Economics and Philosophy

Critical notice


Kim Sterelnya1

a1 Australian National University and Victoria University of Wellington, Australia or

Signals: Evolution, Learning and Information, Brian Skyrms. Oxford University Press, 2010, 199 pages.

Brian Skyrms's Signals has the virtues familiar from his Evolution of the Social Contract (1996) and The Stag Hunt (2003). He begins with a very simple model of agents in interaction, and in a series of brief and beautifully clear chapters, this model and its successors are explored, elaborated, connected and illustrated through biological theory and the social sciences. Signals borrows its core model from David Lewis: it is Lewis's signalling game. In this game, two agents interact. One agent can observe which of two equi-probable states the world is in, but that agent cannot act directly and profitably on that information. However, the informed agent can act in a way that will be perceptually salient to a second agent: say, by raising a red or a green flag. The second agent does have the capacity to respond appropriately to each state of the world. If that second agent chooses the right option, given the state of the world, both are rewarded. If the second agent fails to choose the right action, neither are. Obviously, the two agents are best off if they have a practice in which the informed agent regularly chooses a distinct, salient cue in response to each of the two world states, and in which the powerful agent uses that cue to select the rewarding act. Less obviously, agents with simple trial and error learning capacities can learn to signal and respond: neither explicit negotiation nor cognitive sophistication are required. Likewise, if individual agents do not have the capacity to learn, but if they breed true but with some variation, the evolutionary version of trial and error learning can take a population to one of the signalling system equilibria.

(Online publication March 22 2012)

Kim Sterelny is an Australian working on the philosophy of the life sciences. In recent years, he has been particularly interested in the evolution of human social behaviour and social organization. His account of the evolution of human social learning, The Evolved Apprentice, is due out shortly with MIT Press.