The evolution of cooperation isn’t so puzzling

There’s a bit of a vibe in evolutionary anthropology/biology/theory that the evolution of cooperation is puzzling. A recent book — The Moral Brain — says “cooperation between unrelated individuals poses a puzzle from both the perspective of natural selection and that of rational self-interest”. Still there are loads (and I mean *loads*) of theoretical models showing a variety of ways for cooperation to evolve. In a moment of heightened procrastination, I decided to delve into the literature and find out just how puzzling scientists find cooperation (warning: this is not even remotely a scholarly piece of work).
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A sigh of relief after the moan

Yesterday, I got annoyed by the reporting of a study supposedly showing evidence for ‘female brains’ and ‘male brains’.  A lot of the rest of the internet got annoyed, too.

Dorothy Bishop kicked it all off early yesterday morning and storified the entire proceedings (embedded at the bottom of this post).

Tom Stafford wrote a great critique on The Conversation.

University College London’s Sophie Scott blogged about some technical queries.

@RidgwayGR even calculated the (tiny) effect sizes that were missing/unreported in the original study.

Finally, the wonderful Cordelia Fine (author of Delusions of Gender) raised questions about the study’s interpretations, stereotyping, neurosexism and everything else iffy with it.

In her critique, Dr Fine cites a piece that she co-authored, published last month in Trends in Cognitive Sciences (annoyingly stuck behind a paywall). I’d love to paste the whole thing here, but I’ll rein myself in and leave you with two choice quotes:

“Assumptions that brain circuitry is largely fixed by a genetic blueprint, that there is a unidirectional, causal pathway from genes to behavior via hormones and brains, and that evolution has left us with brains and mental processes strongly reminiscent of our Paleolithic ancestors, have been widely rejected following conceptual and empirical upheavals in the relevant scientific fields.”

“The relations between science and society are two-way. Scientists who work in politically sensitive and important areas have a responsibility to recognize how social assumptions influence their research and, indeed, public understanding of it. Moreover, they should also recognize that there are important and exciting opportunities to change these social assumptions through rigorous, reflective scientific inquiry and debate.”

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Daniel Kahneman on criticism within science

If you visit a courtroom you will observe that lawyers apply two styles of criticism: to demolish a case they raise doubts about the strongest arguments that favour it; to discredit a witness, they focus on the weakest part of the testimony. The focus on weaknesses is also normal in political debates. I do not believe it is appropriate in scientific controversies, but I have come to accept as a fact of life that the norms of debate in the social sciences do not prohibit the political style of arguments, especially when large issues are at stake—and the prevalence of bias in human judgment is a larger issue.

—Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (p.165)