The Origins of Fair Play
by Ken Binmore
All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.Orwell’s
This lecture is a brief overview of an evolutionary theory of fairness. The ideasare ﬂeshed out in a book
which is itself a condensed versionof an earlier two-volume book
Game Theory and the Social Contract
(Binmore[14, 12, 13]).
2 How and why did fairness norms evolve?
My answer to the question
is relatively uncontroversial among anthropol-ogists. Sharing food makes good evolutionary sense, because animals who sharefood thereby insure themselves against hunger. It is for this reason that sharingfood is thought to be so common in the natural world.The vampire bat is a particularly exotic example of a food-sharing species.The bats roost in caves in large numbers during the day. At night, they foragefor prey, from whom they suck blood if they can, but they aren’t always suc-cessful. If they fail to obtain blood for several successive nights, they die. Theevolutionary pressure to share blood is therefore strong.The biologist Wilkinson  reports that a hungry bat begs for blood froma roostmate, who will sometimes respond by regurgitating some of the blood itis carrying in its own stomach. This isn’t too surprising when the roostmatesare related, but the bats also share blood with roostmates who aren’t relatives.The behaviour is nevertheless evolutionarily stable, because the sharing is doneon a
basis, which means that a bat is much more likely to help out aroostmate that has helped it out in the past. Bats that refuse to help out theirfellows therefore risk not being helped out themselves in the future.Vampire bats have their own way of sharing, and we have ours. We call ourway of sharing “fairness”. If the accidents of our evolutionary history had ledto our sharing in some other way, it would not occur to us to attribute somespecial role to our current fairness norms. Whatever alternative norms we then
I am grateful to the Economic and Social Research Council and to the Leverhulme Foundationfor funding this work through the Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution at UniversityCollege London.