Hypothetical Frogs

Over the holiday weekend I came across a reference to W.D. Hamilton’s “Geometry for the Selfish Herd” — which is apparently a classic in theoretical biology and the theory of animal aggregation.

Published in the 70s, the article makes the case that animals are gregarious to reduce their “domain of danger”: in other words, they group together, and organize themselves within groups, for self-preservation, not for altruistic reasons or for the sake of good company.

For Hamilton, being social means watching out for your own self interest.

Extending Hamilton’s observations on the grouping of frogs around a lily pond to the human world is tempting, but not so easy. Krugman isn’t satisfied with being Hamiltonian about economics; he calls the hypothesis of the frogs around the pond a “useful fiction” of evolutionary theory, and warns against allowing such fictions to dominate our thinking or to be mistaken for “deep-seated truths”.

The same would have to be said for extending Hamilton’s model of gregarious behavior to human covenants and compacts or to other questions of social organization, or to discussions of the origins of cities, or to accounts of moral action — e.g., altruistic practices or demonstrations of selflessness. Tempting, but ultimately a stretch.

Hamilton discovers Hobbes through evolutionary genetics and mathematical models; but is Hamilton’s evolutionary theory really any more “useful” than other fictions — e.g., ancient fictions about how orators first brought human beings together by persuasion, or accounts of benevolent despots who ordered people into cities?

Of course it’s worth discussing how “social” and “altruistic” arrangements (as well as theories of altruism) often disguise or disclose the power of self-interest; and Hamilton’s observations about the privileged “center” of an aggregate might inform further thinking about social ideas of status and power.

But ultimately it may be a question not of math or science, but of what stories we choose to tell about ourselves, and why.

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