Readers vs. Breeders, David Boersema

David Boersema

Pacific University


Abstract: Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd, in their book, Not By Genes Alone, argue that culture is and has been essential to human adaptation; indeed, it is as much a part of human biology as bipedal locomotion. This feature of culture, they claim, is a striking anomaly in the natural world and one that sets us apart from other species. In this paper, I question this last claim and do so via an investigation of the role of cooperation within an evolutionary biological perspective.


During the several immediate decades following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, while quite a few biologists were challenging much of Darwin’s theory, others – both inside and outside of academia – were eager to accept and embrace many of Darwin’s claims, if not the theory wholesale. In particular, a number of influential thinkers were quick to relate Darwin’s notion of nature as being red in tooth and claw to human culture and society. For example, in his work, “The Gospel of Wealth,” Andrew Carnegie claimed,

The price which society pays for the law of competition, like the price it pays for cheap comforts and luxuries, is also great; but the advantages of this law are also greater still than its cost – for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development, which brings improved conditions in its train. But, whether the law be benign or not, we must say of it, as we say of the change in the conditions of men to which we have referred: It is here, we cannot evade it; no substitutes for it have been found; and while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department.


Likewise, William Graham Sumner, in his work, “Socialism,” stated,

Life in society is the life of a human society on this earth. Its elementary conditions are set by the nature of human beings and the nature of the earth. We have already become familiar, in biology, with the transcendent importance of the fact that life on earth must be maintained by a struggle against nature, and also by a competition with other forms of life. In the latter fact biology and sociology almost touch. Sociology is a science which deals with one range of phenomena produced by the struggle for existence, while biology deals with another. The forces are the same, acting on different fields and under different conditions. The sciences are truly cognate…The law of the survival of the fittest was not made by man and cannot be abrogated by man. We can only, by interfering with it, produce the survival of the unfittest.


Not everyone who accepted the bulk, or even the details, of this new evolutionary theory shared the Social Darwinism commitment of the primacy of the law of competition as being necessary for survival of the fittest. One notable example of this other perspective was Lester Frank Ward, who produced a number of works in sociology over several decades beginning in the 1880s. Ward argued that cooperation, more than competition, was a – if not the – primary cause of survival. Indeed, for Ward, the greater the cooperation, the greater the survival. And this “law” of cooperation was fully consistent with, if not directly resultant from, the reality of evolutionary doctrine. In no uncertain terms, Ward argued in his The Psychic Factors of Civilization,

The prevailing idea is wholly false which claims that it is the fittest possible that survive in this struggle [for existence]. The effect of competition is to prevent any form from attaining its maximum development, and to maintain a certain comparatively low level of development for all forms that succeed in surviving…Whenever competition is wholly removed, as through the agency of man in the interest of any one form, great strides are immediately made by the form thus protected, and it soon outstrips all those that depend upon competition for their motive to advancement. Such has been the case with the cereals and fruit trees, and with domestic animals, in fact, with all the forms of life that man has excepted from the biologic law and subjected to the law of mind…in so far as [man] has progressed at all beyond the purely animal stage he has done so through triumphing little by little over this law [of competition] and gaining somewhat the mastery in this struggle…Every implement or utensil, every mechanical device, every object of design, skill, and labor, every artificial thing that serves a human purpose, is a triumph of mind over the physical forces of nature in ceaseless and aimless competition…All human institutions – religion, government, law, marriage, custom – together with innumerable other modes of regulating social, industrial, and commercial life, are broadly viewed, only so many ways of meeting and checkmating the principle of competition as it manifests itself in society.


Now, a number of questions immediately emerge from Ward’s remarks. First, is cooperation indeed contrary to competition? Second, how is cooperation to be understood? Third, does – and, if so, why does – cooperation need explaining? That is, why is cooperation not taken as, for lack of a better term, a more “natural” byproduct of evolution than competition? Or, why does cooperation stand in need of fuller explanation than does competition, given a Darwinian context? I will address these questions below, and indeed I pose them here and now, because I believe this issue of the role and significance of cooperation, against a background of evolutionary theory, is related to the work of Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, in their recent book, Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). Here I want to trace out very briefly what I see as the connection and importance of the issue of evolutionary cooperation and the theses advanced by Richerson and Boyd (hereafter R&B). First, then, what are the basic theses put forth by R&B and what are their claims about cooperation?

R&B claim that humans are a striking anomaly in the natural world. While we are similar to other species, especially mammals, in many ways, our behavior sets us apart from them. In particular, our sociality, though not unique, is paramount. Our societies are larger, more complex, and more cooperative than those of any other species. Culture, resultant from our social behavior is essential to human adaptation, indeed, as much a part of human biology as bipedal locomotion. At the same time, R&B argue that only a Darwinian theory of evolution can explain human behavior and culture. Rather than a matter of nature vs. nurture, R&B claim that culture and biology are inextricably linked, so much so that each causally affects the other.

With respect to the matter of cooperation, what do R&B have to say? They offer several – but, really, only several – remarks with respect to cooperation. For example, they claim that “the symbiosis between genes and culture in the human species has led to an analogous major transition in the history of life – the evolution of complex cooperative human societies that radically transformed almost all the world’s habitats over the last ten thousand years” (p. 195). Most of their remarks about cooperation, however, focus on group identity, adaptations, and punishment. With respect to the first, they note: “Cooperation and group identification in intergroup conflict set up an arms race that drove social evolution to ever greater extremes of in-group cooperation” (p. 214), and also: “cooperation in animal societies is almost always organized along family lines, although the diversity within that generalization is certainly considerable” (p. 248). With respect to the second issue (adaptations), they claim: One of the human species’ main social adaptations is the ability to organize cooperation, coordination, and a division of labor on a much larger scale than the typical primate kin group” (p. 244). And: “evolutionary game theory shows how easily multiple evolutionary stable strategies arise even in rather simple games. For example, in the standard model of reciprocity, the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, any behavior from never cooperate to always cooperate and everything in between is favored by selection once it becomes common enough” (p. 248). Finally, with respect to the third issue (punishment), they state:

While moralistic punishment and reciprocity are often lumped together, they have very different evolutionary properties. Moralistic punishment is more effective in supporting large-scale cooperation than reciprocity for two reasons. First, punishment can be targeted, meaning that defectors can be penalized without generating the cascade of defection that follows when reciprocators refuse to cooperate with defectors. Second, with reciprocity, the severity of the sanction is limited by the effect of a single individual’s cooperation on each other group member, an effect that decreases as group size increases. Moralistic sanctions can be much more costly to defectors, so that cooperators can induce others to cooperate in large groups even when they are rare. Cowards, deserters, and cheaters may be attacked by their erstwhile compatriots, shunned by their society, made the targets of gossip, or denied access to territories or mates. Thus, moralistic punishment provides a much more plausible mechanism for the maintenance of large-scale cooperation than reciprocity.

…[But, if] moralistic punishment is common, and punishments sufficiently severe, then cooperation will pay. Most people go through life without having to punish very much, which in turn means that a predisposition to punish may be cheap compared with a disposition to cooperate (in the absence of punishment). Thus, relatively weak evolutionary forces can maintain a moralistic predisposition, and then punishment can maintain group-beneficial behavior. However, if evolutionary change is driven only by individual costs and benefits, then moralistic punishment can stabilize cooperation, but it can also stabilize anything else. Societies do often seem to use moralistic punishment or its threat to enforce social conventions of no apparent utility of any kind, such as wearing ties to work. Since cooperative behaviors are a tiny subset of all possible behaviors, punishment does not explain why large-scale cooperation is so widely observed. In other words, moralistic punishment may be necessary to sustain large-scale cooperation, but it is not sufficient to explain why large-scale cooperation occurs. (pp. 200-201)


Above, I mentioned several questions that arise regarding cooperation and its place in the structure of evolutionary thought. These various remarks by R&B point toward answering them. This last quote, especially, about cooperation and reciprocity, points toward the usual ways that evolutionary biologists speak of cooperation. We know that there are many types and tokens of cooperative behaviors and arrangements among organisms. For example, there are many cases of symbiotic relationships in which individual organisms of different species provide benefits to each other at little or no cost to each other. We know of benign parasitisms. There are familiar examples of apparent altruistic behaviors by individual organisms. Many biologists as well as philosophers, though apparently not R&B, take reciprocity as a form of cooperation. These various types of cooperative behaviors are usually explained in term of selfish behavior (such as cases of symbiotic relationships) or kin selection (such as cases of apparent altruistic behaviors), and hence, “really” selfish behavior.

But there are various conceptions of cooperation at work here. One conception is cooperation as different organisms seeking their own goals or ends and seeking to attain those ends via behaviors involving or consistent with the behaviors of other organisms. For example, in a symbiotic relationship, two different organisms are seeking to survive and attain that end (at least within a given, limited scope) via behaviors that are deemed cooperative; one organism, say, gains sustenance via helping to pollinate another organism or via consuming a third organism that is deleterious to its symbiotic partner. There is not a common mutual goal in this case, but independent goals of different organisms that are consistent with each other and promoted by each other. Another sense of cooperation, however, is behaviors of different organisms such that there is a common, mutual goal or end that is sought by the different organisms. This is not simply a matter of cooperation by convenience, but of a single goal being attained (or at least approached) only via mutually supporting behaviors of different organisms. This sense of “team work” or “pitching in” to get something done together in a way that transcends the individual organisms is more, I think, the sense of cooperation that Ward was suggesting when he said that cooperation, not competition, was the message to be taken from Darwin.

There is much more that could and should be said and analyzed about these notions of cooperation. For instance, one type of cooperation could simply be conformity, which I think in some ways is really what R&B’s discussion was about when they compared cooperation and reciprocity. At this point, however, I want to suggest that cooperation, like competition, is understandable only in the context of environments and niches. That is, behavior is cooperative, or for that matter competitive, only in relational contexts. Let me begin explaining this point with an example, taken from R&B, that is not directly about cooperation.

In the context of discussing culture as an adaptation, R&B draw a distinction between emulation and imitation. Here is what they say:

Psychologist Michael Tomosello and his coworkers conducted similar experiments in which chimpanzees and [human] children were shown how to use rakelike tools to obtain food that was out of reach. The chimps who watched expert demonstrators were more successful than untrained chimps in using the tool to obtain the food reward, but they did not imitate the precise method that their demonstrators had used. Children, on the other hand, followed the method they had been shown. Tomosello describes the ape technique as emulation rather than imitation; apes learn that a tool can be used to cause some desired effect by watching a demonstrator, but they don’t pay close attention to the details of how the tool is used. Children imitate so faithfully that they persist in using an inefficient technique, one that the chimpanzees usually abandon in favor of the more efficient alternative. Children aren’t smarter than chimpanzees in general, just much more imitative. Taken together, these experiments suggest that social learning in apes and humans is not the same. Children imitate very faithfully, while apes emulate or at least imitate less faithfully.

…[C]urrent evidence suggests that (1) cumulative cultural evolution is rare, and perhaps absent, in other species; and (2) even our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, rely on different modes of social learning than humans.

So far, we know of no convincing evidence that any other species ha a cultural item as complex as a stone-tipped spear…as Darwin put it, a “great gap” exists between humans and other animals. No other species seems to depend on culture to anywhere near the degree that humans do, and none seem adept at piling innovation atop innovation to create culturally evolved adaptations of extreme perfection. In fact, there is no evidence that humans made tools as complex as a stone-tipped spear until about four hundred thousand years ago. (p. 110)


Now, the reason I bring up this example is because I think that, given the necessity of seeing behaviors in the contexts of particular environments or niches, it is quite appropriate to ask why a chimp, say, would need to acquire learning regarding complex items. That is, given chimp environments or habitats (whatever those are), certain modes of social learning – let’s call them “emulations” – might well be exactly what makes the most sense. It would not be surprising that conditions in usual chimp habitats require tool use or tool making, including stone-tipped spears. The point I am trying to make is that modes of social learning should be understood and evaluated only in the light of such behaviors against a background of particular environments or habitats or niches. Likewise, not just learning behaviors, but cooperative (or, again, even competitive) behaviors need to be understood only against the background of environments, habitats, and niches. Culture, I would like to suggest, should be seen more as an environment, habitat, or niche for particular organisms, rather than as a force. Behaviors that can reasonably be deemed instances of cooperation are best seen as cooperative against background B1, but not necessarily against background B2. For example – and this will finally explain (at least, I hope so!) why I entitled this piece, “Readers vs. Breeders” – one instance of cooperative behavior is sending out emails to various people in order to organize a session at a professional academic meeting. This behavior (or set of behaviors) is actually maladaptive for standard evolutionary theory, since instead of reading, I should be optimizing my fitness right now by breeding. However, given the dazzling argumentation (?) displayed in this article, against a particular background (namely, that wealth and power, of course, flow unrestrainedly to captivating philosophers), this behavior is actually fulfilling this optimization. So, on the symbiotic model of cooperation, and given a particular background (in this case a cultural one), my reading behavior makes perfect evolutionary sense. Also, given the pitching in model of cooperation, where our mutual goal might be seeking a true and accurate understanding of evolutionary theory, and, again, given a particular (cultural) background, this reading behavior makes perfect evolutionary sense. My point here is that, contra R&B, culture should be seen as akin to an environment and not as akin to a force.

I would like to finish with an even broader (and even more captivatingly vague!) comment. It is a comment on the role of evolutionary theory as it relates to human culture and the issue of unity of science. Why are R&B concerned to demonstrate that culture has an explanatory and also causal role in our understanding of human development? On the one hand, it strikes me that their project is an attempt to make sense of what seems to them characteristic, if not unique, about humans, namely, that much of our behavior is best or perhaps only plausible as a result of forces, call them cultural, that are not reducible to physical forces, call them genes. On the other hand, they recognize the fecundity of evolutionary theory and genetics in making sense of human behavior, for example, by seeing cooperation as adaptations. At the risk of losing all those potential mating partners with this confession, I don’t know how to resolve this tension between the successes of reductionism on the one hand and what Jerry Fodor has labeled the confusion of reductionism with the generality of physics, on the other hand. That is, Fodor claims that we can embrace a unity of science by a commitment to token physicalism and a commitment to the generality of physics (meaning that any and all physical objects are subject to true physical laws) along with physics as the basic science (that it describes the behaviors of any and all physical objects qua physical objects). Unity of science based on these assumptions (token physicalism and the generality/ fundamentality of physics) does not entail or require reductionism and, so, does not entail or require that cultural be “explained away” as an adaptation. I confess that I am inclined to be sympathetic with this view of unity of science and I suspect that R&B might, as well, though I just don’t know. Maybe I should be spending more time reading.



Carnegie, Andrew. “The Gospel of Wealth.”

Fodor, Jerry. “Special Sciences.” Synthese 28 (1974): 97-115.

Richerson, Peter J. and Robert Boyd. Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Sumner, William Graham. “Socialism.” Scribner’s 16 (1878): 887-893.

Ward, Lester. The Psychic Factors of Civilization. Kila: Kessinger Pub., 2005.


This article is based on a talk given at the Western Oregon University, Monmouth Oregon, February 2007.