Monday, April 12, 2010

This is, after all, a write in haste-repent at leisure medium

[make sure to check out the comments section]

There's a common type of blog post that consists of sarcastic dismissal of a statement followed by critical statements. Though they tend to be mean, they can be fun read and, if the criticisms are valid, can add quite a bit to the conversation.

The main problem with this type of post is that has an ugly habit of devolving into just a sarcastic dismissal and those devolved posts are not so defensible (even if I'm the one writing them). This is not only mean but cowardly. By leaving out the reasons behind your sarcasm you deny your subjects the chance to defend themselves.

A couple of days ago, I made a sarcastic comment about this passage from the New York Times. Here is the quote:

The road between the two cultures — science and literature — can go both ways. “Fiction provides a new perspective on what happens in evolution,” said William Flesch, a professor of English at Brandeis University.

To Mr. Flesch fictional accounts help explain how altruism evolved despite our selfish genes. Fictional heroes are what he calls “altruistic punishers,” people who right wrongs even if they personally have nothing to gain. “To give us an incentive to monitor and ensure cooperation, nature endows us with a pleasing sense of outrage” at cheaters, and delight when they are punished, Mr. Flesch argues. We enjoy fiction because it is teeming with altruistic punishers: Odysseus, Don Quixote, Hamlet, Hercule Poirot.

And here are comments to my post by Prof. Flesch.

My problems with Prof. Flesch's statement and more importantly with the NYT article are as follows.

Altruistic punishment has become a bit of a flavor of the month, one of those fashionable ideas that people like to work into conversations and op-ed pieces. Unfortunately this often leads to the ideas being applied where they don't fit or being used as labels for related ideas. This can (and, I would argue, should) prompt greater scrutiny and that scrutiny should always start with the question, is the concept being used correctly?

What are the requirements of altruistic punishment?

The punisher has to proceed knowing that not punishing the offender would produce a better outcome for the punisher. Outcome here needs to be broadly defined to include not only the material but also reproductive and reputational – the loan shark who has a defaulter killed is not engaged in altruistic punishment even though he probably would have collected more from a living customer; he is investing in a reputation that will make future defaults less likely.

To make sure not to confound the problem, researchers often focus on unrelated strangers with whom no future encounters are anticipated.

Altruistic punishment is normally discussed in the context of the evolution of large-scale cooperation. "Unlike other creatures, people frequently cooperate with genetically unrelated strangers, often in large groups, with people they will never meet again, and when reputation gains are small or absent." (Fehr and Gächter) The behavior suggests that individuals are biologically programmed to want to enforce the rules that make complex societies possible.

With all that out of the way, can we reasonably say that Odysseus (or, for that matter, Hamlet or Poirot) is an altruistic punisher?

The mythic world of the Odyssey was small and greatly concerned with reputation and social standing. It was clearly in Odysseus' interest to be seen as a dangerous and vengeful opponent. Acts that enhance that reputation can't really be considered altruistic punishment even if (as with Polyphemus and his father) the acts turn out to be more costly than expected.

It is even more difficult to make the case for altruistic punishment in the killing of the suitors. Here we have a group that has threatened to take his property (material), marry his wife and kill his son (genetic) and humiliate him in the process (reputational). It is the trifecta of self-interest. There was a high potential cost to this act but that alone is not sufficient to make it altruistic punishment. (besides, the consequences were based not only on the deaths of the suitors but also on the loss to those who accompanied him to Troy. He might well have faced an angry mob if he had simply told the suitors to go home.)

I admit my knowledge of the Odyssey is weak and I may well have missed some important aspect that supports the hypothesis that Odysseus was an altruistic punisher and not simply someone who pursued great goals at great costs, but they aren't obvious to the casual reader.

As for the other examples, Don Quixote probably does qualify. Hamlet is more problematic. He is acting in the interest of his father which brings in a genetic component (I'm not sure what the evolutionary psychology implications are of his father being a ghost). There's also a self-preservation aspect (perhaps more obvious in the Amleth version). As for Poirot, both his livelihood and his reputation rely on his ability to solve crimes. There are cases (most notably Curtain) where his goal is clearly altruistic punishment, but in most of his cases there is a clear element of self-interest. You could, however, make a pretty good argument for Lord Peter Whimsey.

And there are certainly examples of altruistic punishment out there. The Count of Monte Cristo is a good fit since there is no apparent material or reproductive gain and most of the revenge is carried out anonymously. Crime fiction also provides numerous protagonists (Lew Archer, Travis McGee, Matt Scudder) who take cases from strangers then continue to pursue them after their clients had stopped paying them. In one book, Scudder went so far as to make a suicide look like a murder then frame the man who was morally responsible for the death.

We could go on (anyone care to make the case for Miss Havisham?) but I don't know what it would accomplish. Like every other imaginable human behavior, altruistic punishment occurs in literature. We can take that as a not very interesting given.

There are cases where analyzing a work in terms of evolutionary psychology can provide real and unique insights. All too often, though, when an idea like altruistic punishment becomes fashionable, juxtaposition often replaces analysis. References to trendy terms like market forces or the prisoner's dilemma are stuck into arguments where they contribute little and often don't even apply (such as trying to use the prisoner's dilemma to describe a stag hunt).

We should always welcome new ideas and cross-pollination, but when we see a headline in the New York Times that starts with the words "Next Big Thing," it's probably a time to be a bit more critical.

(and if I had an issue with an New York Times article, I suppose I should have done more than slam one quote.)

1 comment:

  1. Much more interesting, and a reasonable riposte to the article's quotation of me.

    But I should make it clear that I have a huge beef with "Literary Darwinism" already, at least the way it's mainly practiced, which is that it treats fictional characters as though they're real biological beings. (Here's another article where I'm quoted expressing some skepticism: .) My claim is not that Odysseus, Poirot, etc. are actually altruistic punishers. They're actually figments of the fictional imagination. Rather we real people, in the audience, are disposed to approve those who discomfit defectors. They're not our defectors: the suitors can do nothing to us. We don't have an Argos in that fight. But we still care, and care that the person who returns victorious has already shown himself heroic in the mode of a.p.

    Fehr and Gacther, among many others, feature largely in my book, especially their fMRI observation that revenge seems to taste sweetest in anticipation.

    Anyhow the figures I listed are on the whole hard ones to make claims for as altruistic punishers, and yet I think I can make those claims, which is why I listed them. The Times article kept the list but not the reasons.

    But the crucial interaction is among the reputation scorers -- audience and author, especially since reputation scorers themselves get scored on how well they score.

    By this I mean that there's a lot of interesting competition between authors and audience (can we figure out whodunit before Christie tells us? how on earth can Catherine and Tinley get married with so few pages left?) and between members of the audience to see how whose judged best in their emotional bets on winners and losers.

    Did you bet on Estelle? Well maybe you win and Miss Havisham loses (depends on which ending of Great Expectations you own; Dickens himself couldn't resist his audience's altruistic demand for a happy ending with Pip and Estelle about to marry). Why is Miss Havisham a failure as an altruistic punisher? Because Pip is not a defector, and so Miss Havisham's ap has turned into that mode of which we disapprove: vindictiveness and spite. The interplay between judgments that someone is vindicated vs. judgments that they're vindictive is a fascinating and subtle one, and goes deep in the interpretation of narrative motivation.

    Anyhow, for me (who have been working on altruism and literature for twenty-five years, first from an anthropological point of view, wrt to gift economies as analyzed by Mauss), the proof of the a.p. pudding has been the subtleties of interaction it's helped bring out and explain, both with regard to readers' relation to characters and with regard to our relation to authors, narrators, and narratees, what we want from them, how we feel about them. I hope you'll look at the book....