The Evolution of Fairness
In the upper Fraser Canyon, about 250 kilometers northeast of Vancouver, a rocky gorge cuts its way through the interior plateau of British Columbia.
Gordon Orians, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington, and I have come here to see evidence of the emergence of inequality in the archaeological record of fishing at a place called Keatley Creek.
Gordon is my science adviser and co-producer on a multimedia project in which we’re investigating the evolution of the human sense of fairness, from its biological roots among the earliest social living animals through its manifestations in the social, economic, and political institutions of today.
Inequality, of course, is not necessarily unfair. Fairness has to do with the process through which it evolves.
Fairness is a term much bandied about in these economic hard times, though people argue vehemently over what is actually fair. We thought it would be helpful to explore the concept of fairness in greater depth, from a scientific perspective.
The growing body of research into the nature of fairness includes disciplines such as behavioral genetics, evolutionary and developmental psychology, neuroscience, animal behavior, experimental economics, and some intriguing cross-disciplinary collaborations.
One of the central topics we plan to investigate is how our sense of fairness may have changed during the last 10,000 years of cultural evolution, after having lived the previous 2,000,000 as nomadic hunter-gatherers, typically in groups of 25 to 50 who were closely interrelated.