On the Free-Rider Identification Problem

Ronald J. Planer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis have argued that individual-selection accounts of human cooperation flounder in the face of the free-rider identification problem. Kim Sterelny has responded to this line of argument for group selection, arguing that the free-rider identification problem in fact poses no theoretical difficulty for individual-selection accounts. In this article, I set out to clarify Bowles and Gintis’ argument. As I see matters, the real crux of their argument is this: solving the free-rider identification problem, even in modestly sized social groups, requires that group members are disposed to share social information with one another. The difficulty for individual-selection accounts, according to Bowles and Gintis, is that these accounts have no explanation for why individuals should be disposed to behave in this way. Having clarified their argument, I then turn to Sterelny’s criticism, and argue that Sterelny underestimates the challenge being raised by Bowles and Gintis. More specifically, I argue that it is unclear whether the expected benefits of having a disposition to share social information would have outweighed the expected costs for an individual belonging to a Pleistocene social group. Importantly, this is not to say that I am persuaded by Bowles and Gintis’ argument; on the contrary, what I claim is that more theoretical (and in particular) empirical work is necessary before the issues under discussion can be settled. I formulate some specific questions which I think future research in this area should aim to address.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)134-144
Number of pages11
JournalBiological Theory
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2015
Externally publishedYes


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