Review of Martin Nowak's Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed

How can cooperation emerge in a world of selfish individuals ruled by a Darwinian competition for survival?

This is the question that Martin Nowak, Professor of Mathematics and Biology at Harvard University, discusses in Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed.

Nowak and his collaborators have published a series of articles in major scientific journals that give partial answers to this question. The book provides a gentle overview of the technical results, with frequent comments about the implications for politics and economics. For example, Nowak repeatedly mentions climate change as an example of something requiring cooperation among humans.

The hope is that if we understand, mathematically, how cooperation emerges, we can better design policies and structures to promote cooperation and deter selfishness.

I propose that “natural cooperation” be included as a fundamental principle to bolster those laid down by Darwin. Cooperation can draw living matter upwards to higher levels of organization… Cooperation makes evolution constructive and open-ended.

Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed

The book has a few simple mathematical formulas, but the educated layman should be able to understand the gist of the arguments, thanks to generous use of example, analogy and simplification. Indeed, the book’s readability benefits from the aid of Roger Highfield, an author of popular science books, who helped Nowak with the writing.

Darwinian evolution is based on competition for survival, for resources, and for mates. Winners reproduce, losers leave few offspring. Due to mutations, individuals vary in their fitness. Over many generations, fitter (configurations of) genes proliferate, while weaker ones disappear.

In fact, fitness is defined in terms of ability to reproduce, so the fact that fitter individuals reproduce is something of a tautology.

Similarly to evolution, in an economy, people often act selfishly, trying to get paid as much as possible for what they sell, whether goods or their services, and trying to pay as little as possible for what they buy.

It would appear that cooperation is difficult to explain in a pure, evolution-based model or in a selfish profit-based economy. You’d expect that selfishness would always win out. But it’s clear that cooperation is common, both among non-human animals and among humans.

The basic reason is that, in the long run being nice pays off, for you or for your children, kin, or neighbors.

In the context of this book, cooperation basically means: an individual is willing to sacrifice some short-term benefit in exchange for a longer-term reward, either for itself or for related individuals (e.g., children or kin or members of the same group). In other words, cooperation is a form of reciprocity, or reciprocal altruism. This sense of cooperation isn’t as pristine or as self-sacrificing as some religious traditions’ ideals of pure selfless love. But even Christianity relies on a promise of reward and punishment in the afterlife to motivate moral behavior.

Albert Einstein once said, “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”

Unfortunately, from the point of view of biology, all we seem to have is punishment and reward, where reward means reproductive fitness: produce descendants who survive and who likewise reproduce. (It is not sufficient to have children: if your kids are too weak to survive, or if they don’t reproduce, your reproductive fitness isn’t really high.)

Yet the bearer of fitness (the entity getting the reward or punishment and that gets to reproduce) isn’t necessarily the individual of a species. Richard Dawkins famously suggests that the unit of competition and survival may be the gene: animals exist to promote the interests of their genes, not the other way around. Moreover, genes, as well as gene networks, span individuals and species.

There are also theories which say the unit of the reward is the group: related kin, or cooperating subgroups, or (at a higher level) cooperating species who live in symbiosis with one another.

Indeed, group-based reciprocity seems to be the essence of cooperation.

We are all in it together.

We are interdependent.

Nowak thinks cooperation, and not just competition, is a fundamental force in evolution.

I have argued that evolution “needs” cooperation if she is to construct new levels of organization, driving genes to collaborate in chromosomes, chromosomes to collaborate in genomes, genomes to collaborate in cells, cells to collaborate in more complex cells, complex cells to collaborate in bodies, and bodies to collaborate in societies.

A set of genes working together is an example of cooperation. And in the primordial soup, sets of cooperating chemical reactions led to the origins of life.

Within biology, there have been attempts to explain cooperation in terms of kin selection (in which an individual is willing to sacrifice itself to aid close relatives who share many genes with it). The social insects are prime examples of cooperators; the worker ants who build and defend the nest are closely related to the queen.

A related notion is group selection (aka multi-level selection), according to which groups which are more fit (e.g., due to being better cooperators) out-compete groups which are less fit.

The idea of group selection seems intuitively correct, and Darwin was aware of the role of cooperation in evolution and of the apparent presence of group selection, both in biology and in culture (where ideas or what are now called “memes” reproduce).

But there are heated disagreements among professional biologists about whether the phenomenon of group selection really occurs and about the extent to which it occurs. Richard Dawkins has famously ridiculed both the idea and the biologists who support it. Nowak seems to be among the latter group.

Examples of cooperation among humans include: lending a cup of sugar to a neighbor, taking the bus instead of driving the car, paying taxes instead of cheating, contributing to the donation plate, bringing in your neighbors’ and garbage bins from the curb, as well as more dramatic examples such as risking your life to safe someone who has fallen onto train tracks. Most parents would instinctively risk their lives to save the lives of their (small) children.

In the mathematical and computer models of cooperation, various individuals interact with other individuals, either in a well-mixed pool; in a network of connections such as on social networks; in various sets of interests groups; or on a grid. Whenever you interact with another individual, each of you decides whether to cooperate or whether you will defect (be selfish). You are rewarded or punished accordingly.

Mathematically, cooperation is formalized in the form of such a two person game. The standard game of this sort is is called The Prisoner’s Dilemma.  It models the situation where two prisoners who have been arrested by the police and are being interrogated separately. Each prisoner gets to choose, independently, whether to cooperate (keep his mouth shut and deny the crime) or defect (accuse his partner of the crime). If they both cooperate they each get only one year in prison on a lesser charge, because the police have insufficient evidence. If they both defect, they each get two years in prison. If one person cooperates with his partner and the other person defects, then the first person (the cooperator) gets three years in prison and the second person (the defector) gets off free.

From the point of view of each prisoner, it seems the smartest thing to do is defect.

Suppose the other person cooperates and stays mum. Then you should defect, because you get off free.

On the other hand, suppose the other person defects and accuses you of the crime, then you better defect too. For if you cooperate with your partner, you get three years in prison, whereas if you defect you get just two years in prison.

What could prevent defection is loyalty, or the knowledge that in the future, after you’re both out of prison, the other person could punish you. Likewise, in a future similar situation, where cooperation might help he will remember your betrayal.

The tragedy of the commons is a similar scenario.

In the more general game, where rewards and punishments can take the form of money or some other outcome, there are likewise four possible outcomes: Cooperate-Cooperate, Cooperate-Defect, Defect-Cooperate, and Defect-Defect. Each outcome has a (possibly different) payoff for each of you. If you both cooperate, you both get the same reward R for cooperating. If one person cooperates but the other person defects, the first person is punished (S for Sucker) bad but the other person wins a big reward (T for Temptation) If you both defect, you’re both punished slightly (P). Depending on the relative values of P,R, S, and T, and on the structure of interactions — specifically, whether you can learn about the reputation of the person you’re interacting with — cooperation may or may not emerge.The standard Prisoner’s Dilemma game has

T > R > P > S.

Yet cooperation can emerge. This result is non-intuitive, because given the inequalities above, the values P, R, S, and T guarantee that in the short-term the smartest thing to do is to defect. Here’s why. Your opponent is either going to cooperate or defect (and you won’t know which he does til after you make your move).

Assume he cooperates. Then you can win big by defecting. Here’s why. If you cooperate, you get only R. But if you defect, you get T and T>R. So, it seems you should defect.

Likewise assume he defects. Then you better defect too, because if you cooperate, then you’ll get only S, but if you defect you’ll get P, and P>S.

So in either case, the best thing to do, in the short run, is to defect.

But in a community of people playing the game repeatedly, there are benefits from cooperation. A group of cooperating individuals will have a higher fitness (reward) than a group of turncoat defectors, because R>P.

If the last time I interacted with you, you cooperated, and if I remember that, I can try cooperating again, in the hopes that you will reciprocate.

So in the presence of repeated interactions, and memory, cooperation can emerge.

Cooperators are rewarded with help from other cooperators. Defectors are punished by future defection. If cooperators gain a benefit as a group that is unavailable to defectors, then cooperation can flourish. But cooperation is always susceptible to exploitation by defectors: a population of trusting cooperators can be taken advantage of by a few defectors.  Such invasions by defectors are visible in computer simulations.

Cancerous cells can be modeled as defectors.  So can tax dodgers and alleged welfare moms who drive Mercedes.

Using the formalization of Prisoner’s Dilemma, Nowak was able to prove mathematical theorems, and run computer simulations, that show under what conditions cooperation can flourish.

He showed that cooperation emerges if you meet the other person often enough in the future and can remember the previous interactions, so you can punish or reward him. It also helps if people have a reputation that is is public knowledge or that is shared between individuals (indirect reciprocity). Furthermore, it helps if people are organized into small groups; this allows cooperators to shield themselves from being taken of advantage of by nasty defectors; large groups are difficult to police. Finally, it helps if it’s possible to move between groups, to escape defectors.

Even if we can explain cooperation biologically, in terms of kin selection, or group selection, there is still a problem: how inclusive is the in-group?  Does it include people of a different race or nationality? How about individuals of a different species?

As indicated above, the biologically inspired notion of cooperation is somewhat unsatisfying, because it still relies on a form of reciprocity, albeit at the group level. If someone chooses not to identify with the group, then why should they cooperate?

Indeed, conservatives are the consummate defectors: individualists who detest and ridicule cooperation and community endeavors, at least by governments. Conservatives detest the United Nations. They detest the International Court of Law.  Conservatives avoid paying taxes,  but typically like spending money on wars, both domestic (e.g., the wasteful and disastrous war on drugs) and foreign.  Conservatives oppose laws and regulatory agencies that deter their antisocial behavior. They under-fund the IRS, encouraging tax cheats. And they under-fund Congressional staff, so that lawmakers are dependent on lobbyists and outside groups for information.

Like parasites, conservatives destroy the body politic, all in the name of “freedom.”

Conservatives and their ideology can be defeated only when enough people wake up to the lies and the half-truths behind their movement,  and when enough people realize that we’d be better off in the long run by cooperating on building a government that works for everyone, that makes sound environmental, health, and safety policies, and that makes sure tax cheats pay their fair share.

It's our action now

It’s up to us, we the people, if we want to save life on earth and build a better world for all. The 1% cannot and will not save us. They are afflicted with the deadly greed disease. The two major parties will not save us, the police and military will not save us; they are all owned and their power usurped by the 1%. We cannot unite under the banner of resistance groups with a great leader anymore. They will out our leaders just like they took out such people as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others who take a stand for people.

We cannot have a violent revolution to set things right. When we resist violently to bring justice the 1% will use police and military power against us with deadly force. The 1% can’t help it, they are drugged with greed for power and wealth. They have indoctrinated our kids in schools to become good sycophants to their cause. Get smart, get a good job with their corporations and get ahead of everybody else. Students are trained to become good employees for the corporations owned by the 1%. Liberal arts have been denigrated. The game is to win. That is all that matters, compete and beat, that is what our world has become.

Let’s meditate on this a bit. Look where it has gotten us. We are in constant wars, our planet has been brought to the point of total destruction and disaster. Our air is polluted, our lakes, rivers and now the oceans are polluted and dying, all for their profit. We have created all kinds of technological developments. Every time something good is invented that can benefit people, they turn it around and use it against us and their other so-called enemies.

From the 1%’s viewpoint everything is positive and wonderful. They own over 50% of the wealth and can live in luxury. They can buy anything they want including our police, our military, our judiciary, our Congress and the executive branch. The rest of us do not matter. If we are not a consumer of their products or serve in their employment we are useless humanity. What happens to us doesn’t matter.

Okay, I’ve spelled it out; our world is in the deadly grip of the 1%. So what can we do about it? We must recognize and utilize our own power. Without us to do their work and consume their products the 1% is helpless and their power is broken. That’s it, we must break their power and build alternative sources to fill our needs. That’s what the capitalists did to conquer the feudal age. They built alternatives and made nobles superfluous. Now it is their turn to be replaced since they exploit rather than serve us.

Like I said, at this point we can’t organize groups to take corrective action. They will take out our leaders and come down with deadly force. Look at what happens in the rest of the world. When people in other countries try to organize and throw off the outside yoke of imperialism, drones take out their leaders, their citizens are bombed to hell and we buy their BS that they have taken out “the enemy.”

What can we do to change all of this? As organized groups, not much at this time, because of their deadly force. We must first break their power. We each must take personal responsibility. Start dealing with local folks to fill our needs. Get out of debt and quit borrowing money from their banks and credit cards. Buy from local farmers and merchants, who are there mainly to fill needs and make a living rather than huge profits. Get yourself a small piece of ground or use your backyard to start growing more food. Quit wasting your backyard on grass for appearances. Learn how to preserve food for the off seasons. If you have no need to grow food, do it anyway to learn how and to help others trapped in landlord-owned apartments. What you don’t need, give it away to help others become independent of the big corporations. Food and shelter are the first two basics. If we have these without having to depend on the big corporations, that is the path to freedom. If we work for a corporation that is exploiting others, making killing machines, or polluting our world, try to get away from them as quickly as you can. If we work at making their products to kill others, or destroy our environment we are part of the problem. It doesn’t make any difference how much money we make as a sycophant to them; it is not worth it if we are helping to bring death to life on earth. We really don’t need all this stuff they sucker us into buying with their advertising. If we can get an acre of this good Earth, feed ourselves and start rebuilding the soil, we become independent. If nothing else, use our backyards or sack-bags of dirt to grow vegetables. Treat land as sacred, it is here for all life.

We must demand that the UN has the power to hold war makers and those who abuse others to account. If we can’t make the UN do its duty, we must organize an international People’s Tribunal that will take action to hold war makers and polluters accountable. In the future we must settle our conflicts by law and courts rather than war.

We are better off when we cooperate and share rather than compete and beat. The state does not give life, therefore; the state does not have the right to take life. Let’s discipline ourselves and cut down on the world’s population explosion. Once we have broken the power of the 1%, we must change the system to register all people of legal age to vote regardless of circumstances. We must set up term limits and public financing for elections. Those people and corporations who utilize our public airways shall be required to dedicate 20% of each broadcast timeslot for 30 days prior to elections, as a royalty due the people, to be used by qualified registered candidates.

We shall create a world based on laws that bring justice for all. We shall develop an international power to hold war makers and exploiters to account. We start by taking individual responsibility, withdrawing our support and cease cooperating in their deadly game of destruction for profit. Resources of this earth are here for all life and not just for a few rich grabbers who take more than their share. Why should one person accumulate enough for 1000 lifetimes and 1000 families go hungry? Let’s start thinking about what personal action we can take. It is with our combined personal action that we shall end their power. We must stop allowing them to use people against each other. With life on earth we are all in the same boat, so let’s start bailing, even if we have but a thimble to use.

Stop putting up with our ridiculous health care providers!

A facebook friend posted a Washington Post article 50 hospitals charge uninsured more than 10 times cost of care, study finds. A discussion ensued. Bret Benson told this story:

I had a $3,600 bill after going to the emergency room for a gash in my head over and above what my insurance covered. Devon told me to write them for an itemized list of what I paid for. I not only did that, I added some crap about how I was going to pass it on to my cousin who worked for KTLA News because they were doing a special on hospital billing. No kidding. 3 days later I got a bill for $650, no explanation. About a year later our accountant at work came to me with a similar situation. Asked me if I was serious about the letter I wrote and if I could write one for him. Told him I had it on my computer, changed the name and a few things and they called him the same day they got it and lowered his by about 75%. While getting my deviated septum done they sent me in for an CAT scan of the side of my head after all this other stuff they had me do that wasn’t completely covered. Was about $2,500 above what the insurance paid. I threw a fit, said I’ll live with how it was. They said they would lower it to $400 if I paid cash. What a frickin’ scam they have going. Yeah, and the free market will solve this?

When I changed jobs a few years back and the company provided funds for us to buy our own healthcare I got a real shock. My ex was denied because 5 years earlier she had a pea size totally benign cyst that the doctor figured he might as well remove. Think he did it for the money was all. But at any rate, she had paid in probably 100k over the years and taken very little out. Pure as the driven snow healthy lifestyle yet no matter what we paid no one would insure her. Luckily CA adopted the part of the no denial act earlier than 2014 and she only had to go 6 months with no coverage. That’s a broke system. Something could have happened that would have broke us and had a bad economic ripple throughout effecting our lives and our son’s.

Almost everyone knows the health care system is badly broken. Ripoffs and injustices are the norm. The Affordable Care Act was at most a minor improvement.  More people are covered, but there was little control of prices and middlemen that add little or no value remain in the system.

The free market doesn’t work well for medical care because people don’t feel in a position to bargain or price-shop. If you need a heart transplant, would you go to the cut-rate clinic? But almost all medical care is like that: it seems inappropriate to negotiate.      Doctors should be like Marcus Welby, not like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

Many health care providers realize that predatory capitalism is not an appropriate model for medical care.  Doctors and hospitals shouldn’t be in it to make a killing.  Single payer health care similar to Medicare for All would be a fairer and more humane system.

Not just the bankers, but also the medical care predators need to chased with pitchforks.

Why aren’t people protesting in front of hospitals and health care specialists?

Painless executions are easy but immoral

I oppose capital punishment.

But it surprises me that states are struggling to find ways to execute people painlessly.

There are two easy ways to kill people painlessly.

The first is carbon monoxide. People often die in their beds from carbon monoxide poisoning (due to improper ventilation of a heater, for example). They feel drowsy or sick and nod off.

Someone suggested that because the Nazis murdered people with CO, its use is unacceptable. That argument doesn’t seem convincing.

The second way is morphine.  Some people might oppose that method because the criminals would live their last moments in bliss, and that would defeat the vindictiveness of many people who want to punish the criminals.

I certainly don’t want states to use either method. But they seem more humane than firing squad, hanging, lethal injection, or a gas chamber.

Why don’t states use carbon monoxide or morphine?

Ending the War on Drugs: a talk with Inspire Seattle

InspireSeattle invites YOU to join us at our Social Forum: Saturday, April 25th at 6:30PM.

Inspire Seattle

Main discussion topic for this evening: Ending the War on Drugs

For four decades the US has fueled its policy of a “war on drugs” with over a trillion tax dollars and increasingly punitive policies. More than 39 million arrests for nonviolent drug offenses have been made. The incarcerated population quadrupled over a 20-year period, making building prisons the nation’s fastest growing industry. More than 2.3 million US citizens are currently in prison or jail, far more per capita than any country in the world. The US has 4.6 percent of the population of the world but 22.5 percent of the world’s prisoners. Each year this war costs the US another 70 billion dollars. Despite all the lives destroyed and all the money so ill spent, today illicit drugs are cheaper, more potent, and much easier to access than they were at the beginning of the war on drugs, 40 years ago. Meanwhile, people continue dying on the streets while drug barons and terrorists continue to grow richer, more powerful, better armed.

Not one of the stated US drug policy goals of lowering the incidence of crime, addiction, drug availability, or juvenile drug use, has been achieved. Instead, our approach has magnified these problems by creating a self-perpetuating, ever-expanding policy of destruction, yet the US still insists on continuing the war and pressuring other governments to perpetuate these same unworkable policies. The drug war wreaks havoc, funds terrorism, and causes major corruption around the globe. This is the very definition of a failed public policy. This madness must cease!

With this in mind, current and former members of law enforcement have created a drug policy reform group called LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). Supporters of LEAP believe that to save lives and lower the rates of disease, crime and addiction, as well as to conserve tax dollars, we must end drug prohibition. LEAP believes a system of regulation and control is far more effective than one of prohibition.

Please join us for this important discussion!

Guest Speaker:  Jim Doherty:

Jim Doherty prosecuted drug users as a chief prosecutor and also helped keep them in jail as a corrections officer. Prior to attending law school, Jim spent a year working as an “alternatives worker” getting criminal defendants into drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs and spent a year as a cell block officer in a large county jail. He later gained experience with the opposite perspective by serving as a public defender. In total, he has been practicing law for over thirty years, including several years as a felony public defender in Oregon, several as a municipal prosecutor for Washington cities, and two years as the Chief Prosecutor in the Attorney General’s office in American Samoa.

Jim describes his criminal legal experience as an exercise in futility when dealing with drug issues. “The legal prohibition of drugs has clogged our courts and jails, and has led to an out-of-control black market that destroys the lives of too many people, both here in America and abroad.”

He is part of the King County Bar Association Drug Policy Project, which was the country’s first county-wide collaboration to look at and work towards alternatives to America’s longest war. He is also a member of the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers. Since 1993, Jim has served as a full time legal consultant with Municipal Research & Services Center, a non-profit organization providing research assistance to cities and counties in the State of Washington.

About InspireSeattle:

InspireSeattle is a progressive network of Seattle-area people sharing ideas and supporting action. InspireSeattle’s vision is to create connection throughout our community and better community through activism. InspireSeattle’s mission is to provide a fun, supportive gathering for people who care deeply about our community, our country and our planet. We embrace progressive policies that improve our society and protect our environment. We discuss current issues, share ideas and activism efforts while striving to inspire additional action. Subscribe (or unsubscribe) to InspireSeattle by visiting

When: April 25th at 6:30PM. Please try to be on time!!!

Where: Toni Merritt’s place, 1334 44th Ave SW, Seattle WA 98116, 773-495-4398.

Google map:,+Seattle,+WA+98116/@47.5909059,-122.386944,19z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x54904073f9488d41:0x4c67063a02b81ccf

Directions: Go west over the West Seattle bridge – take the Admiral Way exit – go up hill to California Ave SW – go right (north) on California – go 8 blocks to Atlantic – go left (west) on Atlantic – go right at 44th (first intersection) – first house on right.


It’s a potluck: so please help out and bring something to eat and to drink!

6:30 to 7:45: Social time! Eat, drink, relax, and catch up with some other local progressives

Formal discussion and guest speakers, 7:45 to 9:30

Other Announcements – got any?

Rules of Engagement!

1. So that everyone has a chance to participate, please keep your comments short

2. Raise one’s hand to ask a question in lieu of shouting out

3. Respect the points of views of others

4. No arguing of politics during the formal discussion – save that for afterwards!

Black Lives Matter – Seattle (Video)

(Raw video, my editing computer is dead)
Stop Police Brutality: Time to build a mass movement!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Africatown Center, Columbia City Seattle
Organized by Socialist Alternative

Moderator Ramy Khalil

– Guest Speaker from NAACP

– Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant

– Devan Rogers, Youth Undoing Institutional Racism and Ending the Prison Industrial Complex

– Celia Berk, Youth Undoing Institutional Racism and Ending the Prison Industrial Complex

– Dr. Will Washington, activist against community violence

– Julia Ismael, Africatown Education and Innovation Center

Since Officers Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo, and Adley Shepherd were not indicted, protests have erupted against the violence regularly inflicted on black communities by police. The anger, grief, and desire for a better world are palpable among young people and communities of color. We need to build these protests into a sustained mass movement strong enough to pressure elected representatives to address the racist police violence and brutal economic inequality experienced by people of color and working-class people every day.

Socialist Alternative called this 2nd public meeting to build upon the December 10th public meeting to further discuss effective strategies for this movement.

What tactics at our protests are most effective?

What concrete demands should we and City Councilmember Sawant fight for together? A democratically elected oversight board with full powers over the SPD? Scrap plans to build a new King County youth jail?

How can we uproot the underlying system that breeds police brutality, institutionalized racism, and inequality?

Black Lives Matter!

Part 1

Part 2