An interesting paper in Science (a publicly available summary is here; link via Brain Ethics) shows that human beings’ propensity to punish (unfair acts by others) is correlated with their altruism. This finding is based on a pretty large scale study involving populations in no less than 15 different societies or tribes. The implication is that these two cultural traits co-evolved. Here’s a key quote:
A hallmark of humanity is that people help other people–not just relatives and friends but even complete strangers. Such altruism, which goes beyond the mere exchange of favors and forms the scaffolding of large-scale cooperation in human societies, has long been an evolutionary mystery. On page 1767, anthropologist Joseph Henrich of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and his colleagues take a crack at solving the puzzle, concluding that such helpful behavior may have arisen as a result of punishment.
Reporting on experiments they conducted in 15 different societies on five continents, the researchers argue that altruism evolved hand in hand with a willingness to punish selfish behavior. Their results lend support to models of gene-culture coevolution that propose that cultural norms such as the punishment of unfair actions drive the selection of genes favoring altruism.
What was interesting (to me, at least) was the use of three fairly simple prototype games that allowed the researchers to assess the participants’ inclination towards “costly punishment” and “altruism”. For assessing punishment, they used the Ultimatum Game and Third Party Punishment Game; for assessing altruism, they used the Dictator Game. In case you are not able to access the paper from the Science website, Brain Ethics has a description of the three games (with links).
Over at Reason Online, Ronald Bailey has an article explaining this ‘punishment-and-altruism’ research, and this is his concluding paragraph:
The results are intriguing. It turns out that the societies in which the player ones in the dictator game were willing to give more to the player twos are also the societies in which people were more willing to punish less generous players in the other two games. In other words, societies that punished strongly were also the most likely to have strong altruistic impulses. The moral of the story is that if you want to live in a world of caring generous cooperative people, make sure that you thoroughly thrash all the greedy, chiseling scoundrels you come across. It may cost you, but the world will be a better place. [bold emphasis added]