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A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution Hardcover – June 20, 2011

4.5 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"The achievement of Bowles and Gintis is to have put together from the many disparate sources of evidence a story as plausible as any we're likely to get in the present state of behavioural sciences of how human beings came to be as co-operative as they are."--W.G. Runciman, London Review of Books

"In A Cooperative Species, economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis update their ideas on the evolutionary origins of altruism. Containing new data and analysis, their book is a sustained and detailed argument for how genes and culture have together shaped our ability to cooperate. . . . By presenting clear models that are tied tightly to empirically derived parameters, Bowles and Gintis encourage much-needed debate on the origins of human cooperation."--Peter Richerson, Nature

"An outstanding book that presents an important contribution and quite simply raises the scientific standard associated with the difficult and contentious problem of how human altruism evolved."--Charles Efferson, Economic Journal

"A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution states a clearly articulated gene-culture coevolution explanation for why we are a cooperative species. It is a read that will stretch readers' minds a bit, and I think it is an eminently valuable read. . . . I await with eagerness the next time Bowles and Gintis are out cooperating again."--Jonathan D. Springer, PsycCRITIQUES

"[T]he authors' systematic and mathematical approach will appeal to any reader seriously interested in learning about alternative theories of adaptive altruism, and their treatment of cultural inheritance using population-genetic models is first-rate. Although this book will by no means settle the debate surrounding the evolutionary origin of altruism, it is a worthy addition and is well worth reading."--P. William Hughes, Journal of Economic Issues

"Bowles and Gintis are clearly not short of ideas. The attention they draw to the role of conflict and coordinated punishment in the evolution of our cooperative and reciprocal species makes the book very much worth reading. Their focus on the evolution of human nature also paints a much richer picture of our behavior than traditional economics tends to do."--Journal of Economic Literature

"Bowles and Gintis are not the first to claim that competition, conflict, and war between human groups is the foundation of cooperation and of society. However, their integration of this insight into evolutionary game theory stands to increase the accessibility of this powerful idea to a large number of scholars working in a dominant theoretical perspective that spans the social and biological sciences. This is one reason why I recommend their new book A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution."--Noah Mark, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation

"This book makes a strong case for returning as a discipline to this vexed theme. I can only hope we do so with the analytical ingenuity and empirical humility that Bowles and Gintis display."--Jacob G. Foster, American Journal of Sociology

"Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution should be of interest to individuals across multiple disciplines. The book provides a compelling argument supported by multiple kinds of theoretical and empirical evidence. Although the book does use some technical language and examples in places, the explanation is sufficiently clear to make the main ideas and arguments of the book accessible to individuals who were not previously familiar with these technicalities."--Christopher M. Caldwell, Metapsychology Online

"[This book] makes important contributions to our understanding of the nature and function of emotions in politics, including the evolution of emotion and cognition and their linkages to democratic governance. . . . [It] should become [an] important resource for students of politics who have the requisite background in the behavioral sciences and wish to develop an integrated, life science perspective in their own work."--Michael S. Latner, Politics and the Life Sciences

From the Back Cover

"A Cooperative Species is a fresh and pioneering entry into the pivotal field of human social evolution."--Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University

"In A Cooperative Species, Bowles and Gintis draw on their own research and teaching about understanding the complex human being in the context of diverse ways of organizing life. They show that humans can evolve cooperative strategies when they participate in groups that share long-term similar norms and are willing to sanction those that do not follow group agreements. An important book for all social scientists."--Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Laureate in Economics

"Why we form cooperative societies is not hard to understand given all of the advantages we derive, but how we do it is far less understood. Humans have powerful selfish tendencies, but Bowles and Gintis are not of the school of thought that everything can be reduced to selfishness. They muster all of their expert knowledge to make clear that evolution has produced a species with a truly cooperative spirit and the means to encourage cooperation in others."--Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy

"Bowles and Gintis stress that cooperation among individuals who are only distantly related is a critical distinguishing feature of the human species. They argue forcefully that the best explanation for such cooperation is altruism. Many will dispute this claim, but it deserves serious consideration."--Eric Maskin, Nobel Laureate in Economics


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (June 20, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691151253
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691151250
  • Product Dimensions: 10 x 7.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,180,574 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By W. D ONEIL on August 7, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
(This is a major rewrite of an earlier review, which I decided on reflection was not as clear as it might have been.)

This is a book with a complex context, and it is best to understand something of that context in order to get a clear view of the book. Briefly, Bowles and Gintis have set themselves to resolve one of the most vexing issues in evolutionary theory, that of whether the widespread human trait of altruism toward those who are not close kin can have arisen through natural selection, and if so just how. To do so they must wage war on some views that approach dogma, and they gird and armor themselves with mathematics and factual detail. All this does not make for easy reading, but it is very worth the effort. And it is not necessary to trace all of the details to get a great deal out of it.

In the popular view, the theory of natural selection implies that nice guys always finish last, that it is the strong and ruthless who are fittest, not the cooperative and altruistic. The hyperaggressive Wall St. sociopath is seen as evolution's ideal type. It would seem to follow that altruism cannot be the product of evolution, and thus that natural selection cannot entirely account for the nature of humankind.

Darwin understood all this quite clearly and it troubled him not a little. In a famous passage in The Descent of Man (Penguin Classics) he acknowledged, "It is extremely doubtful whether the offspring of the more sympathetic and benevolent parents, or of those who were the most faithful to their comrades, would be reared in greater numbers than the children of selfish and treacherous parents belonging to the same tribe.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book puts together an overall picture of human cooperation and its evolution, drawing on evolutionary theory, anthropology, experimental and theoretical economics, computer modeling, and much else. The book is also well-informed on the philosophical side too (philosophy is my own field). A central role is played in the book by experiments which are taken to show that humans tend to have strong 'social preferences.' As well as caring for our own welfare, we have quite elaborate preferences about the welfare of others, both positive and negative. It is a mistake to see human behavior as fundamentally self-interested - or self-interested except in contexts where our biological relatives are involved. Instead B&G want to build an evolutionary story that takes seriously the deeply social character of human psychology. This leads to them to argue for a central role for competition between groups in our evolutionary history - direct competition in warfare, and competition over resources. A lot of the book is concerned with the construction of formal models of how various social behaviors could evolve in a context where both within-group and between-group interactions are important.

The way that B&G pull together material from the fields listed above (economics, biology, anthropology...) is very impressive. What is especially striking is the level of detail with which they draw on each field. The book is a coherent and argumentative synthesis of very diverse traditions of work. To me, the balance of the book was not quite right. The weight put on the models was a little excessive.
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Format: Hardcover
I was really looking forward to reading this book. One of the questions that keep haunting me is: how is it possible that the same species that David Livingston Smith called (correctly) "The Most Dangerous Animal" (dangerous for other members of its own species, that is!) is at the same time one of the most cooperative species of the world, surpassed only by eusocial insects and maybe naked moles? This book, I hoped, would give me some hint to solve this conundrum. And it did.

But first a warning : When the book finally arrived, I leafed through it - and was tempted to send it back immediately. Mathematical formulas and equations, lots of, crawling like little black spiders on every second page! Math makes me sick. I haven't got any mathematical education beyond the rule of three (and I'm not proud of it, believe me), so I tackled the book with more trepidation than hope. Unfortunately, the style also lived up to my worst fears: hardcore scientific prose you normally expect in journals like "Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology" or "Journal of Economic Theory". I never read these publications, a trait I share with the majority of Amazon customers, I guess.
It's not a book for somebody with a diploma in, say, philosophy or literature, who just happens to be interested in the question "Why are humans such a cooperative species?". It's a book written by two experts for their fellow experts, and unless readers are well versed in economic or game theory they will have to content themselves with reading for gist.

So I just kept skipping the parts with the math and tried to make sense of the rest. And now for the good news: The rest does make sense.
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