Yesterday I realized, quite a few years after I should have, that I have never identified in public where I got the seed of the idea that I developed into the modern economic theory of open-source software – that is, how open-source “altruism” could be explained as an emergent result of selfish incentives felt by individuals. So here is some credit where credit is due.
Now, in general it should be obvious that I owed a huge debt to thinkers in the classical-liberal tradition, from Adam Smith down to F. A. Hayek and Ayn Rand. The really clueful might also notice some connection to Robert Trivers’s theory of reciprocal altruism under natural selection and Robert Axelrod’s work on tit-for-tat interactions and the evolution of cooperation.
These were all significant; they gave me the conceptual toolkit I could apply successfully once I’d had my initial insight. But there’s a missing piece – where my initial breakthrough insight came from, the moment when I realized I could apply all those tools.
The seed was in the seminal 1992 anthology The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. That was full of brilliant work; it laid the foundations of evolutionary psychology and is still worth a read.
(I note as an interesting aside that reading science fiction did an excellent job of preparing me for the central ideas of evolutionary psychology. What we might call “hard adaptationism” – the search for explanations of social behavior in evolution under selection – has been a central theme in SF since the 1940s, well before even the first wave of academic sociobiological thinking in the early 1970s and, I suspect, strongly influencing that wave. It is implicit in, as a leading example, much of Robert Heinlein’s work.)
The specific paper that changed my life was this one: Two Nonhuman Primate Models for the Evolution of Human Food Sharing: Chimpanzees and Callitrichids by W.C.McGrew and Anna T.C.Feistner.
In it, the authors explained food sharing as a hedge against variance. Basically, foods that can be gathered reliably were not shared; high-value food that could only be obtained unreliably was shared.
The authors went on to observe that in human hunter-gatherer cultures a similar pattern obtains: gathered foods (for which the calorie/nutrient value is a smooth function of effort invested) are not typically shared, whereas hunted foods (high variance of outcome in relation to effort) are shared. Reciprocal altruism is a hedge against uncertainty of outcomes.
I think I read this in 1993 or 1994. When I was casting about for a generative explanation of open-source commons behavior a few years later, what came to mind is that coding is like hunting rather than gathering – a high-variance activity (sometimes you succeed, sometimes you fail spectacularly, and outcomes are uncertain) which thus evokes instinctive reciprocal gifting.
That idea – software cooperation as risk-hedging – would drive every other central theme in my analysis. Rapid release cycles? Process transparency? Open source itself? Check, check, and check – all ways to maximize the effectiveness of reciprocal altruism as a hedge against risk.
By the time I got this far, I realized that I already knew how to reason about the resulting cooperative equilibria. I could bring in the entire apparatus of neoclassical and Austrian economics! Applying it was a little tricky because the relevant markets weren’t monetized, but my long history as a libertarian helped – it meant I had actually been paying attention when people like Gary Becker and David D. Friedman explored reciprocal altruism in non-monetized markets.
Of course, the fact that I developed a model that made sense in the language of economics later became tremendously important. It made the pitch to the business mainstream intellectually almost trivial. Took a lot of hard work and propaganda to get the message across, but almost no serious thinking.
Part of the point of this explanation, though, is that the evolutionary-psych insight actually came first and the economics second. I never lost sight of the fact that none of the market mechanisms supporting open-source behavior would work quite the way they do if we weren’t genetically pre-adapted to feel reciprocally altruistic in the presence of high variance of outcomes.
There you have it, intellectual historians. You no longer have to speculate about the effect of evolutionary psych on my thinking. The connection was short, straight, and solid. I’ve sent email to McGrew (I couldn’t find an email address for Feistner) because he deserves to know too.
UPDATE: Dr. McGrew has sent me a surprised and pleased reply.