Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Lee Cronk & Beth L. Leech's "Meeting at Grand Central"

Lee Cronk is professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. He is the author of That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior. Beth L. Leech is associate professor of political science at Rutgers University. She is the coauthor of Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation, and reported the following:
The goal of Meeting at Grand Central is to connect the evolutionary and social science approaches to understanding human cooperation, and page 99 comes at a critical point of baton-passing from the evolutionary approach to the social scientific one. In this chapter, entitled “Cooperation and the Individual,” we describe important theories that evolutionary scientists have used to explain why humans tend to be so cooperative with one another. These include such ideas as reciprocity, cooperative partner choice, cheater detection, indirect reciprocity, the effects of reputations and audiences, and, lastly, signals that individuals send regarding their commitments to cooperative groups. For reasons that scientists do not yet fully understand, religious signals of commitment, which can be onerous, time-consuming, and sometimes quite painful, seem to be particularly good at engendering high levels of cooperation within groups of co-believers.
The irrationality of religious beliefs and practices enhances their effectiveness as signals of commitment. Because committing oneself to acting against one’s own short-term interests is in itself irrational, irrational acts can be convincing displays of such commitments. Robert Frank has suggested that emotions may play an important role in such displays. Consider, for example, romantic love. Committing oneself to a single man or woman is, in most circumstances, irrational. … By blinding us both to our partner’s shortcomings and to the competing charms of other prospective mates, romantic love makes our commitment believable. The power of emotional signals is also evident when we compare religious signals, which typically have a powerful emotional element, and secular ones, which typically appeal more to the head than to the heart.
On page 99, we describe work conducted by anthropologist Montserrat Soler on cooperation among practitioners of an Afro-Brazilian religion called Candombl√©. Soler found that members of Candombl√© congregations who made more displays of commitment to the religion were more cooperative in an experimental game. In addition, members of the congregations who were more likely to be in need of support from the congregation made more displays of commitment to the group. Other scholars have argued that the high levels of cooperation in religious groups might be due to a fear of supernatural punishment rather than because of the signaling of commitment going on among group members. One nice thing about Candombl√© in this regard is that it does not include any beliefs in supernatural punishment. As we say on page 99, “Signals appear to be doing all the work.” This example provides a nice segue into the next chapter, “Cooperation and Institutions,” which explores the ways in which organizational structures combine with our evolved psychology to help us achieve our remarkably high levels of cooperation.
Learn more about Meeting at Grand Central at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue