Human Nature Review  2003 Volume 3: 12-14 ( 16 January )
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Book Review

Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment
edited by Randolph M. Nesse
New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001.

Reviewed by William D. Casebeer, PhD, Department of Philosophy, HQ USAFA/DFPY,
2354 Fairchild Drive, Suite 1A10, US Air Force Academy, CO 80840, USA.

Nature is red in tooth and claw. The type of creature produced by evolution is
the powerful loner, who knows when to cheat and can do it well: he is a kind of
Nietzschean übermensch who breaks the conventions of sociability and morality
with one powerful swipe of his well-oiled and bloodied fighting appendage. Or
so the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson would have you believe.1 To which I say:
poppycock. With regards to paving the way for the popular reception of
Darwinian evolution (or the lack thereof!), this characterization of the types
of organisms produced by the struggle for survival has done far more harm than
good. Randolph Nesse, the editor of the Russell Sage Foundation's volume
"Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment," has assembled a wonderful
collection of essays that explores the explanatory successes and limits of the
red-in-tooth-and-claw worldview. Nature's evolutionary processes have produced
creatures, such as (but not only) human beings, capable of committing
themselves to the nurture of social norms, moral dictates, and group welfare,
even when such commitment is harmful to any individual's interests narrowly
construed. Our capacity to commit ourselves to these things is at the very
heart of our social life. Explaining how such a capacity could have arisen, and
how it is rooted in basic evolved psychological processes, is the task of this
seminal volume. Diverse and multi-disciplinary, it's sure to become a
well-cited classic in sociobiological circles and deserves a wider readership.

Nesse contributes very useful opening and closing chapters. His definition of a
commitment is "an act or signal that gives up options in order to influence
someone's behavior by changing incentives or expectations." Nesse identifies
four types of commitment: (1) intrinsically self-enforcing ("burning your
bridges behind you"), (2) enforced by incentives controlled by others (such as
a contractual obligation), (3) enforced by a concern for reputation ("you have
offended my honor, sir"), and (4) enforced by emotional states (such as
feelings of guilt or obligation). Any single commitment may be enforced by
several of these incentives. The challenge for evolutionary theorists is to
explain plausibly how these categories of incentives and their enforcements
could have arisen.

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Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment
Edited by Randolph M. Nesse
Russell Sage Press, New York, 2001

General information about the book is available at:

Link to Russell Sage Press information and order form,
with access to Contents, Authors, and text of Chapter 1:


Commitment is at the core of social life.  We live in a social fabric woven
from a warp of promises and a weft of threats, and we spend much of our
lives deciding which commitments are credible, and trying to manage our own
commitments and reputations. Classical economics and sociobiology sometimes
seem to suggest that this should not be too hard, because people should
generally act in ways that benefit themselves or their genes. While
reciprocity and kin selection are indeed powerful principles, attempts to
force all behavior into their Procrustean bed have aroused much intellectual
consternation and moral indignation.  This conflict has deepened the rift
between biological and social sciences. Commitment offers a bridge across
this chasm.  In this book, some of the world's most distinguished
researchers examine the nature of commitment, and the question of whether
our capacities for making, assessing and keeping commitments have been
shaped by natural selection.  Many commitments are fairly straightforward
attempts influence others by giving up options and thereby making it
worthwhile to fulfill the commitment.  Examples include burning your bridges
behind you or signing a contract.  However many commitments are not enforced
by such tangible incentives.  These subjective commitments are enforced by
pledges of reputation and by emotions. Some are benevolent, such as a
promise of life-long love.  Others are not, such as a threat to murder a
straying spouse. Although some such commitments may seem irrational in the
extreme, they nonetheless influence us.  Commitment thus offers a possible
evolutionary explanation for irrational passions that are otherwise
difficult to explain, and for our moral capacities.



Forward-- Herbert Gintis

Introduction and Overview
1.   The Evolution of Subjective Commitment-Randolph M. Nesse

Section I-Core ideas from Economics
2.   Commitment: Deliberate vs. Voluntary-Thomas C. Schelling
3.   Cooperation through Emotional Commitment -Robert Frank
4.   Game-theoretic Interpretations of Commitment-Jack Hirshleifer

Section II-Commitment in Animals
5.   Threat displays in animal communication: handicaps, reliability, and
     Eldridge S. Adams
6.   Subjective commitment in non-humans: What should we be looking for,
     and where should be looking?-Lee Alan Dugatkin
7.   Grunt, Girneys and good Intentions: The Origins of Commitment in
Nonhuman Primates-
     Joan B. Silk

Section III-Commitment in Humans
8.   Honor and faking "honorability"-Dov Cohen and Joe Vandello
9.   The Biology of Commitment to Groups:  A Tribal Instincts Hypothesis
     Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd
10.  Morality and Commitment-Michael Ruse

Section IV-Commitment in Social Organizations: Law, Psychiatry and Religion
11.  Commitment in the Clinic-Randolph M. Nesse
12.  Law and the Biology of Commitment-Oliver R. Goodenough
13.  Religion as Commitment-William Irons

14.  The Future of Commitment-Randolph M. Nesse

Commitment is a powerful social strategy whose pervasiveness is often not
recognized, perhaps because it is somewhat paradoxical.  Commitments involve
giving up options in order to influence others.  Some, such as burning your
bridges behind you or signing a contract, change incentives in ways that
make fulfilling the commitment advantageous.  Other commitments are enforced
by more intangible factors such as reputation and emotion.  Such subjective
commitments are commonplace, but it is hard to understand why people believe
them.  This book brings together 12 distinguished researchers from
economics, ethology, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, medicine and law
to examine the nature of commitment in unprecedented detail.  They address
the question of whether our capacities for commitments have been shaped by
natural selection.  They find examples of commitment everywhere in human
social life, and they describe how social selection may have shaped
specialized mental mechanisms for making and assessing subjective
commitments.  These mechanisms may help to account for emotional behavior
that otherwise seems irrational, and perhaps also for our capacity for
genuine morality.  They may also offer a bridge across the rift between
biological and social approaches to human nature.


"If the genes of the self-serving are more likely to be perpetuated in
succeeding generations, how it is that so many of us forgo self-interest in
order to honor our commitments, devote large parts of our lives to the quest
for knowledge, defending animal rights, human rights, or remaining true to a
cause past reason?  We humans routinely behave better than conventional
evolutionary theory predicts we should.  Evolution and the Capacity for
Commitment resolves this paradox and in doing so, extends sociobiological
theory to more fully encompass idiosyncrasies of the human heart.  This is a
revelatory book that carries us beyond premature conclusion about innate
selfishness that, if accepted, erode human relationships based on any other
premise.  Any one looking for a rigorous alternative to Darwin's 'universal
acid,' should read this book."
                                                ---Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

"This is a very valuable contribution to our understanding of commitment
which no serious student of the subject will wish to miss."      ---Robert

"Nothing is more basic to the human condition than the capacity for
commitment, and nothing is more important to the capacity than its
biological underpinnings and evolution.  Randolph Nesse, serving as editor
and connecting essayist, and the other authors of Evolution and the Capacity
for Commitment are among the leaders in and around this newly emerging field
of scholarship."                ---Edward O. Wilson

"In the 1970s, the word 'selfish' as kidnapped from common language to be
applied to genes.  This metaphor, however, did not say much about human
psychology.  Exploring the emotional make up of our species while firmly
staying within an evolutionary framework, the volume spells out better than
any before what is wrong with a narrow focus on human selfishness."

                                              ---Frans deWaal

Link to Russell Sage Foundation Publications website,
with order form, Contents, Author information, and text of Chapter 1: