Sunday, August 17, 2008

Evolutionary Psychology and Original Sin

The Prisoner's Dilemma. What Would You Do?

The first time I became acquainted with the Prisoner's Dilemma it was in a book by Robert Wright called The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. Apparently, it's a well-known scenario used in game theory studies, and there are even tournaments built around it.

If I wasn't a person of faith, I could see myself putting a lot of stock in evolutionary psychology. Heck, maybe I still can anyway. In terms of explaining why human beings do so many of the things they do, it makes a lot of sense to me, especially in terms of boy-girl stuff and the way we act in terms of reciprocity, altruism, tit-for-tat behavior, and zero-sum games.
We are operating in a post-modern 21st century world with minds that were shaped by tens of thousands of years of living in the stone age. Our ancient ancestors were used to operating in bands of no more than 100 or 150 people. This might have a lot to do with our fear and mistrust of strangers, our appetite for gossip and scandal, and our proclivity to spend so much emotional currency on the intimate news of one death while at the same time having trouble extending it to the death of millions. It seems like it might explain the rationale for a lot of what we've traditionally called Original Sin.
Here's how the Prisoner's dilemma goes.
You and a friend have been arrested under suspicion of having committed a crime. You are being interrogated separately and face a hard decision. The state lacks the evidence to convict you of the grave offense they've accused you of, but does have enough evidence to convict you both on a lesser charge - with, say, a one year prison term for each.
The prosecutor, wanting a harsher sentence, pressures each of you individually to confess and implicate the other.
He says to each of you: If you confess, but your partner doesn't, I'll let you off scot-free and use your testimony to put him away for ten years. The flip side of this offer is a threat: If you don't confess but your partner does, you go to prison for ten years. And if you confess and it turns out your partner confesses too, I'll put you both away, but only for three years.

One year? Ming! The Venetian here says he could do one year standing on his head. I ain't sayin' nuthin. Marron....
How about you?


crystal said...

That's interesting - I floolwed your link to Amazon and read more about the book. I think all that stuff is pretty correct - that personal survival and survival of the species drives almost ecerything.

Christianity seems in some ways anti-survival, with its emphasis on forgiveness and honesty and altruism, but maybe I'm wrong - see the handicap priciple

I think that even given evolutionary psychology, we have the ability to choose not to follow insticnt .... not all men cheat so as to reproduce as much as possible, not all women cheat to upgrade their DNA doner :)

I can't help thinking that a good person in the prisoner dilemma would say nothing.

Jeff said...

I think that even given evolutionary psychology, we have the ability to choose not to follow instinct ..

I'm with you. I'll fight determinism every step of the way.

The handicap principle. Yeah, that explains why the girls in high school always liked the guys who were the biggest jerks. ;D

Liam said...

Hi Jeff --

Just a quick note to say I've been enjoying your posts, but I've been too busy to comment.

Did you see the Dark Knight? One scene featured a variation on the prisoner's dilemma (the scene with the two ferries).

Jeff said...

Thanks Liam, that's OK.

One scene featured a variation on the prisoner's dilemma (the scene with the two ferries).

Was that was sort of a "Sophie's Choice" scene with the Mayor of Gotham? I really do have to see the Dark Knight before it goes to DVD. Most everyone I know who's seen it has been recommending it highly.

crystal said...

Jeff, what do you think about Fernando Lugo as president of Paraguay?

Garpu said...

Ooooh. That was a good part of the film. :) At first I thought it was too long (Dark Knight), but upon rewatching, it fit better.

Jeff said...

Lugo! LT Lives on!!!