Book Reviews

Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment
By Randolph M. Nesse, Editor



Editorial Reviews
Review by William  A.  Spriggs, August 7, 2002

 It was a sad day for me.  I had just arrived in New Jersey from Denver after receiving news of my mother's death the previous day and I was awaiting the return home of my sister where I would be staying for the next several days.  Since she had not yet returned from being with my father in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, and feeling hungry and tired from the trip, I decided to get a quick bite to eat at the local McDonald's, a fast-food restaurant that is popular here in America.


After securing my meal and sitting in the center of the restaurant, I began filling out some work-related health insurance forms that I brought along which needed to be completed.  Within a few moments, a young mother with four children came in and she commanded them to sit about 10 feet from me while she ordered and gathered their food; they sat at an island-like counter with high-backed swivel chairs and closest to me was a young male about the age of seven or eight, who from the moment of his being positioned in his chair, was in a constant state of motion.  He stopped abruptly and our eyes made contact.  I smiled at him knowing the exuberance of his youth and the joy of knowing the great potential that lay ahead for him and every young person these days.


As a complete surprise to me he started to talk with a commanding voice that indicated certainty, yet held the tone of compassion; it seemed surreal because while he spoke to me his feet dangled over the edge of the chair failing miserably to reach the floor; this framed the truth of his age in a strong visual sense.

"You OK Mister?" 

"Are you sitting alone because no one cares about you?"

"’Cause if you want, I can come over there and be your friend."


I was stunned.  For a second or two, I really did not know how to respond.  I know I was feeling tired, hungry, and most likely sad concerning the events surrounding my presence in New Jersey, but was I sending such strong emotional facial and body language to this young man that it brought out emotions of sympathy and made him respond with a sense of urgency and compassion? After stumbling over my choices, I said something to the effect, "I'm OK, but you better stay where you are unless you get permission from your mother."  He seemed to accept that answer without the slightest hint of rejection and went back to his business of being a child by experimenting again in the swirling mechanism of the chair with his feet now curled up into his chest.  The interpersonal exchange with this child left me asking questions and probing for answers for many hours.  Why would this child be willing to interrupt his obviously happy life and go out of his way to care about a complete adult stranger that he had never met? What reward or benefit would he receive if he did?  Where did his compassion come from -- or, more importantly, how did he learn to care?  Or, was the capacity to use those perceptual, cognitive and emotional mechanisms already deeply in place in his mind and just needed the right situation to set them in motion?  But the biggest question of day seem to be that if we live in such a tooth-and-claw world where "survival of the fittest" and self-interested "infectious greed" seem to be the second national anthem and dominate ethos of our American culture, how could such a sympatric display of behavior even exist?


Indeed.  But here is an amazing fact: 99.9% of earth's human population is not engaged in violent competition to the death at this moment.  That goes against the very grain of the current belief that we are solely a selfish, self-centered species; it challenges vehemently what economists have been saying for over two hundred years and adds strength to what biologists have been meekly saying for about 35 years: We are a cooperative and committed, not selfish, species.  Yet this "news” is overlooked in our media that permeates our culture; we are fed a diet of greed and avarice, detailed violence, and “interview” shows that are rigged for their entertainment value.


To buttress this "meek" response in support of the overwhelming truth, there is some good news: This fact has not escaped a core group of scientists that is now raising their voices in unison and is hammering out a new science perspective with, what is being called, The Commitment Movement.  This movement challenges vehemently what economists have been saying about individuals and their selfish motivations and is an attempt to establish empirical evidence that our species has evolved into the group-living, highly complex, and cooperative species that we are today.  These scientists believe that the concept of commitment is firmly planted in the long-term pressures that evolved from natural selection, and that these pressures grew out of the interpersonal exchanges our primal ancestors conducted in hunter-gatherer groups for thousands of generations.  This movement is being shepherded by Randolph M. Nesse, professor of psychiatry, professor of psychology, and research associate in the ISR Research Center for Group Dynamics at the University of Michigan.  His efforts have culminated in the presentation of this book in which he has gathered 14 scientists to present their case.  To state the purpose of the book in its simplest terms: it is an attempt to explain the gap between biology and social science; nature and nurture; genes and culture.


What is commitment? Here is the formal definition: "Agents make commitments when they give up options in order to influence others.  Most commitments depend on some incentive that is necessary to ensure that the action is in the agent's interest and thus will be carried out.  In many cases the agent voluntarily imposes the incentive on him- or herself, as when someone signs a contract, a general burns his bridges behind him, or an individual constructs a reputation that must be upheld. In other cases the incentive is built into the agent, in the form of such pro-social emotions as shame, guilt, empathy, desire to cooperate, and impulse to punish those who have inflicted hurt." p. xiv & xv.


As for myself, I prefer the definition found in Chapter 2, by Thomas C. Schelling: "I use commitment to mean becoming committed, bound, or obligated to some course of action or inaction or to some constraint on future action. To commit is to relinquish some options, eliminate some choices, surrender some control over one's future behavior -- and doing so with a purpose.  The purpose is to influence someone else's choices.  Commitment does so by affecting that other person's expectations of one's behavior."  p. 48 & 49.


When the common person (myself included) ponders the meaning behind the word commitment they most likely think of the process of giving their promise to do something; for example, enlisting in the U.S. Marines.  One voluntarily gives up one's free time, and in some cases, their lives, in order to commit themselves to a large social organization whose objectives may not be conducive to the individual's survival. Commitment in the simple sense also means telling a person that they will meet for lunch at a particular time and location, and then fulfilling that promise.  Commitment for the common person also means believing (affecting one's expectation of another's behavior) a political promise made by someone running for office in keeping his or her promises made during a campaign stump.  Commitment for the common person also means being faithful to one's spouse "for better or worse" or to care for a handicapped youngster who is totally handicapped for the rest of their lives.  But here in the confines of this new movement, commitment means a broader and more complicated meaning; here, commitments are strategies -- moves, pre-moves, payoffs from the moves, etc.  In this broader sense, commitments not only include those I mentioned above, but also include threats made to others in obtaining one's objective by changing the behavior of another.  In the case of a promise to show up for lunch, one merely has to arrive at the designated time and place to be credible, but with a threat, it may have to include the possibility that one may have to back up a threat with actual violent behavior to have the commitment believed.


If the book has any flaw, it is in this apparent lack of connection with the common person's understanding of the popular cultural meaning behind the word commitment and the more formal scientific meaning.  But this minor flaw can be excused because of the objective of the book to establish the new science movement.  To do so, these scientists must talk and write amongst themselves in their journal media and wait for review, reconfirmation, or challenges.  This "vetting" process takes time, but it is vital to gain credibility and momentum.  Once established, the common person will have to wait for the upcoming graduate student or general interest non-fiction writer to help expand the broader explanations in the popular media.  What is being attempted by this group of courageous scientists is the establishment of formal explanations behind individual human behavior and group dynamics that evolved from our ancestral hunter-gatherer groups.  What is discussed in this book is the concept of behaviors that one could easily call cooperative "social glue" and calls to establish future studies within that framework -- because: "What we believe about ourselves and human nature is important because it influences how we act.  Those actions shape our societies that in turn shape our beliefs, thus setting long-running cultural cycles in motion." p. 6.


In the early stages of the movement, most social cooperative theories revolved around kin selection ( Hamilton), the sharing of genes of descent, and reciprocal altruism (Trivers), the expectation of a net benefit from an exchange; any behavior beyond that required interpretations of abnormal behavior or socialization manipulation in our newer more novel environment.  The restrictive confines of the "abnormal" were too much for some scientists to bear because they knew that life was much more complicated then that.  Now comes along commitment -- "In short, commitment may offer some of what has been missing from an evolutionary understanding of social behavior -- a potential means by which natural selection could shape mental faculties for genuinely moral and (and immoral) action." p.14.


"The concept of commitment, as developed by Frank and Hirshleifer following the lead of Schelling, emerges from a long line of related thinking...starting with those from economics and game theory, and moving to those from philosophy and ethics." p. 20.  And boy, do we get a dose of game theory in this book.  In addition to the review of the obligatory prisoner's dilemma game, we are also introduced to other game theories such as Land and Sea, Chicken, Battle of the Sexes, and The Coordination Game; all of which, in decreasing opposition of interest, involve payoffs, strategies, and moves between individuals.  We are also instructed that there are a variety of commitments; there are contractual commitments; emotional commitments; friendship commitments; preemptive commitments; probabilistic commitments; promised commitments; rational commitments; reactive commitments; secured commitments; strategic commitments, and subjective commitments.  As you can see, the book goes into much detail.


As for the structural contents of the book, the wonderful opening introduction by Herbert Gintis, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts establishes the overall tone of the book: Beyond Selfishness in Modeling Human Behavior, Randolph M. Nesse, editor of this book and co-author of the highly acclaimed, Why We Get Sick, establishes the evolutionary perspective in the first chapter with: Natural Selection and the Capacity for Subjective Commitment.  It is from this point that the book is divided into four parts:


1). CORE IDEAS FROM ECONOMICS: Here Thomas C. Schelling, Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, and Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Political Economy, emeritus, at Harvard University discusses Commitment: Deliberate Versus Involuntary; Robert H. Frank, Goldwin Smith Professor of Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at Cornell University discusses Cooperation Through Commitment; Jack Hirshleifer, professor emeritus of economics at UCLA writes about Game-Theoretic Interpretations of Commitment.


2). COMMINTMENT IN ANIMALS: This section begins with Eldridge S. Adams, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, Stoors discussing Threat Displays in Animal Communication: Handicaps, Reputations, and Commitments; Lee Alan Dugatkin, tells us about Subjective Commitment in Nonhumans: What Should We Be Looking for, and Where Should we Be Looking?; Joan B. Silk, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles writes about Grunts, Girneys, and Good Intentions: The Origins of Strategic Commitment in Nonhuman Primates.


3). COMMITMENT IN HUMANS: In this essential chapter, Dov Cohen, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and Joseph Vandello, post-doctoral research associate at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, teach us about Honor and "Faking" Honorability; Peter J. Richerson, professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis and Robert Boyd, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles tells us about The Evolution of Subjective Commitment to Groups: A Tribal Instincts Hypothesis; Michael Ruse, Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University teaches us about Morality and Commitment.


4). COMMITMENT IN HUMAN SOCIAL GROUPS: Here, Professor Nesse once again takes up pen to give us his wisdom concerning Commitment in the Clinic; Oliver R. Goodengough, professor of law at Vermont Law School and chair of the Planning and Programming Committee of the Gruter Institute for Law and Behavioral Research in Portola Valley, California writes about Law and the Biology of Commitment; William Irons, professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, gives perhaps the best argued position for understanding individuality within a larger social group with Religion as a Hard-to-Fake Sign of Commitment.  In the last chapter, Professor Nesse sums up his views with The Future of Commitment.


I believe the chapters with the most interest for the common person would be chapter three on Cooperation Through Emotional Commitment, in particular the description of the concept of valence --  "an evaluation that is either positive or negative.  Psychologists have identified a universal tendency to assign an initial valence in response to virtually every category of stimulus." (Be it music, color, math -- or another person), p. 65 & 66.  In chapter 8, Honor and "Faking" Honorability; Here Cohen and Vandello give us fascinating details behind America's southern concept of "honor”; the "thinned-skinned" southern male and the necessity of these generally conservative males to "defend their honor" at all cost.  Most of the description in this section reminds me of my own blue-collar world when resources are slim, opportunities are limited, and defending one's 'territory" includes defending one’s “manly" patriarchal image as an important element in every day life.  In Chapter 11, Commitment in the Clinic, Randolph Nes.00se takes us on a tour of the medical profession's subjective commitments and includes an interesting passage on pages 248 & 249 describing people with OCP (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder) that uncannily appears to describe right-wing male fundamentalists (a high interest of mine).  And finally, chapter 13, Religion as a Hard-to-Fake Sign of Commitment, by William Irons reminds us of the powerful influence of religions in our society.  There, in the social order of these large institutions, one's behavior is constantly monitored by others and the slightest deviance from the established norm by an individual can result in exclusion resulting in the potential loss of resources.


Of particular excitement to me, with this scientific framework in place, before long we can begin to identify, from an evolutionary perspective, the more complicated human behaviors that we call values, ethics, and morality and how they are used to further influence our species' behavior.  Because of the commitment movement, we will most likely be revisiting those areas of thinking in where the commitment movement sprung from: the great philosophers of our past like Adam Smith, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell, and John-Paul Sartre.  Of particular interest to the commitment movement should be a closer look at the social contract theories of Thomas Hobbes' "Hobbesian theories" with one perspective, and the "ideal" theories of social contracts that stem from John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Kant on the other end.  And, most likely we will have to revisit and reattach new meanings to subjects like subjectivism, objectivism, relativism, pluralism, existentialism, and the four dimensions of value.  Philosophers of the world take note: evolutionary science may soon be treading on your territory.


As for the young male in the McDonald’s restaurant, I made it a point to enquire about the boy to his mother upon leaving (he was eight years old).  It seems that he was taught to be on the outlook for people alone in their school cafeteria or playground because of an anti-bully program that was sweeping the culture of his school.  The children were taught that some of their classmates have a difficult time making friends, or that sometimes children can be cruel to other children which tends to isolate them with the result of making them sad -- and that made them easy prey for bullies.  To the school teacher who left her (I am assuming that the teacher was female) indelible mark on this child, I say, thanks you.  The simple lesson is that, yes, we can change our selfish behaviors and the cultures we live in once we understand that the larger social environment is more productive then the biological connective thread to our core selfish behaviors.  We are an amazing species -- let's celebrate that.


I am going to place Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment on my Recommended Reading list but will have to attach to the book a "very difficult to grasp" label from the perspective of the layperson.  This book is designed for those who are using evolutionary perspectives in their fields of work and it strongly declares a call for unity in a new movement in thought.  This book is highly recommended for all members of the HBES community, graduate students in economics, biology, evolutionary biology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and all advanced students in the evolutionary perspectives of human nature.


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