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Did societies evolve to be corrupt?

Illustration for article titled Did societies evolve to be corrupt?

Corruption is as old as human history. For as long as people have organized themselves into groups with powerful leaders, those leaders have sometimes abused their power. But evolutionary biologists say corruption might actually be holding societies together.


That's the theory put forward by evolutionary biologists Francisco Ubeda and Edgar Duenez. The pair used game theory to figure out why people cooperate to form a society even though the ones in charge are corrupt. The model they developed assumes that government officials and law enforcers - in other words, the individuals responsible for punishing noncooperators - can get away with a certain amount of noncooperation themselves in the form of corruption, and that they can sidestep most punishments when caught being corrupt.

Their findings make a lot of intuitive sense - most people will continue to cooperate to keep their society together, in part because they don't want to be punished by law enforcers. People will tolerate a certain amount of corruption from their leaders and law enforcers as long as there isn't too much of it. Above a certain level of corruption, people stop seeing the point of cooperating and society begins to break down.


What's interesting is that society works because of corruption, not in spite of it. That's because law enforcers often need a little extra incentive to devote their time to holding society together, and that takes the form of mild noncooperation. Ubeda explains this phenomenon:

"Law enforcers often enjoy privileges that allow them to avoid the full force of the law when they breach it. Law enforcing results in the general public abiding by the law. Thus law enforcers enjoy the benefits of a lawful society and are compensated for their law enforcing by being able to dodge the law."

And it's not just humans that are described by these findings. Social insects also show evidence of corruption and abuses of power among those charged with keeping the rest of the insects in line. It's possible a certain tolerance is actually hardwired into ours and other species by evolution, because a society that demanded perfect virtue from those in power wouldn't last very long.

Of course, this doesn't have to mean corruption is a good thing, or that the current levels of it are anywhere close to the relatively low levels of corruption people are supposed to find acceptable. But it does seem that a certain amount of corruption is needed to make human society work. That's one of the problems with evolutionary psychology - the basic truths that hold society together aren't always pleasant to hear.


[via Space War]

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Stephan Zielinski

Evolution does not work by selecting for an optimal solution; it works by selecting away from solutions that prove disastrous. That there are game-theoretical islands of stability featuring "corruption" is as unsurprising as the existence of parasites. (Natural populations of cats have fleas; they evolved together. This does not mean that flea infestation is optimal for the survival of the cats.)

Bear in mind too that this is "evolutionary psychology." These guys make a living out of arguing that the status quo is somehow foredoomed by our biology, and cheerfully handwave that behavior that's natural in geese or naked mole rats must necessarily be natural in us, too. It must be nice to be able to get published without ever generating a falsifiable hypothesis.