The Good Samar­itan helping an acci­dent victim might really be looking out for him­self, argues assis­tant pro­fessor of phi­los­ophy and reli­gion Rory Smead.

I’ll help you not because you’ll help me,” explains Smead, “but because some­body else might help me in the future if he knows I’m a nice guy.”

Smead, whose schol­ar­ship focuses on the evo­lu­tionary con­nec­tions between learning, lan­guage and social inter­ac­tion, calls this “indi­rect reci­procity,” a prin­cipal of evo­lu­tionary biology in which people who are more helpful are more likely to receive help.

Some scholars have sur­mised that humans devel­oped lan­guage to find out who’s helpful and who’s not, he says, adding that we use lan­guage to pass judg­ment on each other and main­tain social norms. In other words, Smead says, people talk about each other to find out who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy.

We gossip about each other and hear rumors,” he says. “We’re nice to people who we think are nice and we’re not nice to people who aren’t.”

Smead, who taught at the London School of Eco­nomics before joining the fac­ulty in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, counts him­self among a new breed of philoso­phers who tackle age-​​old philo­soph­ical ques­tions using inno­v­a­tive, mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary methods of inquiry.

For example, he uses game theory to math­e­mat­i­cally cap­ture and ana­lyze behavior in strategic sit­u­a­tions in which one person’s suc­cess in making choices depends on the choices of others.

These highly ide­al­ized math­e­mat­ical models create remark­ably pre­cise rep­re­sen­ta­tions of strategic inter­ac­tion, says Smead, but are only accu­rate to a point.

Two-​​faced” coop­er­a­tors — people who are always nice to other people, but say bad things behind their backs — end up dis­torting the pic­ture by making bad guys out of oth­er­wise good guys, says Smead.

If I con­sider helping you, but heard some­thing bad about you that’s not true, then I won’t help you,” says Smead. “But now some­body knows I’m not nice, so we’re hurting each other because some­body lied.”

One of the goals of his research is to develop a more com­plete under­standing of human lan­guage, a remark­ably com­plex com­mu­ni­ca­tions system com­pared to that of other animals.

We have to start by under­standing how con­ven­tional meaning arises, and take baby steps toward under­standing human lan­guage,” says Smead, who notes that Vervet mon­keys use simple audi­tory sig­naling sys­tems to alert each other to dan­gerous predators.

One thing we know is that it is fairly easy for all kinds of organ­isms to develop sig­naling sys­tems, and the more sig­nals they have at their dis­posal, the more likely they are to achieve effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” he says.

View selected pub­li­ca­tions of Rory Smead in IRis, Northeastern’s dig­ital archive.