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Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation

Cronk, Lee and Leech, Beth L.
Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 2012
ISBN 9780691154954 (pb)

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Reviewed by Julia Schindler
University of Bonn

Cover of book Targeting the topic of cooperation from an integrated and interdisciplinary perspective, the book fills a gap in cooperation research that urgently had to be filled. Previous books on the topic of cooperation that synthesized knowledge on cooperation were usually restricted to particular domains. For example, they focused on the type of cooperation, e.g., collective action (e.g., Hardin 1982) vs. coordination (e.g., Thompson et al. 1991), its context , e.g., common-pool resources (e.g., Ostrom et al. 1994) vs. common-good (e.g., Cronin, 2003), and the level and discipline used to explain cooperation, e.g., social psychology (e.g., Tyler and Blader 2000), game theory (e.g., Axelrod 1984), evolutionary culture and genetics (e.g., Hammerstein 2003), ethnography (e.g., Henrich et al. 2004).

In contrast, the book by Cronk and Leech is, to my knowledge, one of the first that merges all these perspectives and domains in one piece of work. This exactly was the intention of the authors, in particular looking at different types and contexts of cooperation from the perspectives of the two disciplines of the authors, i.e. evolutionary biology/psychology and social/political science. In line with this duality of perspectives, the book succeeds in organizing the causes of cooperation into proximate levels that directly explain how cooperation is brought into operation through social institutions, and into the distal evolutionary causes that explain why humans have evolved the required psychological and social mechanisms that foster such cooperation.

As the book is not extensive (187 pages body text), JASSS readers wishing to get a quick overview on the milestones of related research are here in good hands. To the most part, the book is easy to read for newcomers and presents scientific content in an easily accessible way, although it now and there suffers from a compactness of explanation and paragraphs that are sometimes hard to follow.

While the book does not have the pretension to formulate a systematic integrated theory of cooperation, the major strength of the book clearly lies in its ability to stimulate curiosity for further research. Being eclectic with regard to its sources of information such as case studies, theories, experiments, etc., the book succeeds in finding a narrative thread through the topic of cooperation with help of these different sources. This thread leads the reader through research areas and approaches such as biological adaptation and group selection, evolutionary psychology, game theory, evolutionary game theory, landmark psychological and game-theoretical experiments, formal and informal institutions, emergence of norms, social-science key theories, etc.

The authors start this thread with the observation that both in evolutionary research and in social science scepticism emerged in the 60s of the idea that people and other organisms are driven by what is best for their group - an idea that was widespread at that time. They refer to the work by George C. Williams in evolutionary biology and Mancur Olson in social science, which, among others, triggered a paradigm shift towards the idea that selfish behaviour and selection at the individual level largely inhibits cooperation. In contrast, it was increasingly recognized since then that cooperation is possible and happens in many places world-wide. Using this seeming contradiction as a starting point, the authors unfold related ideas that help with explaining successes and failures.

After an introductory part including definitions and a chapter overview (Chapter 1), the authors proceed with a digression on the concepts and ideas of evolutionary biology to open into the argument by Williams and surrounding debates (Chapter 2). They then go on to examine the parallel social-science argument by Olson and the debates around this one (Chapter 3). To reconcile these debates and the breadth of social science research on cooperation, the authors then proceed with looking at the raw material of societies, the individual (Chapter 4). Here, examples of the physiological and psychological adaptations and adaptive by-products that foster cooperation and help with identifying cooperators and defectors are presented.

To understand how cooperation works at the proximate level in contrast to this distal level, however, it is important to understand the role institutions play. Thus, the thread then goes over to formal institutions, i.e. organizations (Chapter 5), and to informal institutions (Chapters 6 and 7). While Chapter 6 deals with how common knowledge helps people to coordinate their actions, Chapter 7 deals with how such common knowledge can emerge from human interaction. The authors conclude with the idea that they hope to foster also coordination between scientists working in the field of cooperation research and why such cooperation is important (Chapter 8).

In general, I would like to remind readers who expect an elaborate interdisciplinary theory that such a theory is just about to grow and that its advancement is exactly the purpose of the book. In spite of this, I believe that the book could have benefitted from a more systematic presentation of findings within disciplines. However, readers who like to read scientific content in an easily accessible way and become inspired to read more will not be disappointed.

* References

AXELROD, R. (1984). The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books.

CRONIN, B. (2003). Institutions for the common good: international protection regimes in international society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

HAMMERSTEIN, P. (Ed.) (2003). Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation. Cambridge: MIT Press.

HARDIN, R. (1982). Collective Action. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

HENRICH, J., Boyd, R., Bowles, S., Camerer, C., Fehr, E. and H. Gintis (Eds). (2004). Foundations of human sociality: Economic experiments and ethnographic evidence from 15 small-scale societies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

OSTROM, E., Gardner R., and J. Walker (1994). Rules, Games, and Common-Pool Resources. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

THOMPSON, G. F., Frances, J., Levacic, R. and J. Mitchell (Eds.) (1991). Markets, Hierarchies and Networks: The Coordination of Social Life. London: Sage.

TYLER,, T. R. and S. L. Blader (2000). Cooperation in groups: Procedural justice, social identity, and behavioral engagement. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.


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