Economist Samuel Bowles: Still awesome after all these years: Another from the “old news, but interesting news” file

Noted institutional/evolutionary economist Samuel Bowles in an article from New Scientist last year on farming (the agricultural revolution…) as “initially a step back for human productivity.” (The more rigorous and detailed analysis at PNAS can be found here.)

Bowles is always an interesting read, and typically exceptionally well-reasoned. Someone I’m often forced to agree with, whether I want to or not, and at the very least challenges me to refine my own thinking nearly every occasion I read him.

Bowles, with Herbert Gintis, has contributed substantially to the economics and evolution of human cooperative behavior; I draw on their work often. Cosma Shalizi has a nice introduction into this area of their work from over decade ago:

…[I]ndividualist theories [read: e.g., neoclassical economics — Agroecoprof] have proven theoretically insightful, practically useful, and surprisingly powerful. They are also basically unrealistic. The standard individual economic agent, Homo economicus, has been called a “hedonistic sociopath.” …Nobody, not even exponents of “rational choice” theories, is much like Homo economicus, which is good for humanity, but bad for those theories…

…Though most find Homo economicus an implausible caricature of human behavior, for want of any replacement, he has had to do. However, one of the most exciting developments in the social sciences in recent years is the emergence of someone to take his place — called Homo reciprocans by Samuel Bowles…
Perhaps the most striking way to introduce this character is with some results from experimental economics. Take public goods games: the experimenter gives his subjects some money and explains that they can choose, separately, how much to keep and how much to contribute to a common pool, which will be, say, doubled, to pay for a benefit in which all will share equally. The payoffs are such that contributing nothing maximizes one’s individual gains. In such “collective action” situations, Homo economicus contributes nothing, and hopes to exploit everyone else. In real-life experiments, however, few, often less than a half of the subjects, start out doing this. When given the opportunity, experimental subjects can be surprisingly determined to punish those who cheated them, even at considerable cost to themselves. More surprisingly, this is true even on the last round of the game, when they couldn’t hope that punishing the cheaters now would change their behavior in the future. Homo economicus, by contrast, realizes that punishing cheaters under these conditions is, like contributing to the common pool, a pure waste of money, and so refrains from doing so…

This [and additional examples cut from this excerpt; see the original] suggests a very different view of what economic agents are actually like, and thus emerges Homo reciprocans. As Bowles puts it in an essay with his long-time collaborator and fellow U-Mass economist Herbert Gintis: “Homo reciprocans comes to new social situations with a propensity to cooperate and share, responds to cooperative behavior by maintaining or increasing his level of cooperation, and responds to selfish, free-riding behavior on the part of others by retaliating against the offenders, even at a cost to himself, and even when he could not reasonably expect future personal gains from such retaliation.” This is certainly in line with empirical observations: people do produce public goods, they do observe normative restraints on the pursuit of self-interest (even when there is nobody watching), and they will put themselves to a lot of trouble to hurt rulebreakers.

…norms do not vary in arbitrary and indefinite ways; there are certain patterns which appear to be common across societies. In experimental games, subjects explain their acts by saying that self-seeking behavior would not be “fair.” Fairness need not mean equality, but inequality does have to be justified somehow. They must have reasons for it; a person may be rewarded for skill or effort; for virtue; or (a surprisingly common move) because they are more than human, at the very least a different and much better kind of human…

…the capability for reciprocans-type behavior is something very deeply wired into our brains. This only makes more pressing the question, which will have already occurred to readers familiar with sociobiology, of how (if at all) Homo reciprocans can evolve and sustain itself in a population which contains some exploiters. In the presence of such exploiters, natural selection will tend to eliminate organisms which engage in unprofitable behaviors, such as helping others or engaging in costly punishments. One of the standard theories of the evolution of cooperation between relatives evades this by postulating “assortative” interactions between kin — if organisms tend to interact with their close relatives, which carry many of the same genes, then altruistic behaviors can establish themselves, even in populations which contain many exploiters. Applying such reasoning to non-kin, one of Bowles and Gintis’ most recent papers shows that Homo reciprocans could have evolved during the Paleolithic era in a similar way: reciprocators could have proliferated in a population, even if their fitness was reduced by upholding norms, so long as reciprocators were more likely to find themselves with other reciprocators in well-ordered groups capable of surviving bouts of material scarcity and attacks that norm-flouting groups could not endure.

This excerpt from Shalizi is, well, highly excerpted. Again: read the original.

Something else I saw in my inevitably excessive stream-of-related-reading was something I hadn’t realized about Bowles before: he worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. An old bio yields tons of other interesting points:

The first year I taught introductory economics, one of my students asked me something like this: in view of the fact that scientific knowledge is freely available and people’s biology is relatively similar around the world, why is it that some nations are so rich and others so poor? Another wanted to know whether this came about because ‘they’ were incompetent or because ‘we’ exploited ‘them’. I had no answer; my training in neoclassical economics had left me totally unprepared to address these questions... With the civil rights movement in full swing, the Vietnam war escalating, and student power struggles erupting at schools and universities around the world, the chasm between the important issues of the day and what economists taught was simply too gaping for many of my generation to tolerate. I decided that I could not face my students unless I reeducated myself…

Like others around the country who joined to found the Union for Radical Political Economics in 1968, we sought in seemingly endless seminars and conversations to develop an approach to economics which, unlike the dominant neoclassical paradigm, could illuminate rather than ignore or obfuscate our political concerns with racism, sexism, imperialism, injustice and the alienation of labour. Not surprisingly, Marxism was an important intellectual guidepost in this quest…

From Arestis, P., and M. Sawyer, Eds. “Samuel Bowles.” In A Biographical Dictionary of Dissenting Economists, pp. 54- 59. Edward Elgar Publishing, 1992. (For completeness, one might note that Bowles has moved beyond or outside of any kind of classical Marxist tradition, although it obviously has remained an “important intellectual guidepost”.)

From Bowles’s piece at the Sante Fe Institute remembering MLK:

His life and death did change the course of history.
He changed mine too. Just before his assassination, while preparing for his Poor People’s March he asked a group of young economists to prepare background papers on economic aspects of inequality in America. It was a bittersweet experience: I was elated that I could use economics to engage with King’s project; but I was also shocked and eventually angry at how ill-served I was in this task by my Ph.D. training in economics. More than any other experience this was the catalyst that led me to abandon conventional economics.
He was a brilliant, kind, and witty man. Once while campaigning in Cambridge neighborhoods against the Vietnam War I had mentioned my interest in Buddhism and non- violence as a schoolboy in India. Driving him hurriedly to the next canvassing location I barely missed our being crushed (on the passenger side!) by an on-rushing bus: “You certainly don’t drive non-violently, young man” he said quietly.

What could one possibly say to follow that?

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This entry was posted in Economics, History of Agriculture/Agricultural Revolution, Homo recipricans, Hopey-Changery, Links-a-lot, Phronesis, Samuel Bowles [economist]. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Economist Samuel Bowles: Still awesome after all these years: Another from the “old news, but interesting news” file

  1. Pingback: Homo Economicus: razón, evolución y el factor Homer Simpson | Maven Trap

  2. Pingback: Economist Samuel Bowles: Still awesome after all these years: Another from the “old news, but interesting news” file | J Shogren (Shanghai'd)

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