Evolution and Autonomy


The use of evolutionary game theory to explain the evolution of human norms and the behavior of humans who act according to those norms is widespread. Both the aims and motivation for its use are clearly articulated by Harms and Skyrms (2008) in the following passage: "A good theory of evolution of norms might start by explaining the evolution of altruism in Prisoner’s Dilemma, of Stag Hunting, and of the equal split in the symmetric bargaining game. These are not well-explained by classical game theory based on rational choice. From a technical point of view, they present different theoretical challenges. In the bargaining game, there are an infinite number of equilibria with no principled (rational choice) way to select the cooperative one. In Stag Hunt there are only two, but the non-cooperative one is selected by risk-dominance. In Prisoner’s Dilemma the state of mutual cooperation is not a Nash equilibrium at all, and cooperation flies in the face of the rational-choice principle that one does not choose less rather than more. In contrast to rational choice theory, the most common tool of evolutionary game theory is the replicator dynamics, in which the propagation rate of each strategy is determined by its current payoffs. These dynamics have a rationale in both biological and cultural evolutionary modeling, and sometimes tell us things that rational choice theory does not." We agree with the first sentence in this quotation: a good theory about the behavior under norms ought to explain altruism in the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD), playing Stag in Stag Hunt (SH), and offering equal splits in the symmetric Nash bargaining game (NB). We also agree with Harms and Skyrms about the difference in technical challenges each of these games poses. Finding a single mechanism, even one as broadly understood as evolution, that could solve these challenges en masse is no doubt a tall order. Nonetheless, in this paper, we present a single, simple, modification to SH, NB, and a general n-player PD that does just that: we introduce deontological autonomy into the models.

Author's Profile

Paul Studtmann
Davidson College


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