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Notebook Science

Fair versus spiteful

(Man: PeskyMonkey/iStock • Pie: EasyBuy4u/iStock • Woman: lisafx/iStock )



Fair versus spiteful

Darwinists create clever model to account for bad survival traits

Evolution has a problem with fairness and spite. At least at face value, there’s little gained by sharing your food in a world of survival of the fittest. At the other extreme, humans will sometimes expend energy to harm another person, even though the antagonist stands to gain nothing (except sour satisfaction). You’d think natural selection would have killed off creatures that waste resources in this fashion.

Lay aside doubts about evolution and play along for a minute. In a recent study, two philosophers from Massachusetts, Patrick Forber and Rory Smead, think they’ve found a common origin for fairness and spite. Their experiment involves a computer simulation of a common lab game researchers use to study human behavior, called the “ultimatum game.”

The game goes like this: Player A gets a chance to share a resource (an apple pie, let’s say) with player B. He can offer any amount—half the pie (the “fair” portion), one slice, or a piece of crust. Player B can accept or reject the offer, however stingy. But if he rejects it, the deal is off, and both players get nothing. This is spite in action. Evolutionarily speaking, they die.

In their computer simulation, Forber and Smead tweaked the scenario by creating virtual players with varying tendencies toward fairness, selfishness, or spitefulness. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that the spiteful types played most successfully with congenial people who were willing to make fair offers and accept bad deals to avoid a stalemate.

Writing in Proceedings of the Royal Society B in February, the two philosophers argue their simulation shows that spite and fairness coevolved: Our ancestors were more likely to offer fair deals because it helped them avoid becoming the victim of a selfish person’s spite. Those fair deals, in turn, helped spiteful people survive. It’s an imaginative and clever solution for two evolutionary riddles, fairness and spite.

Clever or not, evolutionary models ultimately diverge from the biblical account. Christians say humans understand fairness (and sometimes act on it) because God created them in His image—studies show even 1-year-old toddlers grasp the concept of equally shared toys.

Spite and selfishness are built in, too, as slices of sin nature: Just because a toddler understands sharing doesn’t mean he will. For ancient man, as modern, “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Win or lose, some players will always stand ready to play the spite card.

Dusty dilemma

A new air quality rule meant to protect workers could put some of them out of a job. The U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposes cutting in half the allowable amount of airborne silica dust on job sites, to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Silica dust is present in mines, quarries, some construction sites, and sand used in the casting process at foundries. Overexposure can cause silicosis or lung cancer.

During hearings in March and April, though, foundry representatives said implementing the necessary air controls could cost the industry 10 percent of its annual revenue. Peter Mark, a safety executive at Grede Holdings, a Michigan casting business, said the rule would “significantly impair U.S. foundries’ ability to compete in a global economy, force foundries to go out of business and others to shift production offshore.” —D.J.D.


  • DanielJamesDevine's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:25 pm

    Richard H,I meant air controls "necessary" to meet the new 50 microgram rule. You might be right that there are alternative ways of protecting workers.

  • Richard H's picture
    Richard H
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:25 pm

    DJD,In the Dusty Dilema article you used the term "necessary air controls".  What makes these EPA requirements necessary?  There are other means of protecting workers in a hazardous environment and the government usually doesn't have the best answer by imposing such rules on others.

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:25 pm

    It seems to me that spite would have completely triumphed by now were it not for the workings of some sort of outside force very powerful force for good.