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.

Grand Jury Resisters Need Your Support

Friends are in jail. We don’t know how long they will be there. We don’t what criminal activity is being investigated that leads to these folks being jailed for refusing to answer Grand Jury questions.

Land of the Free. Home of the Brave.

First they came for the anarchists….

Jump in, you can help. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

Compilation Album Created in Support of Grand Jury Resisters

Musical Impressions has created a compilation album called “Black Clothing, Anarchist Literature, Flags, Flag-Making Materials, Cell Phones, Address Books, & Hard Drives” in support of the Grand Jury Resisters.

You can buy it here. Proceeds go to support the legal and material needs of those resisting the FBI investigations of anarchists in the Pacific Northwest.

Scott Crow is in Olympia for a few days

Activist, anarchist, writer, organizer – Scott Crow – is going to be in Olympia for a few speaking engagements over the next few days. He will be at South Puget Sound Community College on Oct 25th at noon, Room 102, Building 26

Then he will be at Last Word Books on Friday, Oct 26th at 7:30 pm. and one more time in Oly on Monday, Oct 29th at Lecture Hall 2, The Evergreen State College at noon.

Want to understand anarchism? Learn more about it. It’s not what you may think.

Want to continue to misunderstand and misrepresent anarchism? As Bobby Dylan said, “you are going to have to serve somebody…” Choose today, who will you serve? You are going to have to serve somebody.

Black Flags and Radical Relief Efforts in New Orleans: An Interview with scott crow

Author and activist scott crow

“Solidarity not Charity” is a way of feeding people while addressing the underlying problems that cause hunger. The way this manifested itself in Common Ground was to immediately deliver and render aid where the state had failed, and then to leave structures in place so communities can continue to rebuild themselves as they see fit.”

Interview by Stevie Peace & Kevin Van Meter

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina both federal and local authorities failed the population of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. As a result, relief efforts from various sectors of American society flowed south. One of the first and most spectacular and aggressive efforts was Common Ground Relief — formed by strands of the anti-globalization and anarchist movements. scott crow documents these struggles in “Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective”, recently released by PM Press. In this interview, Crow describes the process of becoming an author after being an organizer, reviews the history and myths of Common Ground and explores possible lessons for future progressive and radical organizing. Visit crow’s website at http://scottcrow.org/.

Can you speak to the writing process behind “Black Flags and Windmillsand your shift from an organizer to an author?

One word: difficult. I don’t consider myself a writer; and while I have written a few pieces over the years, it has mostly been out of necessity. From my arrival in New Orleans I took copious notes. Every time I would get moments to get away, I would take notes about organizing and creating an organization to deal with the disaster following Hurricane Katrina. Additionally, I wrote communiqués from just days after the storm and continued for three years. I went back to all of those writings and began turning them into chapters. On a personal level it was healing to write: I came back with post-traumatic stress, couldn’t function in society and felt like the ghost in the machine a lot. The writing actually helped me to relive those traumas in a different way, to really dissect them. It was almost a five-year process; I feel so much better now than I did when I started the book. This is not to say that “Black Flags and Windmills” is a sorrow-filled book. There are lots of beautiful stories along the way and lots of really engaging organizing that was going on. The book describes the anarchist heyday of Common Ground, when the most self-identified anarchists came; this was early September 2005 until 2008. Afterward, the organization became much more structured in a traditional nonprofit way. This is not to denigrate it — just to say that the book focuses on this initial period of “black flags” at Common Ground.

Since memory is a tricky thing, I did outside research and revisited with people. I went back to news articles from grassroots media, reports and blogs to look at specific events and the way things unfolded. Then, I would ask key organizers and New Orleans residents, “Do you remember when this thing happened?” Sometimes it was completely different from how I remembered it. I don’t claim to speak for Common Ground, as I think that would do a disservice to the thousands of people who participated and the hundreds of key organizers that were there.

When I tell a story I want people to understand it and create common bonds. I wrote this book for people who might not have any understanding about radical or anarchist concepts. I always ask myself, “What would my mom think about this?” While I wrote it for people like her, my target audience was those who were coming into movements and might be inspired by what Common Ground was building. I used the stories in the book to give a primer on the theoretical background of anarchism in practice. Another part of the book is telling my own personal narrative. It’s not because I think my story is important, but I wanted to show that I am a regular person that was just caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

Want to know more? Read the whole piece. Come sit in on one of the events.

Chomsky on Anarchism

For folks with an open mind who want to know more about anarchism:

 

Noam Chomsky on Anarchism, Marxism & Hope for the Future

 


Noam Chomsky is widely known for his critique of U.S foreign policy, and for his work as a linguist. Less well known is his ongoing support for libertarian socialist objectives. In a special interview done for Red and Black Revolution, Chomsky gives his views on anarchism and marxism, and the prospects for socialism now. The interview was conducted in May 1995 by Kevin Doyle.

RBR: First off, Noam, for quite a time now you’ve been an advocate for the anarchist idea. Many people are familiar with the introduction you wrote in 1970 to Daniel Guerin’s Anarchism: From Theory to Practice, but more recently, for instance in the film Manufacturing Dissent, you took the opportunity to highlight again the potential of anarchism and the anarchist idea. What is it that attracts you to anarchism?

CHOMSKY: I was attracted to anarchism as a young teenager, as soon as I began to think about the world beyond a pretty narrow range, and haven’t seen much reason to revise those early attitudes since. I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom. That includes political power, ownership and management, relations among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations (the basic moral imperative behind the environmental movement, in my view), and much else. Naturally this means

a challenge to the huge institutions of coercion and control: the state, the unaccountable private tyrannies that control most of the domestic and international economy, and so on. But not only these. That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met. Sometimes the burden can be met.

If I’m taking a walk with my grandchildren and they dart out into a busy street, I will use not only authority but also physical coercion to stop them. The act should be challenged, but I think it can readily meet the challenge. And there are other cases; life is a complex affair, we understand very little about humans and society, and grand pronouncements are generally more a source of harm than of benefit. But the perspective is a valid one, I think, and can lead us quite a long way.

Beyond such generalities, we begin to look at cases, which is where the questions of human interest and concern arise.

Anarchist banner
RBR: It’s true to say that your ideas and critique are now more widely known than ever before. It should also be said that your views are widely respected. How do you think your support for anarchism is received in this context? In particular, I’m interested in the response you receive from people who are getting interested in politics for the first time and who may, perhaps, have come across your views. Are such people surprised by your support for anarchism? Are they interested?

CHOMSKY: The general intellectual culture, as you know, associates ‘anarchism’ with chaos, violence, bombs, disruption, and so on. So people are often surprised when I speak positively of anarchism and identify myself with leading traditions within it. But my impression is that among the general public, the basic ideas seem reasonable when the clouds are cleared away. Of course, when we turn to specific matters – say, the nature of families, or how an economy would work in a society that is more free and just – questions and controversy arise. But that is as it should be. Physics can’t really explain how water flows from the tap in your sink. When we turn to vastly more complex questions of human significance, understanding is very thin, and there is plenty of room for disagreement, experimentation, both intellectual and real-life exploration of possibilities, to help us learn more.

RBR: Perhaps, more than any other idea, anarchism has suffered from the problem of misrepresentation. Anarchism can mean many things to many people. Do you often find yourself having to explain what it is that you mean by anarchism? Does the misrepresentation of anarchism bother you?

CHOMSKY: All misrepresentation is a nuisance. Much of it can be traced back to structures of power that have an interest in preventing understanding, for pretty obvious reasons. It’s well to recall David Hume’s Principles of Government. He expressed surprise that people ever submitted to their rulers. He concluded that since Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. ‘Tis therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. Hume was very astute – and incidentally, hardly a libertarian by the standards of the day. He surely underestimates the efficacy of force, but his observation seems to me basically correct, and important, particularly in the more free societies, where the art of controlling opinion is therefore far more refined. Misrepresentation and other forms of befuddlement are a natural concomitant.

So does misrepresentation bother me? Sure, but so does rotten weather. It will exist as long as concentrations of power engender a kind of commissar class to defend them. Since they are usually not very bright, or are bright enough to know that they’d better avoid the arena of fact and argument, they’ll turn to misrepresentation, vilification, and other devices that are available to those who know that they’ll be protected by the various means available to the powerful. We should understand why all this occurs, and unravel it as best we can. That’s part of the project of liberation – of ourselves and others, or more reasonably, of people working together to achieve these aims.

Sounds simple-minded, and it is. But I have yet to find much commentary on human life and society that is not simple-minded, when absurdity and self-serving posturing are cleared away.

RBR: How about in more established left-wing circles, where one might expect to find greater familiarity with what anarchism actually stands for? Do you encounter any surprise here at your views and support for anarchism?

read the whole piece? Please do so. Time with Chomsky is almost always time well spent.

Open Societies versus Closed Societies

Let’s assume that a person really wanted to understand a foreign philosophy, a different way of setting up a society. If that was the case, I would recommend listening to Suzanne Guerlac talk about the philosophy of Henri Bergson. Thinking in Time

This is a dense program, but Suzanne is articulate and the interviewer asks probing intelligent questions, so if you have an hour where you really want to listen closely, I heartily recommend this program. It is especially powerful when Suzanne starts talking about how the evolution from a closed society to an open society is not an easy evolutionary transition, that Bergson thought it would take some sort of fundamental change in way of being to occur. Imagining that sort of thing is difficult. Yet those moments occur. Think Solidarity in Poland. Think the fall of the USSR, the sudden destruction of the Berlin Wall. In those moments, I suspect that an open society emerged, however briefly, before a closed society reasserted itself. Fits and starts. Evolution and change may not be orderly.

So, open societies. What would that look like? Listen hard to Guerlac’s discussion of love and livingness as something new, not love that arises with an object that is loved by a subject who loves, but when love arises in reference to all living things. Pretty amorphous stuff. And for those of you who need a lot of structure, this is not going to be your cup of vegan broth. But if you want to stretch a bit, and you want to commit the energy, I think this program will stretch you.

Against the Grain appears to be a wildly intelligent program. My friend Gar Lipow is the latest guest. Gar is talking about climate change and economic exploitation. Suzanne is so last week.

If you make it through the Open Society talk and thinking in time ala Bergson, and you want to think more about open societies, you could check out the mp3s at Audio Anarchy . The Anarchy Tension series is a good place to start if you have an open mind. You may come to the conclusion that this is simple utopian sophistry, that might be true, but it may also be true that if/when an open society emerges, this could be one of the ways that it will happen. This might be the shapeless shape of a certain kind of open society.

See some of you there.

Austin's Picks: Is Class Struggle Anarchism

Austin K sent this link along in an email this morning. It’s a couple of years old, but it’s still worth sharing and reading. The links go to interesting websites if you have an open mind about politics, which is to say, that you can imagine political positions that are broader than the republican and democratic party talking points. I am only posting two of the points that Nate pulls from Tom’s article. If you want to see the third point, you are going to have click on the link.  Fair use can look tyrannical.

Nate uses his What in the Hell …? website the way I use smallblueplanet.org, as a staging area to gather ideas, to store links and info, then to compose from that website for publication elsewhere. For me, that makes Nate’s What in the Hell… ? particularly interesting.

What in the Hell is Class Struggle Anarchism?

July 24, 2009

Austust another WordPress.com siteIt’s

Hat tip to Tom Wetzel for this fine article. Check it out. Full disclosure and a little bragging, I know Tom, we’re both involved in the Workers Solidarity Alliance, so I’m biased. Anyhow, read his piece.

My favorite three bits are quoted below. With these bits I was reading it and I was like “yeah, this is what I try to do in this kind
of work but I haven’t put it this clearly before,” which is a cool feeling, like the article put clearly into words what had been more of a gut feeling for me or stuff I’d fumbled and put badly before.

1. “Dual organizational anarchists often say that the role of the anarchist political organization is to “win the battle of ideas,” that
is, to gain influence within movements and among the mass of the population by countering authoritarian or liberal or conservative ideas. Bakunin had said that the role of anarchist activists was a “leadership of ideas.”

But disseminating ideas isn’t the only form of influence. Working with others of diverse views in mass organizations and struggles, exhibiting a genuine commitment, and being a personable and supportive person in this context also builds personal connections, and makes it more likely one’s ideas will be taken seriously.”

2. “mass struggles and mass organizing as the process for changing society…because it is through the active participation of growing numbers of ordinary people, building and controlling their own movements, that they develop the capacity and aspirations for changing society.

From the point of view of “organized anarchism with a class struggle perspective,” two kinds of organization are needed: (1) forms of mass organization through which ordinary people can grow and develop their collective strength, and (2) political organizations of the anarchist or libertarian socialist minority, to have a more effective means to coordinate our activities, gain influence in working class communities, and disseminate our ideas. In the World War 1 era Italian anarchists coined the term “dual organization” for this perspective.

Read the whole piece if you have a couple of minutes.