Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

Review: New Contexts for Understanding Human Behavior

Reviewed Work(s): Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions. by Robert H. Frank Social and Personality Development: An Evolutionary Synthesis. by Kevin B. MacDonald

Roger D. Masters

The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 65, No. 2. (Jun., 1990), pp. 207-209.

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ation for others, and the search for common goals so necessary for a functioning society? Most, if not all, existing ethical systems fail seriously to pass these tests. Snell then defines a “rational ethic” as one “that best serves the needs of those who espouse it. . . . an ethic in the humanist tradition, founded on rea- son and dedicated to human welfare” (p. 235). It must be compatible with the moral nature with which evo- lution has endowed us. It must assume a universal character, seeking to establish sufficient world unity to eliminate war. It should enlarge our circle of con- sideration; and it must be founded on the recogni- tion of individual differences. It should enlist the political process in order to insure adequate enforce- ment. Finally, it must fall within the scope of the possible, so that it may be accepted by enough peo- ple and with enough conviction that it will work. “To arrive at a rational ethic, the great need is consensus” (p. 238). Snell’s rational ethic would seek “the greatest total happiness, or . . . the greatest average happi- ness for each individual” (p. 239). A right act, then, is one that “in the light of the best available evidence, will make a greater contribution to human happi- ness than any available alternatives” (p. 239).

Looking at existing codes of ethical behavior, in the chapter, “The Rules We Live By:’ Snell points out the virtues and the failings of all these systems intended to regulate human behavior. Finally, in his last chapter, Looking to the Future, he opens his summation with the words:

The major thesis of this volume is that self- interest rightly understood leads us to socially responsible behavior. Moral action -action which serves the best interests of the group – follows naturally from an informed and rea- soned self-interest (p. 261).

Snell sees three requirements that must be met to permit major ethical reform: a crisis that will cre- ate a broad demand for such reform; a sufficient con- sensus, especially among the leaders of the people, that will allow concerted action to be made; and a program of education and institutional change that will provide the means. He recognizes the difficul- ties, but also emphasizes the challenge to men and women of good will. He ends with an eloquent per- oration:

If you love liberty, prefer honesty to deceit, value gentleness and kindness in your fellow man, cherish family and friends, and glory in the beauty of the world and the wonderful diversity of its creatures, then for the sake of yourself and your children and all that is good in the human spirit, join with like-thinking men and women everywhere to build, on the foun- dations of knowledge and reason, a future where goodness and love shall prevail (pp. 267-268).


ROGERD. MASTERS Department of Government, Dartmouth College,

Hanouer, New Hampshire 03755 USA


By Robert H. Frank. W W Norton, New Erk. $19.95. xv + 304 p.; ill.; index. ISBN: 0-393-02604-3. 1988.


By Kevin B. MacDonald; Series Editor: Michael Lewis. Plenum Press, New York. $45.00. xv + 349 p.; ill.; index. ISBN: 0-306-42891-1. 1988.

The social sciences are, slowly but unmistakably, un- dergoing a basic change. In economics, social psy- chology, political science, history, and sociology, the approaches of modern biology and evolutionary the- ory were until recently either ignored or rejected as ideologically biased; for at least two generations,

those seeking a science of human behavior usually took physics as their model. Today, the life sciences are increasingly becoming a framework within which social scientists find it possible to resolve theoretical dilemmas and enrich empirical work.

The books of Robert Frank (in economics) and Kevin MacDonald (in social psychology) illustrate this transformation, which might be described as what Thomas Kuhn would call a “paradigm shift.” Each author illustrates a different way of relating biological research to social science, and these works suggest how our understanding of human behavior can be improved by this trend.

Of the two, Frank’s book is the more elegant and lucidly written. He begins from the paradox, com- mon to game theory, economics, and individual se- lection models in evolutionary biology, that self- interested actors are not predicted to engage in a


host of widely observed behaviors that entail net short-run costs (albeit long-term benefits). Why do some people sue a neighbor for trespass when the costs of the suit are far greater than the benefits? Why does a reasonable traveler tip the waitress in a far-away city that will never be visited again? While Robert Trivers’s model of “reciprocal altruism” (or, in Richard Alexander’s term, “mutualism”) might explain cooperation among individuals who are likely to engage in role-reversal or to be observed by bystanders, humans -and even some nonhuman animals -often cooperate even when self-interested defection will be undetected. Why?

Using the well-known Prisoner’s Dilemma to il- lustrate this often discussed problem, Frank points out that the ability to communicate one’s habitual strategy has powerful effects on the balance between competition and cooperation. Relating this prob- lem in rational-choice theory to the work of Darwin, Frank then develops a brilliant analysis of the selec- tive advantages of facial displays and other expres- sive behaviors that communicate affect. In addition to these reputational effects, moreover, such emo- tional responses as guilt make it possible to pursue long-range gains that entail immediate net costs.

By working through the benefits of emotion as a solution to the paradoxes of game theory known as “commitment strategies:’ Frank shows how the for- mal cost-benefit theories of social behavior used in both economics and evolutionary biology can il- luminate the empirical study of nonverbal commu- nication and emotion. More impressively, he moves easily from incisive theoretical analysis to experimen- tal research, confirming the predicted increases in cooperation when individuals are allowed to com- municate before playing a Prisoner’s Dilemma game. Integrating research from many disciplines, Frank then shows how the effects of emotion on self-interest explain apparent anomalies in judgments of fairness, in love, and in altruistic behavior.

For its clarity in establishing a fundamental con- nection between cost-benefit models of choice, evolu- tionary biolog): and human psychology, Frank’s Pm- sions within Reason is probably one of the most important theoretical works in the social sciences to appear in the last decade. Kevin MacDonald’s So- cial and Personality Development may be as significant, but for a rather different reason.

MacDonald has written a textbook in social psy- chology that situates much of the work in that field in the context of contemporary ethology, sociobiol- ogy, and neurophysiology. Social and Personality De- velopment surveys extensive psychological research in temperament and personality, development, sex differences, and socialization. Fully conversant with the modes ofthought long traditional in psycho1og)i MacDonald insists that such research be integrated with the relevant insights from the life sciences.

Starting from the philosophy of science, Mac- Donald challenges the belief that all scientific the- ories are subjective, culture-based conventions or ideologies. Substantively, he addresses the nature- nurture debate, gene-environment interaction, sta- bility and change throughout development, and a host of issues that have aroused controversy in mod- ern psychology. In so doing, moreover, MacDonald shows how a balanced approach based on evolution- ary theory and ethology can avoid the pitfalls ofear- lier approaches to human social behavior.

Theories of personality, for example, have long posited dimensions of temperament or character by giving subjects questionnaires and subjecting the an- swers to factor analvsis. Because different factor ro- tations can be equally valid in mathematical terms, this results in personality categories that are to some degree arbitrary (p. 70). Following the lead of Gray and Cloninger, MacDonald argues that such cir- cularitv can be avoided if ~ersonalitv dimensions are derived from the evolved properties of human so- cial behavior as well as from the structure and func- tioning of the central nervous system. The result is a three-dimensional personality theory akin to that of Cloninger, in which emotionality or “reactivity” (Cloninger’s “novelty-seeking”), risk-taking or sen- sation-seeking (Cloninger’s “harm avoidance”), and social reward (Cloninger’s “reward dependence”) are distinct but interdependent traits that vary within and between human populations. Such a view leads to specific predictions that can be confirmed by ex- perimental and observational findings.

MacDonald goes on to show that in many other areas, empirical evidence contradicts rival psycho- logical theories that are based on ad hoc assump- tions and that lack a grounding in evolutionary bi- ology. H e surveys the literature on emotion and cognition (emphasizing that causation can be bi- directional); infant attachment and social ex- perience; parent-child relations; the development of sex-linked behaviors, aggression, and peer interac- tion; and “moral” or “altruistic” development (i.e., the kinds of behavior underlying the phenomena studied by Frank).

O n each topic, MacDonald shows that an evolu- tionary perspective makes it possible to integrate competing theories while developing and testing em- pirical hypotheses. Not only is traditional learning theory inadequate to explain many psychological processes observed during individual development, but without an evolutionary perspective it is hard to explain cultural variation in parenting and social behavior. Moreover, as his last chapter illustrates, consideration of contextual and ecolocical factors ” makes it possible to address such questions as the role of socialization in contemporary industrial so- cieties, as well as in Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, and ancient Sparta.


As with any ambitious textbook, one can easily find flaws. MacDonald is not as lucid a writer as Frank (though perhaps this is inevitable, given the type of book he has written). While recent work in cognitive neuroscience is by no means absent, it receives less emphasis than the explosion of fasci- nating research on neuroanatomy and neurochem- istry might justify (but then, if MacDonald had followed this route, would traditional social psychol- ogists be more hostile to his work?). Just as Frank’s Passions within Reason may be limited by the degree to which formal models can encompass the richness and variety of human social behavior, MacDonald’s

Social and Personality Development has the inevitable defects of trying to cover empirical research focused on precisely this richness and diversity.

One conclusion transcends the merits or poten- tial defects in either book. Frank and MacDonald, together with an increasing number of social scien- tists, have bridged the gulf between their own dis- ciplines and evolutionary biology, enhancing our un- derstanding of human nature and culture. This should be a welcome development to biologists who -after decades of miscomprehension- can now find some colleagues in other disciplines who speak the same scientific language.