What Does New Study on Markets-Religion and Evolution of Fairness Prove?

A few days ago, I posted about a new study that has generated major media attention and continues to do so.  I deferred my own review until I could examine the article (and supporting materials) — “Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment” — in their entirety.  I have now read the study three times.  For added context, I also read Constance Holden’s summary, which is titled “Playing Fair Came Late.”

In almost every way, this is an enormous study.  There are fourteen authors whose disciplinary specialties range from anthropology to economics to sociology to psychology.  The grant monies expended on the project must have been considerable.  The amounts of data collected are huge, and the statistical analyses of the data are tremendously sophisticated and complex.  The study was published in Science, which many consider to be the world’s leading scientific journal.  All the authors will receive appropriate recognition from their respective tenure, promotion, and salary review committees.

When these things are considered together, it must mean that something exceedingly important was studied and some clear conclusions reached.  So what does this study prove?  I think it confirmed the obvious point that culture influences behavior.  It is hardly surprising that markets and religion might influence peoples’ sense of fairness in larger, more complex and modern societies.  Adam Smith knew this, as did Max Weber.

As for the study itself, the categories under consideration are so large and contain so many variables that I am not sure anything was proved or disproved.  There are so many potentially confounding factors that it is difficult to know where to begin.  For those interested in such variables, you can find many incisive comments on the study over at the Tierney Lab.  I particularly like this one:

The correlation with religion, for example, is not an indication of causation. This is a classic and often repeated error in today’s ‘scientific’ reports from health to environment; correlation does not indicate causation. Correlation can indicate possible areas for a scientific study to test the implied hypothesis by first removing, or compensating for, all foreseen other factors.

This comment deserves added weight, given that the authors of the study used a simple binary code (“Yes/No”) to indicate whether participants belonged to a “world religion.”  It is well known that “religion” in small-scale societies is syncretic and ecumenical.  Members of such societies usually have no difficulty believing in world religions, local religions, and all manner of spirits.

What this study did not prove is something that a few of the authors claim it did: that a sense of fairness only “evolved” with the emergence of larger, more complex societies over the last 10,000 years.  “Playing fair” did not, as Constance Holden contends, “come late.”  Playing fair to total strangers might have been a latecomer, but this is fundamentally different from “the evolution of fairness.”

The set-up for the authors’ claim comes early in the study, when they observe that “Two major theoretical approaches have sought to explain both the relatively rapid expansion of human societal scales and the puzzlingly prosocial behavior observed in experiments.”  These approaches are then presented as antitheticals:

The first approach proposes that humans possess an innate social psychology calibrated to life in the small-scale societies of our Paleolithic ancestors [that is] rooted in the evolutionary logic of kinship and reciprocity.

An alternative approach proposes that a crucial ingredient in the rise of more-complex societies was the development of new social norms and informal institutions that are capable of domesticating our innate psychology for life in ever-expanding populations.

These approaches are not exclusive — indeed, they are complementary.  Both are correct and they follow a temporal sequence.  A sense of fairness and altruism did evolve in our ancestors and is innate.  This is the prosocial substrate on which later and more expansive norms of fairness were constructed by newer cultural forms (such as markets and religion).

Did we really need a study of this size, complexity, and expense to make these arguments and reach these conclusions?

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