Selections from Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, by William Flesch

Any typos, errors, omissions, or mistakes are my own.

* spite is a form of altruism, more specifically of altruistic punishment

* Strong reciprocation can lead to conflict as well as cooperation; we appreciate altruism but resent spite. We like vindication but hate vindictiveness.

* ...But we admire such persons first because altruistic punishment is a costly signal, and only then because it is the right kind of costly signal to sustain the group cooperation that allowed us to survive to admire it.

* ...such monitoring is itself cooperative and altruistic...

* Altruists ourselves, we like altruists — and not out of identification but out of altruism.

* The pleasures of gossip, like the pleasures of revenge, migt then be the reward mechanism by which natural selection disposes us to the work of minotring, narrating, and following narrations about the relations between people with whom we may not otherwise be much concerned.

* Urgency seeks to communicate urgency. But what it signals instead is that the signaler feels that things are urgent enough to bear without reflection the costs of being seen to signal without reflection

* Narrative works because, in general, we can monitor dazzling and attractive signaling that we would not be able to pay the costs of responding to.

* ...are attractive to each other because each is willing to pay the high costs of loving the other.

* People tend to trust those who blush easily.

* We don't have to be the responders but we do want to see the proper response, and this is our basic emotional attitude toward narrative.

* ...it turns out to be very hard to simulate a convincing smile.

* Hitchcock: "Tell the audience what you're going to do and make them wonder how."

* The point of the contrast between the dictator game and the ultimatum game is that it shows that it's not the proposer who tends to be altruistic, but — surprisingly — the responder. The responder will pay, with no hope of reward, to punish rank unfairness, and it is that fact, or that expectation, that tempers the ultimatum that might be rationally made.

* I am reminded as well of the brilliant satirical headline in The Onion: "Hijackers Surprised to Find Themselves in Hell" (September 26, 2001). Their surprise is what we want: they thought they were right, and didn't even fear death. But they were wrong, and would come to know they were wrong beyond the grave. Yet fear and regret would humanize them too much: their surprise at being in hell is about the most our vindictiveness can consistently contemplate with gratification. I wish them to know, with the full human shock of knowing it, that they are monsters, but if they could know it and be shocked by it, that would mitigate the sense of their monstrosity that I want to cherish.

* Let me summarize my argument so far. Humans cooperate, and continue cooperating, because we monitor one another's cooperation vigilantly. To give us an incentive to monitor and ensure cooperation, nature endows us with a pleasing sense of outrage at defection and a concomitant sympathy for the victims of defection — an endowment demonstrated by the prevalence of strong reciprocators. We all monitor the behavior of others and often punish and reward in response to what we ourselves track or to what we learn about them. Emotional involvement is the proximal or efficient cause of our tendency to reward or (more likely and more intensely) to punish. Such rewarding and punishing is altruistic. Among the kinds of behavior that we monitor through tracking or through report, and that we have a tendency to punish or reward, is the way others monitor behavior through tracking or through report, and the way they manifest a tendency to punish and reward. We are thus emotionally involved in other people's strong reciprocation and, therefore, in the actions or behavior of those to whom they are responding. We measure their responses by the actions to which they respond. In this way, we are constituted to take an intense emotional interest in the non-actual (since past actions make claims on a present response) and in the actors who involve themselves in adjusting the outcomes of nonactual events through strong reciprocation, that is, through rewarding those who are good (like Telemachus, the goatherd, and the nurse in The Odyssey), and punishing the cheaters (like the suitors and the maids). We are fitted to track one another and to track as well how others monitor one another and what they do when they monitor one another. What we wish to track is past behavior, including past tracking of past behavior, in order to respond in the present to that behavior. Fiction recruits this central capacity in human social cognition for taking pleasure in responding to the nonactual. It gratifies the proximal or psychological aim of our interest in what some have done and how others have responded. That aim is the pleasure we take in strong reciprocation, particularly punishment, a pleasure useful in nonliterary contexts as an incentive to altruistic punishment and presumably evolved for that reason. That pleasure is one of anticipation, and we take pleasure in anticipating altruistic punishment — enough so that we demand of others that they be altruistic punishers, and that we anticipate what will happen in ways that underlie our interest in seeing how things will turn out, our desire to follow events until their resolution. Likewise, our interest at any moment of a narrative is less in what is happening than in what will happen in the light of what has already happened, and in whether what will happen is what should happen.

* Where Dawkins sees the loud nestlings cheating the others, Grafen seems them as cooperating with their parents, to whom they honestly signal their fitness. The loudness with which each baby screams may signal how much each baby is thriving, not how hungry it is. The weak birds must conserve energy whereas the stronger can waste it by conspicuous complaint. To those that are likely to thrive more shall be given, and from those likely to die shall be taken away even that which they have.

* My own armchair speculation is that it's likely that narratives of altruistic punishment and hunting go together in stories of the hunt. The archeological evidence shows that modern humans learned far better, more difficult, more cooperative techniques of hunting in the transition from the middle to the upper Paleolithic period. This transition occurs at the same time that we start producing totemic and anthropomorphic representations of animals — cave art, sculptures, and so on. Humans will sometimes be buried with animals in what appear to be religious rituals. Steven Mithen (1999) argues that sophisticated hunting, the sophisticated tool-making that makes it possible, sophisticated archives of cultural skill and cultural memory, the art that constitutes those archives, and the religion from which it may not differ, all explode at about the same time, as various earlier cognitive capacities become integrated with one another. I am particularly interested in his suggestion that one of the most important innovations of modern human hunters was that of anthropomorphizing animals: we could predict what they would do (and therefore hunt them better) when we began seeing the not as rocks or tones or trees but as near human in their habits, wiliness, motives, and so on. We ascribe intentions to them, for the first time, and keep track of them and their intentions. Totemic animals represent such anthropomorphisms, which led to religion (and no doubt to the punishing activities of angry gods), perhaps originally as a byproduct, perhaps as a mechanism for anthropomorphism. I would like to note the extent to which this would give rise to the idea of hunting as a kind of altruistic punishment as well. Humans go after predators — the tiger that has decimated a village, for example. But even when going after prey, our tendency is to treat the prey as culpable. Think of Melville's Ahab, or of Francoise, Proust's more domestic Ahab, cursing the chickens who try to escape her slaughter. Or think of the more-or-less ritually slaughtered bull, the villain whom the heroic matador will bring to heel. It seems likely that narratives of altruistic punishment are natural and easy generalizations of narratives of hunting, and conversely that narratives of hunting were in their way as exciting as anything since, because they are also narratives of altruistic punishment.

* What makes altruism a costly signal is that the altruism is real; successful hypocrisy would be a better strategy than costly signaling. But societies in which genuine altruism is valued as a costly signal do better than societies in which conspicuous consumption or hording or greed are valued, though these too may be costly signals (and we don't deny that greed or consumption are genuine, even if they are also signals).

* The Zahavis argue that the calls are directed at the predators. They tell the predator: I see you and am ready to take the appropriate action should you try to get me. Both do better when prey signals predator that it knows the predator is there. The predator will go off and look for unprepared prey, and the prey will be spared the costs of flight as well as the small but real risk of being caught and killed if being prepared isn't enough.

* This analogy might help: Let's say that being alive is like being in a friendly poker game. Every new game is a new generation with the analogous result that every player in a later game is a "descendant" of the player he or she is in the current game. From my restricted perspective of a player in a single game, I want to win the poker game that I am playing, and leave richer than I arrived — and I am more likely to win if I am skillful, a large component of which skill involves keeping a perfect poker face. So I might do really well playing if I can hide my intentions and fool the other players. But I am much less likely to get invited back than if I give away a lot of my hands through "tells" difficult to suppress and difficult to fake expressions of glee or disappointment or anxiety.

* Hume argues that our moral judgments, derived from this benevolence toward humanity in general, are themselves general and not perspectival. I don't approve or disapprove on the basis of how action affects me; I judge the action independently of my connection to it, and approve or disapprove of what people do in a generalized sense. My individual presence as an observer has nothing to do with my judgment. Just as when I visualize an object I don't imagine myself seeing the object, I only imagine the object itself, when I approve or disapprove of someone's actions through my conformity to the principle of benevolence toward mankind, I am not concerned in what I approve or disapprove. I am attentive to what others are doing, all absorbed in the general attitude of attention, in what Nagel calls "the view from nowhere."

* quoted from Smith 2004:

When we have read a book or poem so often that we can no longer find any amusement in reading it by ourselves, we can still take pleasure in reading it to a companion. To him it has all the graces of novelty; we enter into the surprise and admiration which it naturally excites in him, but which it is no longer capable of exciting in us; we consider all the ideas which it presents rather in the light in which they appear to him, than in that to which they appear to ourselves, and we are amused by sympathy with his amusement which thus enlivens our own. On the contrary, we should be vexed if he did not seem to be entertained with it, and we could no longer take any pleasure in reading it to him.

* This description of the effect of turning into the teller of the story one has heard (a description just as fitting for the social practice of hearing and then telling jokes) seems right to me. We take an interest in imagining and sympathizing with the pleasure or interest someone else would take in a story that gave us pleasure. The idea of inspiration, the idea that the author is not the first originator of a story but repeats it from the Muse, captures something of the vicarious pleasure of imagining the audience's fresh response to a story no longer as fresh to its teller as when he or she first heard it. Acting and, as I've suggested elsewhere (Flescher 2000), teaching will often give the same pleasures.