Shared Norms and Freedom, Equality, Ethical and Legal Behaviours

By Manal Helal on 7/6/2023

The work of (McElreath, Boyd and Richerson, 2003) provided a mathematical model for simulating ethnic markers’ evolution given some parameters and dynamic interactions. The aim of the model was not stated clearly. Similarly, many of the model details, the choice of parameters, and the presentation of results were not careful enough in the choice of vocabulary and sentences. They were not supported with evidence and realistic examples. Several fallacies have been provided in the paper, including the following:

1. The explicit link in the introduction between the mathematical model and the proper examples of Ethnic Markers of groups of ethnicities in each society was not complemented with a backward projection from the conclusion back into the social sciences regulating human lives in any given community. How legal and ethical their interpretation of this model was not discussed. They should have addressed the exact recommendations to change work laws, immigration laws, international treaties, human rights laws, etc.

2. The paper mentioned, “This simple coordination game is meant to capture the intuition that many real social interactions go well if people have the same beliefs about proper behaviour.” This initial fallacy, with its Payoff model, does not even capture one realistic example from real life. What is intuitive to the authors happens to be counterintuitive to me for the following arguments:

• As a Muslim, I believe that all humans originated from Adam and Eve as the first creation, who had in their genes all the biological diversity that we see today on Earth. Marriages from close relatives further emphasised ethnic and biological markers until complete families of specific features evolved, then complete nations.
• All through, people of mixed races have existed worldwide, and civil laws started identifying people by legal documentation, such as passports and national IDs, rather than biological markers.
• Other Ethnic markers, such as accents, dress code, cuisine, and music, overlap the different ethnicities. Many people perfect a second or third language without an accent, enjoy Italian/Chinese/Arab food from different ethnicities, listen to music, read books and poetry in other languages, etc.

• Since the ancient past, the world has been coordinated by importing and exporting goods and services from different ethnicities. Today, not a single country on Earth exists with its own local resources only, and import/export resumes. Wars did attempt to regulate access to resources without pay. I could see this as the only payoff “δ” from refusing free coordination between ethnicities, which is regulated by parameter “e”, as explained below.
• Also, not a single country on Earth has total prevention of migration, inter-ethnic marriages, and adopting a new legal behaviour. Governments can regulate the parameters that could increase some ethnicities in their countries, but just the presence of an embassy will create a coordination problem if the idea of inter-racial co-existence is not tolerated. Embassies are legally allowed and even encouraged to make cultural events that could lead to behaviour change in the host country. The personal freedom of people wishing to marry or convert to another religion or social values could be at risk if the co-existence with complete acceptance/respect is not available.

3. The authors created a link between ethnic markers and behaviour without providing any examples of real relevance. I will make an example of myself, and only fair people of other groups can reciprocate. As a Muslim who lived in Muslim and non-Muslim nations, I know that Muslim criminals have been imprisoned throughout history in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries. I felt embarrassed several times by the behaviour of Muslim women wearing the Hijab and feared being attributed to their behaviour because of sharing this ethnic marker with them. I am lucky as a Muslim that we are ordered in the Quran not to associate behaviour with ethnic markers, family belonging, country, skin colour, financial level, education level, social status, or any non-factual cause-effect study with evidence in every single case. This means a person can adopt good or bad behaviour with any ethnic or demographic characteristic. What defines a behaviour to be good or bad is the civil laws of the country and the public internal regulations of a given institution or social contract. This means associating a payoff with behaviour related to ethnic markers is a crime. This is prejudice/racism in the explicit definition.

4. The mathematical model included the following:

Four parameters regulate the evolution of new ethnic markers, i.e., marked groups arising or dissolving existing ones. The first two parameters describe the ecology of the evolving populations: δ and m; the second pair of parameters, e and r, represents assumptions about human psychology:

a) The parameter δ measures the payoff/welfare associated with a given social behaviour. As this parameter increases, it encourages the successful/chosen ethnic group or behaviour to be imitated by others, and hence provide dominance or constant increase in numbers and further payoffs to that winning group. As explained earlier, this could be in a legal way, such as all ethnic groups can achieve more payoff when they have higher education, produce more output of products or services, or follow free-trade regulations as opposed to the legal punishments of bad behaviour such as prisons for crimes, and compensations for pre-determined disadvantaging others, and so forth. The paper went on illegally associating payoff to increase when dealing within ethnic groups only. They did not feel the need to provide one realistic example to measure this, except that they thought it was intuitive. I know British and American citizens work in Arab countries for higher pay, while Arabs work both in UK and USA for higher pay. The randomness in life makes even two twin brothers/sisters end up with different opportunities in life that can not be regulated by them or the governments/institutions they affiliate with.

b) m (migration), this is the easiest factor any government controls to coordinate the emergence of ethnic groups or any institution while hiring in advance. This means as much as your local beneficiaries should be from the in-group, your clients should also be limited to in-groups. This will prevent global trade and keep everything local if this is affordable. However, chance, fate, or even need, could lead to minorities being accepted. It is illegal to eliminate minorities’ rights and increase the payoff of the in-groups or mainstream. It is considered abuse to use years of the minorities’ lives and waste it to benefit others; the legal term for this is enslavement if it reaches the limit of forcing them to work without pay or with much less pay and opportunities than others. Even the existence of one representative of an ethnic group should be accommodated with equal opportunity to others. This means minorities are entitled to equal opportunities in coordinating projects, promotions, and the fair evaluation of their outcomes compared to others. It is too late for human civilisation to rewrite all these laws and ethical values.

c) e (the chance of interacting at random). This was the most offensive parameter, from which flawed conclusions were drawn. I do accept the natural unconscious bias, but legally, if this tendency to be biased toward the in-groups leads to disadvantaging any person, legal consequences follow. So, it can affect personal freedom of choosing a spouse or a friend, but not in choosing neighbours, colleagues, or line managers, who are usually a matter of fate that cannot be regulated in advance and could change along the way. Also, representative politicians happen by the outcome of votes, and individuals need to accept the choice of the majority. In many situations, rejection to deal with other ethnic groups leads to legal consequences that could lead to work dismissal or even prison.

d) r (the rate of recombination), again a personal preference, that even people who changed faith or accepted interracial marriages did not expect this to happen in advance; it was their fate. Randomness in life prevents any attempt to regulate this parameter in any government, institution, or family’s hands. Family members need to accept the possibility of having a new member at any time who belongs to another ethnic group or lose the family member who decided to practice this freedom. Think of the British Royal family situation with Prince Harry.

• Other variables explain the dynamic interactions as follows:

a) D is the covariance between ethnic markers and behaviour. This variable was claimed to be decreasing with recombination (r) and imitation (δ) and increasing with migration (m). As explained earlier, this variable accounts for prejudicing and should be illegal. Ethnic markers are not related to behaviour from near or far.

b) The difference in behaviour frequencies (p11-p01) was claimed to be decreasing by migration (m), and imitation (δ). Taking that to the extreme, a society without immigrants will end up behaving the same without differences and will not evolve new behaviour patterns over time. People living in this society will keep imitating the successful group until they all belong to one group. Again, the authors did not feel they needed to prove this claim with one realistic example of one country on Earth, a city, or even a family that maintained behaviour stagnation from ancient times until today without changing location or accepting new members from other locations.

c) The difference in marker frequencies (q11-q01) increases by imitation (δ) and decreases by migration (m). This will lead to polarisation and, eventually, one race on Earth, country or city, that is homogenous with no differences in behaviour or ethnic markers. This is completely counterintuitive as some markers can not change, like biological markers; the Chinese have narrow eyes, and there is very little you can do to change this without a crime. Religious freedom, dress codes, cuisine preferences, and Music and Language accents, among other markers, can be persuaded to change with increased payoffs indeed. Remember that not all people on earth are motivated by payoffs only. For example, many royals have given up their royal duties for marriage; others converted to less fortunate religions and many other examples in which humans demonstrate other motivations than just payoffs. Therefore, can we correlate this behaviour moulding with payoff motivations with any ethical or legal regulations anywhere on Earth? The enrichments to life that our differences bring to any society will be lost entirely in closed communities that reject the other. Remember that haemophilia in European Royal families was the result of closed marriages. Many genetic diseases increase by these closed circles, including social diseases. Decreased numbers of closed circles can also be argued but need a study to prove it.

d) The choice of 1 and 0 to identify the 2-group example emphasises the zero-sum game; one group must win everything, and the other must lose everything. If this is not warmongering, then how can it be described?

5. Some simulations’ results identified relationships based on the previously explained fallacies. The results state the following:

Stable behavioural differences between groups usually become ethnically marked. The payoff seemed to be a controlled parameter to encourage a behaviour; however, it is used as a measure of stability, so they confuse input with output easily. It can be argued that the power low will make more money at the initial condition, as will be argued below about numbers, and will generate more money during evolution. I cannot think of a counterargument except the argument in this article (Challenge, 2011) that describe fate and change in resources reserves as mistakes by God! A similar change of fate led to money not growing in proportion to initial conditions leading to the expected third world war between the USA and China (Campbell, 2023). History has presented examples of leading rich nations who are not anymore, such as the Ancient Egyptians, and others who were rich, then not, then rich again, such as the Chinese. Various patterns of ups and downs exist that are difficult to manipulate from one side, particularly since the other sides are constantly attempting to manipulate their parameters. I do not think it is a coincidence that the previous two world wars and the current ongoing conflict are in the continent that hosts the authors of this controversial paper. Remember that Europeans predominantly rule the USA, who share almost the same ethnicity as their markers are closer together as compared to the markers of other ethnicities. Are wars considered stability?
Spatial structure is needed to generate ethnic markers but not to maintain them. The authors did not give a realistic example of a world that is getting closer, like a village, due to communication and social media advancements. We all developed social behaviours affected by far-away regions we did not visit. Again, migration regulations can make it difficult to travel, but minorities will always exist. A simple search online of demographic statistics proves the non-existence of one country on Earth without minorities. The most hostile nation to the other will end up losing friendly relationships with those others, which will go in the circle of import/export of goods and services that might easily cause financial losses that might reduce the payoff of keeping closed circles as the only beneficiaries.
Increasing the number of populations increases the range of initial conditions that give rise to ethnic markers. This should be encouraged equally to all those who wish to have children. Many governments on Earth attempted to reduce their numbers to face economic problems, to end up losing later, like China. It is agreed that 2:3 children per couple are the minimum to maintain population per country, race, or family. However, fate and randomness in life could bring more girls than boys, could bring more in some years, and less in others for the different races or countries and so forth. A verse in the Quran says what can be interpreted as these days circulate between people. Similar randomness affects the increase or decrease of numbers that people need to be ethical and accept, just like the change of fates that led to nations getting richer or poorer. Remember that increasing one race does not necessarily mean decreasing the other. This could easily lead to further criminal ideas of creating wars to kill others and reduce their numbers or even individual hate crimes in any given society.
Group differences are strongest at boundaries. This is just another claim that is provided without evidence. First, the term “boundary” is not well defined. If it is the spatial boundary discussed earlier, like geographic distancing, then this again could be slightly valid in the ancient past, when the early migration behind a mountain, river, sea, or ocean would make travelling back and forth impossible to distant cousins from earlier ancestors. Today, people can travel between the most distant points on Earth in one day. Group differences as well are not identified as good or bad. It is good to bring different experiences, as this enrichment satisfies shortages, but it is not good to bring in criminal behaviour like rejecting others and deliberately disadvantaging them.
A more general model of social interaction leads to similar results. The authors explain this as “This suggests that any stable behavioural equilibria, regardless of their relative consequences for group or individual welfare, may become marked.” It is difficult to understand if they mean the same stagnant behaviour over time and space (like one family in one city from ancient times until today) is what defines behavioural equilibria. Equilibrium usually means stability that leads to fewer conflicts and higher welfare. The statement sounds contradictory to the limit that it could be blind racism. I am unsure if I am reading it as that regardless of the decreased payoff for the individual and the group, it is important to keep the behaviour stagnation that leads to specific markings for the ethnic group.

6. A conclusion is given that a high payoff will lead to the evolution of ethnic markers if both e and r are small, i.e. the reduced tendency to accept the other or recombine with it. The final discussion described cheaters as “cheaters who signal altruistic intent but then do not deliver.” I am again unsure if the authors mean those who advertise their rejection to others. At the same time, they cannot maintain the system of more payoff to the in-groups such that “the successful are imitated” and, consequently, are more significantly marked. Also, the authors mentioned “norms enforced by socially created rewards and punishments”, overlooking the historical fact that punishments and compulsion had failed in most cases and led to opposite results. They also mentioned, “Punishment transforms the prisoner’s dilemma structure of a cooperation problem into a coordination structure” to conclude that “The process we have described here can then lead to individuals’ selecting individuals with whom to cooperate on the basis of markers, but the markers themselves do not stabilise the cooperation.” Separating coordination from cooperation emphasises a lack of trust in the other and in the legal system that should punish the true cheater. A cheater pretends to coordinate (doing required legal steps) while not cooperating for a mutual benefit; the job does not get done properly. This separation also emphasises the zero-sum game mentality; one prisoner want to jailbreak and ensure the other does not. The authors repeated content by saying that their assumptions have now become their predictions of the evolving system. Calling them at one section as predictions of keeping e and r low, then calling them again “predictions about the nature of the distributions of marker traits and their relations to ethnic groups and their histories”.

I attempted to highlight the main parameters that the authors of this mathematical model have deliberately omitted, as if they did not live long enough to see these parameters in action. These parameters include fate, personal choices, and life randomness. I also attempted to give realistic examples of counterarguments to prove that the author’s use of “intuition” is counterintuitive in every single claim. I also attempted to create a link with the inherited common heritage of ethical values shared by all humans equally, which are difficult to challenge in the 21st century. When all ethical references, such as Religions, fail to provide a decisive answer to what is ethical and what is not, just reciprocate. If I am allowed to do the new behaviour (increasing the payoff of the in-groups, for example), then all are allowed to do it. Then, measure the new environment as it reaches a new equilibrium. If this is ethical (desirable new environment), then accept the new encouraged behaviour. Unfortunately, I used the analogy of payoff as a measure of new behaviour and also a measure of a new overall environment. I repeat that it is not the only factor for stability. This paper explicitly violates some laws, requiring a legal expert to elaborate further.

I have to be explicit in the following opinion that is challenging to be re-phrased more gently. I believe the world has been falling into an ethical and legal crisis as the events everywhere unfolded before and after this article was accepted to be published in 2002. I see no scientific merit and extreme danger to humanity that people could consider this as a scientific publication. The blindness of defining cheaters as those who advertise bias and cannot deliver the bias is a steep deterioration in the warmongering quagmire. Wars make a tiny minority of people worldwide accumulate benefits at the expense of many deaths, refugees, casualties, and people suffering from the further post-war collapse of ethical values and sense of life. Creating more minor conflicts in each society, like a government of one country, institution or even a family, is not any less devastating as the micro-changes usually lead to macro-changes.

The paper has come to my attention from colleagues, whom I respect for their intention of evaluating a mathematical model from an adaptive systems perspective. I praise their academic handling of such a sensitive issue and the courage to stir the discussion at a time the world faces a lot. I hope my response does not offend my colleagues or the authors of this model. This post does not represent any faith, country, gender, or ethnic group, even if mentioned explicitly; it is just my opinion.


Campbell, C. (2023) ‘China-U.S. War By 2025 Predicted By Four-Star General | Time’, TIME, 31 January. Available at: (Accessed: 7 June 2023).

Challenge, E. (2011) ‘Why did God put such huge oil reserves in the Middle East?’, Training Believers Around the World, 13 December. Available at: (Accessed: 7 June 2023).

McElreath, R., Boyd, R. and Richerson, P.J. (2003) ‘Shared Norms and the Evolution of Ethnic Markers’, Current Anthropology, 44(1), pp. 122–130. Available at:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *