUR MOTIVES FOR SADISM,” and so on, in the margins.

I don’t mind that; I like the structure.  And I do love my 4 “better angels:” empathy, self-control, a moral sense, and reason.  Believe me, each gets full treatment.  I'll add that the book makes an excellent case that things have gotten better, it doesn't claim to predict the future and there are new dangers, surely. But even in the psychology of nuclear threats and interstate animosity, he finds some positive signs.

In the end of it I do have several regrets.  One is that I only scratch the surface with this review.  Second, Pinker only describes the past and present -- he doesn't predict the future.  He also does suggest that many trends in culture, economy, and politics may make for a better world.  But when he mentions Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the section "Where Angels Fear to Tread," I felt a chill.  My third concern is that the book is so long – 700 pages, plus notes, references, and index – that it may be discouraging to the casual reader, who would stand to gain so much.  But please believe me: pound for pound, dollar for dollar, minute for minute -- if you care about people -- you can hardly do better than by reading this book.  

So here's my advice: buy it, tear it in thirds if you must, but be prepared to have your world view overhauled and reassembled. If you’re like me, it’ll be a nice relief. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Why I Adore Evolution

I love – I adore -- reading about evolution because it is a beautiful, unifying theory that satisfies my broad interests and I think it has the potential to answer almost all the most interesting questions.  My keen interest in evolution began shortly after I was shaken from a happy agnosticism by Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and A Letter to a Christian Nation.  Losing what faith I had made me look a little deeper for answers.  I'll mention that I was hardly pious to begin with -- I was raised in the liberal Quaker tradition where a certain amount of mysticism is tolerated, but not exactly celebrated.  Science is generally on solid footing among liberal Quakers, and I think my parents both having advanced degrees and and both are avid environmentalists didn’t hurt me either.  No, I would not have been a good fundamentalist.  I was the only kid who borrowed Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason from my junior high school library, probably, ever. 

My favorite authors now are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Matt Ridley, Steve Pinker, and Nick Lane. I love books by Robert Wright, Barbara Oakley, R.M Neese & G.C. Williams, Darrel Ray, Jared Diamond, and others. When I read I always have a pen in hand so I can make the books mine with margin notes and marks, so the second reading a pure breeze.  

I admit that I am obsessed with evolution. Why do I find it so captivating?

When I studied geography at the University of Washington I focused on population and culture, and in my dissertation I merged a background in communication with geography and looked at the fidelity of information which drew up new Mexican immigrants for the agricultural labor pool in eastern Washington state.  Most of these were friends and family of workers who had come earlier and their main source of information was interpersonal.  My hypothesis was that the advantages of attracting friends would be so great that some would exaggerate the benefits of coming.  Employers too had a vested interest in expanding the workforce, I reasoned.  The effect, I predicted, would be a degree of disillusionment among the new arrivals. This was borne out quite well in many of my results.

There are two reasons I mention that story, the first is that I am naturally drawn to a disciplines that are broad and encompassing.  Geography, the study of space and location, draws in human, cultural, and physical systems -- all of which interact in space.  It is as broad a discipline as they come; it’s like history but it focuses on the spatial, not the temporal dimension.  Everything happens in time, everything happens in space. 

Evolution is also all-encompassing. But across both space and time. 

What fields are essential to the evolutionist?  It would be easier to list those that are not.  Let’s start with the most obvious: Biology.   I became immersed in microbiology and biochemistry with the work of Nick Lane (Power, Sex and Suicide and Life Ascending), Matt Ridley (The Genome, and The Red Queen).  Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phoenotype argued convincingly (to me) that natural selection does not happen amongst species or even organisms.  It happens at the level of the gene – the replicator, to use his term.  Interestingly, this was not the position of my biology professor in the graduate class on evolutionary biology which I recently completed.  Neither he nor I could budge.

Dawkins’ other books, such as Climbing Mount Improbable, The Blind Watchmaker, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and The Ancestor’s Tale all celebrate the genius of evolutionary solutions.  These are fun and entertaining, and quite detailed.  In Unweaving the Rainbow he explores the beauty and aesthetics of evolution.

Dawkins is best known for another book, The God Delusion, in which he takes a harder stance against religion than Harris did.   Dawkins, Harris, Dan Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have been called the four riders of new atheism.  So I read The God Delusion, and Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and Hitchens’ acidic God is Not Great and The Atheist Handbook.  Just about any one of these would have been enough to do in supernatural beliefs as weak as mine had been.  Even with the recommended antidote (by a Catholic friend) of The Twilight of Atheism (Alister McGrath), and John F. Haught's God and the New Atheism, all spirituality, mysticism, religious faith, and supernatural belief of any kind simply fell away.  So my reading has taken me into theology too, and in the process I reread much of the Bible and some other religious texts from a new and more cynical perspective.

One of my concerns about losing religion was the question of morality.  If there is no higher power – or even a widely accepted illusion of one – what would that mean for human behavior?  Here’s where Pinker’s Better Angels was most satisfying, but throughout my reading I have found many studies pointing out (with game theory and otherwise) that there is much to be admired in human nature.  And, as I have written previously, I am less impressed by the morality in scripture than I am by mankind’s inclination to skip over the bad parts.  Good books specifically on the topic of morality include Better Angels, Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and The Origins of Virtue, The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga, and Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.

Then there is the practical and interesting treatment of health and medicine.  What I read in Nick Lane’s Power Sex and Suicide, as well as in Life Ascending, about autophagy --  the mitochondria program, when it goes wonky, for triggering it's own demise and consumption so that it stops producing free radicals -- caused me to drop 20 pounds.  I also take a baby aspirin daily, to take advantage of this corrective code and live healthy a bit longer.  I've read since that exercise can do the same as a near starvation diet, prolonging life for the same reasons.  Why We Get Sick, by R.M Neese and G.C. Williams, is also about evolution in medicine and illness. The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, traces the evolution of medical science as much as it does for cancer.

Another knowledge patch that has blossomed in my garden is evolutionary psychology, kicked off for me by Robert Wright’s exquisite The Moral Animal, but started really by Robert Trivers’ brilliant Social Evolution which I read retrospectively.  Wright introduces the reader to key ideas in evolutionary psychology, using Darwin’s own life for examples.  Steven Pinker, who writes very long and somewhat dense page-turners, explored the physiological influences of brain neurology in The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, and How the Mind Works.  He argues, convincingly, that much or most of our personality is inherited.  Each of these books is well worth reading several times.  His latest book on the decline of violence (The Better Angels of our Nature) may top them all in its scope, importance, and depth of insight.  The Language Instinct took me for the first time into the field of Linguistics, and I loved it there.

The Selfish Gene, which I said was a pivotal book for me, also introduced the term "meme," which is Dawkins’ gene-like word for "concept."  His point was that because ideas duplicate, duplicate imperfectly, and have an impact in the real world, they too are subjected to natural selection.  Salient ideas propagate from mind to mind.  When ideas join in teams they look something more like an organism, we might call them a theory.  When they join in larger coalitions they become an ideology or a paradigm.  That memes are not alive does not matter – genes aren’t viable organisms either.  The analogy of viruses is better than that of genes, though.  And for transmission think of contagion rather than meiosis and DNA.  This comparison to epidemiology is made very well in Darrel Ray's excellent book The God Virus.

I had read Trivers’ original text, The Diversity of Life by E.O. Wilson, and some other early writers, but eventually I had to sit down with Darwin himself.  I’d put it off because, after all, that was 160 years ago and surely his writing style would be affected.  I thought that – brilliant as he was – reading him directly would be a bit of a chore.  But what a nice surprise!  In The Origin of Species (which does get slow at times) you see an extraordinary naturalist working out the details of a theory which he had kept secret for 20 years.  Even though it was full of apology and qualification, this book was an atomic bomb, fully packed.  In the anthropological The Descent of Man he turns the same focus and attention on human origins with great insight and few of the mistakes you might expect.  But most, I enjoyed The Voyage of the Beagle, an adventure tale on the order of Herge's Tintin.  It is an extraordinary account, beautifully written, not only of the natural wonders but also of the people he encountered on his 3-year voyage.  He was barely 20.  What a tale!  Hungry for more of that, I found The Species Seekers which is about Darwin, Wallace, Hooker, and Huxley, and also Iain McCalman’s Darwin’s Armada, about the orchestrated release of the aforementioned bombshell on a scientific and theological community which they expected to be hostile.  It did not disappoint in that regard, but it yielded, in the end.  Well.  In most of the world, it yielded.  Not so much in America, where belief in evolution is bafflingly low.

The geographic implications of evolution are so clear throughout most of these books that they hardly require mentioning.  Here Be Dragons by Dennis McCarthy was one of the more direct treatments of biogeography, and there are excellent texts by that name.  Every ecosystem has geographic extent which may or may not be porous and possibly vulnerable to invasion.  The succession of species on a fixed landscape is evolution in action.  Isolation (whether by obstruction or by distance) can create species, and most remarkably sometimes create a ring species, where a population varies gradually in a circular pattern (e.g., at a parallel around the north pole)  until the two ends meet only to find themselves different species at the junction, unable to breed – but just a series of subtle variations in the other direction. 

Different climates and resources influence evolutionary change and, as Diamond argues in Guns Germs, and Steel, these have often spread within a climate zone in an east-west pattern.  There is also the interesting methods of propagation that have unique spatial implications.  Some seeds catch the wind, some hitchhike, such as burrs or pollen, some get themselves eaten and excreted, some float, some cling to floating debris.  Others roll, explode, and many have several strategies -- like the Asian Longhorn Beetle in Chicago recently, which flew short distances but were carried long distances, with firewood.  Each of these results in an interesting pattern.  Diseases too spread in spatial patterns, as John Snow first mapped but which is now done as a matter of course.  There is no end when you meld evolution and biogeography.  If there ever was a fertile marriage, that is it.

Then there are memes, which also have their spatial patterns -- like those I examined in my own dissertation.  Ridley in The Rational Optimist, Pinker in Better Angels, and Diamond in Guns Germs and Steel show how powerful a force information can be in directing and forcing social change, and how specific the direction of flow can be.   As Matt Ridley puts it, as information becomes more available – through language, the printing press, the internet, social media -- more ideas can have sex. Specialization, trade, positive sum games, and democracy can result.

So why do I love evolution?  Because I love life.  I love it.  Now that I realize that I’ll enjoy, at best, just a few more decades, I love every single minute of it, all the more. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Morality Part 4: Human Goodness

This is a multiple part blog on morality: [Previous]     

I’d like to try now to trace animal altruism into the more elevated realm of human morality. It’ll be an oversimplification, and most of these thoughts were stimulated or gleaned from the books I’ve read. But the question at hand remains: from whence, morality?

As I have argued, the simple calculus of kinship altruism and the prisoner’s dilemma works in the wild, where genetic code drives instinctive behavior. Food and resources, and sex of course, are typical currency in such games. The payoff is in procreation.

Tit for tat, as I’ve explained, is a successful strategy which one can easily imagine as reflexive. It requires recognition of individuals, the ability and willingness to return a favor and also to hold a grudge – not all the time, but often enough to matter. It’s also useful if you occasionally express forgiveness, to break from a bad cycle with an erstwhile friend. Humans are well suited for all of these functions – we have an uncanny ability to recognize faces, we have a decent memory, and a range of emotions. We can take good advantage of the standard Dilemma. We are experts, you might say, at tit for tat.

But with humans it goes much farther than that. In The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of Self, Thomas Metzinger explains how the newly-discovered mirror neurons (only found in humans and apes) constitute a hard-wired sort of empathy.  Therefore, he suggests, we are neurologically interconnected not only for motor control (a mother opens her own mouth while spoonfeeding her baby), but for emotions tool. 

Matt Ridley, in The Rational Optimist, points out another interesting fact: of all the animals we know, humans alone have learned to barter. I’m convinced that this is so important that I’m going to write it again. No animals but humans will trade one thing for another. Some will exchange favors in kind such as grooming, and symbiotic relationships even occur between species. But none except humans are able to exchange a handful of grapes for a handful of peanuts. This feat requires comparative valuation of different objects (a sort of mental currency), and it means considering that currency more important than the item itself. An ape would have to think those grapes are worth more to me than this banana, and I’ll give up the banana for something of more value. Very quickly, this kind of exchange leads to specialization because some people do some things better than others.

First it’s goods and services that change hands: arrow heads for a beaver pelt, rabbits for sex. Information is traded too, so learning itself becomes a commodity. In fact information is so inexpensive to share, and so valuable, that it is the perfect way to forge a mutual and co-operative relationship. So, barter stimulates intellectual development and promotes community cohesion. Simply make that mental currency physical, and more complex trade becomes possible over longer distances and also across time. Share my grain now and I’ll buy a rabbit from ... him, over there ... later. With real tender the opportunities -- and the benefits -- are magnified.

What I’ve just described is a process of economic and intellectual development. You may wonder how this is related to altruism and morality.

When money changes hands today the proprietor and the customer each thanks the other. This is because, from their individual perspectives, each one has come out ahead. To X the bananas are worth more than a dollar, and to Y the dollar is worth more than the bananas. The gain can be quantified; it’s the sum of the absolute differences between each player’s mental valuation of the banana, and the dollar itself. Since they both came out ahead, it’s always a positive sum. Simply put, each just did the other a favor. This is, of course, a foundational principle in microeconomics and one of the strongest arguments for capitalism.

That’s Good it itself, all that generated gain, and by a stretch it might even be called moral. After all, Y helped X feed his family and X helped Y feed his. But human goodness goes deeper than just the value added in a market exchange, because once you begin to rely on others it’s also in your interest to protect them. In other words being nice to your associates in general, pays off.

But are there genes for this, we might ask; can we attribute this sort of niceness to evolutionary forces? There is no single allele labeled naughty-or-nice, no. But certain combinations can make creatures smarter, more accepting of change, more socially connected, or better at doing some things, and more empathic. Better eyesight, more imaginative thinking, fortitude, focus – these things, and much more, affect the skill and style of interaction.

But more important than genes, the concepts contributing to specialization and trade (eg., knowledge, inventions, techniques, currency, markets, storage, transportation) also spread. Information is something like genes, something like viruses, spreading amongst the fertile minds of humans. Richard Dawkins called these concepts “memes” and they are subjected to natural selection. Good Ideas -- like cooperation, specialization, and trade -- spread, survive, and prosper.  Our minds are like a petri dish in this regard.

I’m making a claim for evolutionary morality; but not for an evolutionary imperative of any kind. There is no magical motor driving us toward Goodness; bad behavior is always an option. Look back on the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, where tit-for-tat did well. In a realistic twist, where the players sometimes misread cues and mistook aid for defection, those who threw in random forgiveness did even better because they broke the unnecessary cycles (with other tits for tat) of mutual defection. But those “randomly-forgiving” players were nearly done in by the “nice-guys” who always helped everyone, no matter what. When their numbers grew, the nice guys were in turn overrun by “cheats”: their evil twins, who always defected. The four populations, in this interesting computer-based experiment, went around and around, with no stable state.

So there will always be cheats: criminals, liars, thieves, and hoarders ... lurking and plying the system for weakness. Genes deliver these sorts to the natural world. For example, studies have shown that nearly half of baby birds were sired by a male other than the blithely doting parent. That’s adultery, my friends – and lots of it.

Surely there are genetic differences between human populations too, but there is so much flexibility built into us that our genetic influences are overwhelmed by those of memes. The “criminal mind,” in other words, is biologically sound (usually). It’s the criminal’s mindset that’s the big problem. When thieves convince a peer of the merits of thievery, you have another thief.  If he’s successful, there'll be more theft, more bad advice, and hence more thieves. Badness can pay off.  Bad ideas can be salient too.

We’ve already seen why the defectors don’t take over with computer simulations, but why don’t they surge in real life?

One reason is social stigma. Within small groups (150 or less, I’ve read), the social cost of being a jerk can be enough to dissuade people from being one. Because everyone knows everyone each has a reputation to protect. But in large crowds, in secret, or when one chooses to live outside the constructive social fabric (and prey on it) you need police, law enforcement, military, a legal system, and formalized punishment for wrongdoing. In other words you need a government. And most people – the “tits for tats,” the “randomly forgiving” and the “nice guys” -- will want one.

Some governments are better than others encouraging moral behavior, and for that matter, behaving well themselves. Monarchies, for example are notoriously capricious and often harsh on their people. The ruthless sometimes rise to power, and sometimes power corrupts, and after an exhaustive analysis in his 2011 book (The Better Angels of our Nature), Steve Pinker argues that the best form of government is democracy. It not only allows for decisionmaking by the populous, there is generally a useful system of checks and balances. Autocrats, who may or may not care about their people, are not so restricted, and can almost be as careless as they please.

If democracy is the best system, is it a fragile one that is easily overrun? It doesn't seem that way. The graph I've scanned here, from the Pinker book I mentioned, suggests that on the contrary, it appears to be infectious. Pinker explains, with another economic principle. When people are dispersed and isolated from one another, perhaps living in rural settings, no individual or even small group would dare promote a democratic system. The ruler and his henchman, Pinker explains (referencing econmist Edward Glaeser), have great incentive to stay in power but the rebel "would assume all the risks of the dictator's reprisal, while the benefits of democracy would flow diffusely to everone in the country." This is called the free rider principle.  But in the "crucible of cities," the theory continues, powerful coilitions can form among financiers, lawyers, writers, publishers, and well connected merchants, "dividing the labor and diffusing the risk."

If pubs and parlors can foment democratic revolution, think what the internet and cell phones can do.

If this line of reasoning is correct, then Goodness (morality) springs up from within, as a biological advantage, then by way of commerce and democracy it is forged into our social systems, and enforced. It's hardly a linear process and there is badness too, always. But the trajectory suggests that people are, by nature, by and large, pretty good after all.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Morality Part 3: Seeds of Morality

This is a multiple part blog on morality: [Previous]    [Next]

“Survival of the fittest” makes the natural world sound like an anarchistic, competitive, vicious, Machiavellian stab in the back.  This is born out by a glance outside.  Fierce competition, no doubt; animals kill and eat one another.  But is there also goodness in nature? 

There are so many ways organisms do seem to cooperate.  Ecologists refer to mutualism and symbiosis when both organisms benefit from interaction, co-operation when this occurs within a species, commensualism, where one benefits and the other is unaffected.  Phoresy is the use of one organism by another for transportation, inquilinusm for housing.  Interdependence is assisting others to reap indirect effects (such as donating anonymously to a political candidate).  All of these relationships, found throughout nature, might be construed by an anthropomorphic observer to be “moral” because in some sense they can be seen as good.   

But why do creatures do this?  One motivation is pretty straightforward: If a genetic mutation stimulates an organism to help its young that trait will likely persist in the genome, just as genes for indiscriminate infanticide will not survive for long.  Since it’s the gene, and not the organism, that matters, instincts to help siblings and cousins will be rewarded as well. Helping distant relatives is one step closer to a selflessness, as there may be many cousins about, but when a simpleminded (or no-minded) creature can't tell who is related to whom may discover that neighbors are often enough relatives too, and use nearness as a good proxy for kinship.  If this is so, the “nice-to-neighbor” gene combination may spread as well. In sedentary populations, this could happen.  It would look to an outsider as just plain niceness.

The kinship impulse is powerful, as any human parent can attest.  But acting friendly may improve an organism’s fitness another way: by status or reputation.  Whether it's achieved by bestowing benevolence or by demonstrating superior resources, status is a powerful currency that is paid back in both survival and procreation.  So one would expect status-seeking genes to survive as well.

Finally, one creature might help another by arranging (or expecting) reciprocal aid.    That is worth looking at more closely. 

The classic model of the Prisoner’s Dilemma goes like this.  Two prisoners are interrogated separately, and their sentences depend only on what they tell the authorities.  Each can accuse the other or not.  Each player knows the other one faces the same dilemma, but will not know of his choice in advance.    If both accuse, the punishment is harsh, and if neither accuses there is a light punishment for each.  But if one accuses and the other is silent, the accuser gets off free (while the accused is punished severely). 

Each can see that the short answer for self-preservation is this: No matter what the other does, it’s best to accuse.  So they both accuse the other and both avoid the most severe punishment, but they are each punished harshly, both forfeit the minor slap-on-the-wrist, and neither walks free.  This outcome is not optimal -- it actually seems like a recipe for back-stabbing. 

It's analogous to one organism coming up against another in nature where each must react immediately, either positive (including offering assistance, resisting impulses to attack, sharing resources, greeting, grooming) or negative (including abandonment, attack, thievery, threat, and hoarding).   If both are hostile, there is a standoff.  If both are cooperative they have a team.  If one is hostile and one is friendly, the first may injure or kill the other and steals his stuff.  Often there is a celebratory meal.   So the cost of extending friendship in this situation is too high --again, we might expect an instinct for hostility. Teamwork would be a rare event.

And this is the way it probably is for the lower creatures – nice behavior to kin and neighbors, and maybe an effort shown to gain status, when status matters.  Other than that it’s every creature for itself.

But when there evolves the ability to distinguish individuals from the teeming mass, and to notice and remember whether they are hostile or cooperative and when players come up against each other repeatedly -- in other words, in a more realistic situation -- the Dilemma becomes a lot more interesting.

Axelrod and Hamilton famously gathered 14 strategies for the Prisoner's Dilemma from experts in game theory and threw them all together in a computer program and ran it 200 times.  Surprise: the eight “nice” strategies (those not striking first) all came out ahead.  The best one was impressively simple: Start out friendly and if you find a friend be friendly back.  But whenever your partner strikes, strike them back immediately.  This “tit for tat” strategy was the winner in most situations. 

Axelrod ran it again with 63 strategies and 1,000 iterations, but this time the payoffs were in offspring, so that the balance in populations changed over time.   This was a more accurate model of evolution, in which the fittest code replicates,and the less fit expires.  Notice there were just simple principles and rudimentary reactions to local stimulus at play.  No consciousness.  The same thing happened – tit for tat came out ahead.  Nature, this suggests, is shot through with niceness.  

There was another interesting result; the advantage of being nice is compounded when the nice players were allow to cluster – to identify and play mainly amongst theselves.  Not only niceness, but a germ of community too!  Incidentally, this was not true for defectors – cheats only lost more when they played against cheats.  Oddly, the “suckers,” who were always nice to all opponents, actually worked against the system by self-sacrificing to “cheats” who then took advantage of everyone.

So "tit for tat" seems the best on paper.  But in the real world mistakes and misunderstandings occur frequently, so when two nice players interact they risk accidentally flipping into mutual retaliation.  Therefore, a random element of forgiveness within a tit-for-tat strategy, would improve the outcome in the long run.  Oh man,  forgiveness too! 

So here's the joyous statement I have been working up to: We are hard-wired for cooperation.  These may be the precious seeds of moral consciousness.