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Evolution of the Social Contract Paperback – Jun 28 1996
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"...an excellent, accessible, clear, organized book--and the ideas are delicious and nutritious." D. Dennett, 1997
"Readers from many disciplines-including biology, economics, philosophy, and political science will find fruitful ideas in this book." Larry Arnhart, The Review of Politics
A recognized authority on game and decision theory investigates traditional problems of the social contract in terms of evolutionary dynamics. Game theory is skillfully employed to offer new interpretations of a variety of social phenomena, including justice, mutual aid, commitment, convention and meaning.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
It is here that the positive section of the review comes to a close. Skyrms shows his to be a particularly undisciplined and undignified mind, not in subject but in manner of thinking. My analysis need go no further than his commentary on "The Evolution of Meaning". In my opinion this painfully dogmatic way of thought comes to its apex in the following quote: "These theorists should quietly go out of business." pg 81
Well Mr. Skyrms why should you condemn another thinker so harshly unless to hide the insecurity of your own process of thought. In this review I claim no absolute authority, only personal belief. If you wish them out of business I read the implication to be that they cease creating such skeptical thoughts. Do you then consider worthless the contributions of these thinkers - 'these thinkers' who you choose not to mention by name in this section but only class them together as "literary critical theorists" in what may prove to be your own private hallucination. You claim to want doubt but it appears that you want a safe and bounded doubt. A doubt that you can cast aside when you become scared of the dark simply because you wish to fool yourself rather than be afraid.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I think the final chapter is one of the most compelling explanations available in print of how differential reproduction can and does most frequently create environments where individuals of a species engage in activities that benefit the group at their own personal expense. He leads directly to the point of any given chapter without beating you over the head with it and by the time you get there, you realize that it was without resorting to extensive technical language or drawing on a huge number of oblique studies. It probably doesn't need to be said that this book doesn't provide much to the "rational choice social contract" thinkers and I think the title is more than enough to steer them away, anyway.
In summary, I think this book would be of tremendous interest to anyone interested in Game theory, Theoretical mathematics, sociology, political science, microeconomics or any of a number of different fields specifically because of the author's aversion to distilling the ideas presented in the book into a misleading one sentence conclusion. If you're looking for a brief yet salient discussion of the subject matter, this is both.
* Bargaining games and distributive justice
* Ultimatum games and commitment
* Prisoner's dilemma and mutual aid
* Hawk-dove and the origins of ownership
* Signaling games and the evolution of meaning
I have three minor complaints. The first is that title does not accurately reflect the contents of the book. There is no explicit discussion of the social contract. Few biological and no historical examples (I'm not counting the literary ones, such as from Dante). It is mostly logical/mathematical in content, while employing almost no equations, so anyone with sound reasoning skills should be able to follow. My second concern is that it is dense. Maybe padding it with more, illustrated examples would aid comprehension. My third concern is that the examples were a bit too abstract at times. Perhaps this reflects the author's background (Professor of Logic & Philosophy of Science and Economics). Althought it is gratifying to know that the mathematical tools can be applied so generally, concrete examples are easier to relate to. That said, some of the examples, especially those accompanied by diagrams made me want to verify the results by running a simulation myself. It turns out that the code and results are online; just search for them.
The evolution of fairness, commitment, social conventions, and language are explained in terms of evolutionary game theory. Although this requires a tolerance for toy-models with low levels of realism, the language is not technical. You will have to think a bit, but the book never gets too abstract. Another strong point is that Skyrms, a philosopher by formation, is able to link his models to the main philosophical literature on the topic.
The author does not elaborate on academic discussions about the evolution of cooperation. For example, his account of the evolution of cooperation as resulting from the correlated pairings of cooperators in the population is by no means uncontested. But then, being more complete would require a much larger and probably rather more boring volume, so we forgive him.
Ultimately, the social contract is hardly mentioned. But Skyrms does discredit a simple account in which evolution only favours the selfish, and has made it good reading too.
addresses a subject lying at the intersection of the social sciences, philosophy, and evolutionary biology -- how it is possible for social structures to emerge among populations of selfishly-acting individuals.
Using Rousseau's example of a Stag Hunt, in which hunters face a decision between a less-risky but less-rewarding individual hunt forhare, or the more-risky but more-rewarding cooperative hunt for stag, Skyrms addresses three emergence of social structure as a product of three distinct effects:
Two chapters on each of these, plus an initial chapter introducing the stag hunt in elementary game-theoretic terms and describing its relevance to task at hand comprise this thoroughly enjoyable 150-page volume.
Readers like myself, who approach Skyrms' book having read Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation (or much of the voluminous literature it spawned), will hesitate at Skyrm's choice of an assurance game (as the stag hunt is known in more prosaic circles) to model the growth of societal organization, preferring the familiar Prisoners' Dilemma. Drawing from the political philosophy of Hume, from recent re-examination of John Maynard Smith's haystack model of the evolution of altruism, and from experimental economics, Skyrms' justifies his choice in the first chapter.
Next, Skyrms discusses the relevance of Location, as egoistic actors repeatedly play divide-the-dollar against randomly-selected partners, and against neighbors arrayed on a lattice (as in, for example xlife). In the latter scenario, rapid movement toward a "just" equilibrium of even division is observed. Here, as throughout the book, Skyrms reinforces the timeless relevance of the theme he treats (in this chapter, with allusions to distributive justice discussion by Aristotle and Kant). This tactic runs the risk of distracting the reader, or making the writer seem like a name-dropper or pedant, but Skyrms uses it to very positive effect.
In the book's next chapter, the dynamic behavior of local interactions in a stag hunt game among actors with different degrees and kinds of knowledge about the previous successes of others is discussed. This establishes a fuller picture of how the spatial structure affects the macro-level outcome. Since I read this chapter while waiting for a plane, I focused less on the details and more on the main idea, which is that outcomes vary depending on the breadth of actors' vision in considering whom to imitate, and on how small the set of neighbors with whom they may interact is. Here, the book's first part ends.
Part II concerns Signals. The second of its two chapters considers the evolutionary dynamics of a stag hunt with "cheap talk" -- a player's strategy is not only whether to hunt stag or hare, but also what signal to send, and how to respond to signals he receives. The preceding chapter concerns itself with the development of social conventions, using as its first example language itself. How can language have come about, since the only way to communicate the extremely complex convention which speech represents is via speech itself? In considering this, Skyrms draws on David Lewis and presents in 14 pages a demonstration of how a system of logical inference can evolve, presupposing nothing (such as rationality, intentionality) that has not been observed at the level of a bacterium! That is cool.
The book's third and final part concerns Association. In the first of its chapters, actors strategies are fixed (in contrast with the entire book until now, in which they evolve), and the interaction patterns among actors are allowed to evolve. Will groups of "friends" form? Will they be long-lived or ephemeral? How does this depend upon chance, length of memory of good times or of slights? Interesting reading, but by now one's expectations are high! The final chapter considers simultaneously evolving strategies and interaction structures.
I enjoyed this book immensely. Its power derives from its inter-disciplinary foundation, its unflagging clarity of exposition, and the sheer magnitude of the question it tries (with some success!) to answer.
Inasmuch as the ubiquity of the computer, and the interconnectedness it affords so many people has focused attention on the sorts of issues discussed in this small but important volume, Skyrms has produced a work directly relevant to many of those who are reading this brief review.
Personally, I feel the value transcends mere pragmatic utility.
(A very slightly different version of this review appears at [...]
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