Monday, December 10, 2007

The tragedy of the commons in evolutionary biology

In the December issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Daniel Rankin, Katja Bargum and Hanna Kokko from Finland review some fascinating recent research on the study of commons dilemmas in non-human context such as plants competing for light and virus phages overharvesting a host bacteria. After they discuss a number of examples, they discuss the ways biological systems have overcome the dilemmas. The main explanatory process is group selection, which may favor groups where individuals have found ways to cooperate. Such a cooperative solution could be restraining to cheat ("social norms") and punishment (like eating eggs from egg-laying workers in social insect societies). Future work may provide insights in possible genetic foundations of solving collective action problems.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Cooperation with ingroup and outgroup persons

In a paper in te October 26 edition of Science by Jung-Kyoo Choi and Sam Bowles, entitled "The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War", they discuss the interesting dilemma why people cooperate with members of a group, but not with those outside the group. How does this conditional cooperation with non-kin evolve? Assuming conditions likely to have been experienced by late Pleistocene and early Holocene humans, nor altruism nor parochialism, will evolve on its own. Only combined altruism and parochialism evolve.
Last year, Stuart West and his colleages, published a paper in Current Biology (16(11): 1103-1106) on "Cooperation and the Scale of Competition in Humans". This paper discusses a similar phenemena as Choi and Bowles, agents are more selfish when they compete on local resources, but cooperate when agents compete for resources at a larger level. This can interpret as agents cooperate with people in a group when they compete with resources of other groups.
These papers show an interesting puzzle. Humans cooperate at high levels, also with non-kin, but also show highly competitive and selfish behavior. These studies show that there might be evolutionary indications of conditional cooperation. It would be useful if economists (Choi and Bowles) and biologists (West et al.) will cooperate with psychologists who focus on ingroup and outgroup dynamics.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Genetics and Ultimatum Game

This week two interesting papers appeared who had unusual design to study fairness by using ultimatum games. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA of October 2, Björn Wallace and his colleagues performed large series of ultimatum games with monozygotic twins and dizygotic twins using a Swedish Twin Registry. A significant correlation of acceptence threshold was found for the twins with the same set of genes (monozygotic twins), while this was not the case for twins whoms genes are not the same (dizgotic twins). Additional statistical analysis shows that at least 40% of the decisions can be explained by genetic information.

In Science of October 5, Keith Jensen and colleages report on mini-ultimatum games with chimpanzees. In the experiment the proposer has to make an initial decision which of two sliding trayes with raisins. The dishes of raisins have different distributions of raisins. The other chimpanzee can pull the trayes further so that both chimpanzees will get raisins. With a mini-ultimatum game is meant that predefined sets of distributions of raisins are given. Interestingly, the responder almost never refused to help with getting the raisins, even when the distribution is not fair. Looking more closely we see that refusal correlates with unfair distributions. When the responder gets nothing, the rejection rate is 44%, while it is 0% when teh responder gets 80%. The authors concluder that chimpanzees are rational maximizers. I would not agree, since chimpanzees do not play an anonymous one-shot game, like mimiced with experiments with human subjects. Hence rejecting to help, may affect the options of getting help in future events.
In sum, both papers show some interesting material that suggest that there is genetic influence, although inherent recently in evolutionary time.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Why conservation efforts often fail

Modern conservation techniques have brought us the resurgence of American bald eagles, sustainable forest harvests, improved water quality of rivers and the rescue of prized lobster fisheries. So how can modern conservation strategies also have wrought such failures, from the catastrophic loss of Sumatra’s forests, disappearance of the Aral Sea to the economy-crippling Klamath River salmon kill in 2006?
In this week's special issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, edited by Elinor Ostrom, Marco Janssen and John Anderies, social scientists argue that while many basic conservation strategies are sound, their use is often flawed. The strategies are applied too generally, they say, as an inflexible, regulatory "blueprint" that foolishly ignores local customs, economics and politics.
"We now ridicule the doctors who long ago used to tell us, 'Take two aspirin and call me in the morning' as a treatment for every single illness," said Ostrom. "Resource management is just as complex as the human body. It needs to be approached differently in different situations."
In her own contribution, Ostrom proposes a flexible "framework" for determining what factors will influence resource management, whether that resource is forest, fish... even air.
"What we are learning is that you shouldn't ignore what's going on at the local level," Ostrom said. "It may even be beneficial to work with local people, including the resource exploiters, to create effective regulation."
Modern conservation theory relies on well established mathematical models that predict what will happen to a species or habitat over time. One thing these models can't account for are the unpredictable behavior of human beings whose lives influence and are influenced by conservation efforts.
The framework is divided into tiers that allow conservationists and policymakers to delineate those factors most likely to affect the protection or management of a given resource.
The first tier imposes four broad variables: the resource system, the resource units, the governance system and the resource users. The second tier examines each of these variables in greater detail, such as the government and non-government entities that may already be regulating the resource, the innate productivity of a resource system, the size and placement of the system, the system's economic value and what sorts of people use the resource -- from indigenous people to heads of state. The third tier digs even deeper into each of the basic variables.
"I admit it's ambitious," Ostrom said. "It lays out a research program for the next 15-20 years. A research program that will be central to the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity"
Anderies and Janssen worked together with ASU colleagues Armando Rodriguez and Oguzhan Cifdaloz from Electrical Engineering on a contribution to the special issue that illustrates the use of methods developed to engineer systems to function well in uncertain environments, such as airplanes dealing with turbulence, to ecosystem management.
Engineers have developed sophisticated techniques to design airplanes, bridges and space shuttles to meet high performance criteria while being robust to disturbances and unanticipated events. There is a cost to be robust, and robust control systems are used to trade off performance and robustness.
“To increase the financial robustness of a family, one may buy life insurance.” Anderies said. “Unfortunately, it is much more difficult buy insurance against the “death” of ecosystems and the critical services they provide.”
The ASU team applies their approach to a standard problem in fishery management and showed that no robust strategies can be developed when there is uncertainty surrounding several key parameters relevant to the management problem. Strikingly, the ability to reduce sensitivity of the performance of the fishery was partitioned among two groups of parameters. That is, policies designed to reduce sensitivity to parameters in one group necessarily lead to increased sensitivity to parameters in the other group. In this way, the robust control approach outlined in the paper can help to inform where to invest research efforts and learning to reduce particular classes of uncertainty in order to design robust management strategies.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Real crisis in virtual worlds and the need for institutions

A bank in Second Life Ginko has been dissolved creating a loss of 750,000 actual US dollars of it's members. The unregulated world of second life leads to an interesting experiment of the evolution of institutions. At least it becomes clear that also in virtual world institutional arrangements need to be crafted to govern the virtual and real resources.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


The cover article of Science of July 27 is about the research potential of virtual worlds. It is written by William Sims (!!) Bainbridge, who is a program officer at the National Science Foundation. The argument is that nowadays so many people make use of virtual worlds, especially for entertainment, that it might be a platform to study social, behavioral and economic processes and derive high quality data for large populations. Although this sounds appealing, I have reservations in using this for the study of institutions and many other social phenomena since the population of participants is not a random sample, but a self-selected group of people who like to entertain themselves. Hence the motivations might be quite different if one likes to study how people share common resources.
Nevertheless, we should look at these developments seriously as it might provide a unique opportunity for the longer term to derive high quality data for large groups. I think this will require somewhat different virtual communities, and goals of the games beyond killing other avatars. At CSID we develop and perform experiments in virtual 2D and 3D environments. Our participant group is a random sample of our data base of undergraduate students at ASU and participants derive monetary incentives (one typically earns about $15-$25 in one hour experiments). I expect we will see in the coming years developments that will combine experimental environments with virtual worlds, but it will take quite some exploration to find out what the best format will be to be useful for testing all kind of social science theories.

cooperation and big brother

for your eys only
Manfred Milinski and Bettina Rockenbach report in a recent perspective article in Science on the impact of feeling being watched on cooperation in social dilemmas. Even when images of eyes are used in the experimental environment, cooperation increases. This effect is used in various artifacts like he totem poles in North America (see picture left).
In field experiments CSID and colleagues are doing in Thailand and Colombia it seems from prelimenary data that Thai communities were more cooperative. Was this caused by the picture of the royal family that is present in each public space in Thailand, including the locations where the experiments were done?

Can we trust avatars?

avataravatar
Kristine Nowak and Christian Rauh of the University of Connecticut wrote an interesting paper where they describe an experiment to test how people perceive the trustworthiness of avatars. Volunteers where chatting and they were represented as avatars with different levels of gender specific representation. The androgynous-looking avatars were perceived as being less credible. The authors make a leap to trustworthiness and argue that human-like avatars are important for representing trustworthy avatars. Doing experiments with just text chat and observing an amazing level of cooperation, I wonder if the authors make too much of a leap. It might be different if people can represent themselves by choosing a certain type of avatar. But here the volunteers might understand that avatars were not necessarily relate to the participants own choices.

Not by genes alone


Has evolution led to humans with hard-wired decision algorithms, or is striking cooperative arrangements in human societies a consequence of cultural processes? This is the main struggle Richerson and Boyd (2005) deal with. Probably humans have derives hard-wired decision making processes when it lived like hunter-gatherers for many millenia. But the rapid changes in organization in the past 10,000 years can be better be explained by transmission of cultural mechanisms. Although Boyd and Richerson have performed a lot of formal modeling in the past, this book synthesize their work without any formal models. They provide a lot of interesting examples of how culture adapt and maladapt. They provide a convincing argument that to understand human societies we need to understand how culture and genes have co-evolved.

Welcome to CSID blog

We are still in the starting phase of building up the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity but now we have Ann Evans started as our coordinator and have Amber Wutich and Abby York starting in the Fall as new faculty, we are leaping forward. We are using this blog to update you on what is happening with research, news events and other activities relevant to our center.
A nice introduction to what we are investigating is given in a recent presentation of Elinor Ostrom, our Founding Director, during the opening of the Stockholm Resilience Center, May 29.