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.

Review of Matt Ridley's Evolution of Everything

Matt Ridley is Hereditary member of the House of Lords, and a Tory. “Viscount Ridley is a title in the Peerage of the United Kingdom. It was created in 1900 for the Conservative politician Sir Matthew White Ridley, 5th Baronet, Home Secretary from 1895 to 1900. ” (source)

Ridley is a climate change skeptic, has interests in coal mines, is a proponent of fracking, and is in favor of Brexit.

“Ridley was chairman of the UK bank Northern Rock from 2004 to 2007, during which period Northern Rock experienced the first run on a British bank in 150 years. Ridley chose to resign, and the bank was bailed out by the UK government leading to the nationalisation of Northern Rock.” (source)

Matt Ridley

Ridley’s 2015 book Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge is a well-written libertarian manifesto that attacks religion, government, regulations, public education, and environmentalism.

Evolution of Everything

Ridley is clearly smart, and he’s a good writer. (Few U.S. politicians are as educated.) He’s written books on biology, and the first chapters of Evolution of Everything are a convincing account of how life evolved through random mutation and natural selection.

But the rest of the book devolves into an imbalanced libertarian (“bottom-up”) screed.

In a discussion of the Nature versus Nurture debate, Ridley defends Nature. He argues that, to a larger extent than people want to admit, it’s not society or even parents that determine the personality or success of children. Rather, it’s genetics.

He summarizes the intellectual history of such debates. Because genetic determinism could be used to justify racism and sexism, for many years research suggesting a strong role for Nature (versus Nurture) was strongly condemned by the social sciences. More recently, it’s been become acceptable to acknowledge that babies are not a blank slate and that there are innate sex differences.

Judith Rich Harris was one of the most successful proponents of the Nurture side of the debate. At first, opposition to her findings was “furious.” Ridley says “Natural selection made sure that brainwashing was not easy. And it’s time we stopped looking to parenting for the credit or the blame.”

Ridley is clever, but his cleverness approaches sophistry. He calls it a “meritocratic result” that children’s intelligence and success in life are mostly determined by their genes and not by society or their parents.

“[A] world where nurture was everything would be horribly more cruel than one where nature allowed people to escape their disadvantages through their own talents. How particularly nasty to write people off because they were born in a slum, or fostered
by indifferent parents… Nature is the friend of social mobility.

Believers in Nurture don’t want to “write off” people born in slums. They want to help them overcome their accidental disadvantages. A world where everything is determined by genes would be cruel, because people couldn’t escape their genetic natures.

Ridley criticizes and ridicules religions, and argues that they too evolve. Christianity and Islam evolved from pre-existing religions, though their followers would like to believe that they were revealed from on high (“sky hooks”).

Similarly, legal systems evolved bottom-up, he says. “It is an extraordinary fact, unremembered by most, that in the Anglosphere people live by laws that did not originate with governments at all.” Rather, most laws emerged from common law.

He argues that even in the absence of governments, people arrange for justice and policing bottom-up, via ostracism, gangs, and private police forces. In prisons, inmates self-govern. Such government is often brutal and injustice, but the same can be said for a lot of top-down government.

A late chapter tells stories of successful private banking systems with private currency; it portrays central banks as enablers of fraud and bad lending. According to libertarians such as Ron Paul, the Federal Reserve is a state-sanctioned monopoly. Far better to allow private money. “Bottom-up monetary systems — known as free banking — have a far better track record than top-down ones.”

He denies that the great recession of 2008 was caused by deregulation. Instead, he blames it on China (for devaluing its concurrency and causing a trade imbalance and housing bubble built on money from China), on the U.S. Federal Reserve (for its low-interest policies that inflated Wall Street prices), and on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (whose government-backed borrowing inflated housing prices and enriched private corporations). Lenders, brokers, and builders lobbied Congress, as did minority-rights organizations such as ACORN. “In short, the explosion in sub-prime lending was a thoroughly top-down, political project, mandated by Congress, implemented by government-sponsored enterprises, enforced by law, encouraged by the president and monitored by pressure groups.” “It is simply a myth that the problem came from deregulation.” “Fannie and Freddie were holding more than two-thirds of all sub-prime loans, or $2 trillion worht. Nearly three-quarters of new home loans passed through their hands that year.” Ridley quotes David Stockman, “The Fannie Mae saga demonstrates that once crony capitalism captures the arms of the state, its potential for cancerous group is truly perilous.”

Ridley barely mentions the fraud of Wall Street in selling, underwriting, and mislabeling toxic mortgage-backed securities as safe investments.

And he doesn’t mention the need for government to bail out banks for trillions of dollars (including Ridley’s own bank!).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_policies_and_the_subprime_mortgage_crisis and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subprime_mortgage_crisis#Causes discuss  the various causes for the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. It’s fair to say that both deregulation of the securities industry and government encouragement of lending through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac contributed to the problem.  Ridley paints a one-sided picture.

He relates population control and family planning to eugenics and murder: sterilization, one-child policies, and forced abortions. He says the key to decreasing population is economic growth: richer people have fewer kids.

He compares governments to crime gangs and environmentalism to a religion: “Nor is skyhook thinking confined to ‘god’ religions. It animates all sorts of movements that faith at their heart, from Marxism to spiritualism, from astrology to environmentalism.”

He quotes French philosopher Paul Buckner: “The environment is the new seclar religion that is rising, in Europe especially, from the ruins of a disbelieving world.”
People used to blame weather on the gods. Ridley says “The huge appeal of the ‘extreme weather’ meme of recent years comes from the fact that it plays into this divine-retribution mentality.”

He also compares climate change and Marxism to religions. Similarly with organic farming (which had spiritualist origins), as well as opposition to GMO grains.

But environmentalism and the theory of climate change evolved bottom-up, from the findings and concerns of numerous scientists and activists. Skepticism of climate change is top-down, imposed by ideologues and industrialists with an axe to grind.

Ridley admits that there is some alarming scientific evidence for climate change, but he thinks that proponents have overstated the evidence. Actually, the evidence has gotten stronger in the past few years.

He quotes from Liberal Fascists. He quotes from the Cato Institute. He says both Communism and Fascism are similar manifestations of top-down love of government. According to Ridley, the market, not government, has historically led to most increases in living standards.

Most technology emerges bottom-up, he claims. He quotes some OECD research that suggests that publicly funded research has almost no positive effect on economic growth, while private funding does.

But most corporations are run in highly top-down manners and depend on government for many services and research.

None other than Bill Gates, Jr. thinks government is more efficient than private industry in research: In Bill Gates: The private sector is completely inept, Gates writes:

Since World War II, U.S.-government R&D has defined the state of the art in almost every area… When I first got into this I thought, ‘How well does the Department of Energy spend its R&D budget?’ And I was worried: ‘Gosh, if I’m going to be saying it should double its budget, if it turns out it’s not very well spent, how am I going to feel about that? But as I’ve really dug into it, the DARPA money is very well spent, and the basic-science money is very well spent. The government has these ‘Centers of Excellence.’ They should have twice as many of those things, and those things should get about four times as much money as they do.”

Gates also says the private sector is incapable of addressing climate change.

In The Horrifying Hidden Story Behind Drug Company Profits and The Truth about the Drug Companies, a former Editor in Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine writes of the drug industry, “Instead of being an engine of innovation, it is a vast marketing machine. Instead of being a free market success story, it lives off government-funded research and monopoly rights.

Ridley argues against the Great Man view of history, according to which history is largely driven by te actions of geniuses and heroes. Instead, Ridley believes, changes emerge bottom-up. Numerous discoveries and inventions were made by multiple people at abut the same time. Newton and Leibniz invented calculus at about the same time. Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace came up with the theory of evolution at about the same time.

Before google’s search engine, there were numerous other search engines available: Alta Vista, Yahoo, Excite, Infoseek, etc.

“Music, too, evolves. To a surprising extent, it changes under its own steam, with musicians carried along for the ride.”

“Simultaneous discovery and invention mean that both patents and Nobel prizes are fundamentally unfair things.” If so, then large profits are unfair too.

If Ridley is correct that many inventions are due to societal forces and shared knowledge, isn’t that a reason for high taxation and for “spreading the wealth” that emerges from technology?

Ridley is critical of abusive patent law. He acknowledges that corporations do abuse government power to enhance their wealth.

He says that private schools were thriving in the 1800s but were unfairly displaced by government schools.

He says governments do more harm than good. He ignores the great success of Scandinavian countries and Denmark, as well as the success stories like Singapore, where prosperity came top-down. And he ignores the historically large role of the U.S. government in many technologies and providing services that corporations and people depend on. (Not to mention the bailouts!)

The final chapter, Evolution of the Internet, celebrates the decentralized and often open-source nature of the Internet: Wikipedia, citizen bloggers, and photo-sharing democratized journalism.

Ridley speculates that the technology behind bitcoin “could radically decentralize society itself, getting rid of the need for banks, governments, even companies, and politicians…. Imagine in the future summoning a tax that not only has no driver, but that belongs to a computer network, not to a human being.” Decentralized institutions are immune to corruption — unless there is insufficient government to control monopoly and crime. “The big-government model that threatens to bankrupt and bully us is not just unafforable; it is also increasingly impractical.”

Ridley is a conservative intellectual, a rare species. He makes a good case for bottom-up libertarianism, but the book is imbalanced.  Progressives need to fight such libertarian thinking.  Government can be and often is a source of good. We need to fix government so that it serves the people, and not the rich.  Medicare for All. Social Security. Public Education. Progressive taxation. Regulation. Environmentalism. All these depend on top-down designs.   In fact, both good and bad ideas emerge both bottom-up and top-down.

Burbank: Our successes were built on contributions of others

We are approaching the Fourth of July, when we celebrate American independence and the success of the colonists’ desire to be self-ruling. The United States was the first of England’s many colonies to gain its independence, something that would not be repeated until Canada broke away nearly a century later. It’s a testament to Americans’ individualistic, rugged, bold ways.

But we didn’t do it alone. We couldn’t do it alone. Despite George Washington’s exceptional instincts, the Continental Army simply didn’t have the money, men, training or ships needed to defeat the British. So they were lucky to have the French, who were fuming after losing almost all their territory to the British in the French and Indian War. The French pummeled the British at sea, gave the Americans weapons, and sent soldiers to fight on American soil. It’s no coincidence the treaty ending that war was signed in Paris.

These facts are often lost in the myth of America’s origin. We like to talk of “self-made” individualists who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. We’re told it’s a place where anyone can be president, and we can achieve anything if we work hard enough. It’s something like Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, where every child is above average. But of course, the truth is a little different.

All wealthy Americans achieved their status with the help of other people. It may have been parents who paid for their education, allowing them to start out without student loans. Or a grandmother who offers free childcare during work hours. Or a credit union that offered a favorable first business loan. Or taxpayers who help fund the transportation networks that allow them to get to work and ship products. At the root, it’s the productivity of thousands of workers who generate wealth and ultimately make possible a person’s “individual” advancement.

Last year, Forbes listed Bill Gates as the top self-made billionaire. That’s partially true in that he’s the wealthiest, by far. But he’s not entirely self-made. His father was able to become a lawyer through the federal (taxpayer-funded) GI Bill, which helped make it possible for Bill to attend an expensive private school. Bill Gates and Paul Allen first explored computing through the (also taxpayer-financed) University of Washington’s computer lab. His wife, Melinda, stayed home to take care of their children while Microsoft was a young company. Taxpayer-funded research created the internet and built phone lines and other infrastructure, laying the groundwork for the personal computer revolution that made Microsoft huge.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying Bill Gates isn’t a genius, or that he didn’t work hard for this success. But put a genius in the desert, alone, and what do you have? Society helped make Bill Gates rich. He and other wealthy individuals are the product of intergenerational and societal investments designed to build the common good.

That’s why it’s extremely dangerous when these societal investments are cut back and withdrawn. We can see it now with the prolonged debate over just how much the government is going to gut Medicaid and Medicare, or the long-overdue upgrades needed to our transportation networks; or the state Legislature’s unwillingness to fully-fund K-12 schools per the state Supreme Court’s order. We’re cutting up the social contract that creates an America where anyone can succeed.

You can’t get rich if you’re in bankruptcy from cancer treatments. You can’t succeed in business if your employees and customers can’t reach you. You can’t be a great employee — or come up with the next big business idea — if you don’t get a shot at a great education.

If we’re serious about keeping the promise of America, where upward mobility is available to everyone, we have to provide for education, transportation, health care, utilities and a myriad of other public good projects for the economy to thrive. And yes, that means paying taxes to fund those investments through our democratic institutions. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how good the cause is, it will fail without a support system.

So this Fourth of July, as you celebrate our Independence Day, take a moment to recognize and remember that our community is what gives us the tools to succeed. Every day is Interdependence Day.

Originally posted at Herald.net

How extreme is the GOP?

The Koch brothers are major donators to the GOP.   As Bernie Sanders reports here:

Here are just a few excerpts of the Libertarian Party platform that David Koch ran on in 1980:

  • “We urge the repeal of federal campaign finance laws, and the immediate abolition of the despotic Federal Election Commission.”
  • “We favor the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid programs.”
  • “We oppose any compulsory insurance or tax-supported plan to provide health services, including those which finance abortion services.”
  • “We also favor the deregulation of the medical insurance industry.”
  • “We favor the repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive Social Security system. Pending that repeal, participation in Social Security should be made voluntary.”
  • “We propose the abolition of the governmental Postal Service. The present system, in addition to being inefficient, encourages governmental surveillance of private correspondence.  Pending abolition, we call for an end to the monopoly system and for allowing free competition in all aspects of postal service.”
  • “We oppose all personal and corporate income taxation, including capital gains taxes.”
  • “We support the eventual repeal of all taxation.”
  • “As an interim measure, all criminal and civil sanctions against tax evasion should be terminated immediately.”
  • “We support repeal of all law which impede the ability of any person to find employment, such as minimum wage laws.”
  • “We advocate the complete separation of education and State.  Government schools lead to the indoctrination of children and interfere with the free choice of individuals. Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended.”
  • “We condemn compulsory education laws … and we call for the immediate repeal of such laws.”
  • “We support the repeal of all taxes on the income or property of private schools, whether profit or non-profit.”
  • “We support the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency.”
  • “We support abolition of the Department of Energy.”
  • “We call for the dissolution of all government agencies concerned with transportation, including the Department of Transportation.”
  • “We demand the return of America’s railroad system to private ownership. We call for the privatization of the public roads and national highway system.”
  • “We specifically oppose laws requiring an individual to buy or use so-called “self-protection” equipment such as safety belts, air bags, or crash helmets.”
  • “We advocate the abolition of the Federal Aviation Administration.”
  • “We advocate the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration.”
  • “We support an end to all subsidies for child-bearing built into our present laws, including all welfare plans and the provision of tax-supported services for children.”
  • “We oppose all government welfare, relief projects, and ‘aid to the poor’ programs. All these government programs are privacy-invading, paternalistic, demeaning, and inefficient. The proper source of help for such persons is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.”
  • “We call for the privatization of the inland waterways, and of the distribution system that brings water to industry, agriculture and households.”
  • “We call for the repeal of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.”
  • “We call for the abolition of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.”
  • “We support the repeal of all state usury laws.”

Survival of the friendliest: how cooperation plays a positive role in evolution

The dominant story about biological evolution is a bloody tale of competition and survival of the fittest. There’s no purpose or morality in nature.  There’s no Creator imposing an Intelligent Design.  Rather, random mutations during cell division result in offspring with a diversity of traits. Those offspring with fitter traits tend to survive and breed.  Weaker offspring die out.  Over many generations, beneficial traits accumulate, leading to evolution and the eventual creation of new species.

Kinda brutal. Just what libertarians would love.

Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed offers a more nuanced story about evolution.  The book presents recent research in biology and mathematical game theory that challenges the primacy of competition as a force in biological and cultural evolution.  According to the new paradigm, cooperation plays a much more significant role in the success of species in than in the dominant approach.

Nowak writes that natural selection is not a sufficient foundation for evolution.

I propose that “natural cooperation” be included as a fundamental principle to bolster those laid down by Darwin. Cooperation can draw living matter upward to higher levels of organization. It generates the possibility for greater diversity by new specializations, new niches, and new divisions of labor. Cooperation makes evolution constructive and open-ended.

An important point is that all this lofty talk is backed up by peer-reviewed science. Nowak published, in major journals, articles about mathematical game theory which explain under what conditions cooperation can evolve in communities of competing organisms.

This topic is of particular interest because of its implications for politics.    The political ideology of the conservative movement in America is based on opposition to government and cooperation, in favor of low taxes, deregulation, and laissez-faire capitalism.   Conservatives can point to evolution as a justification of their ideology, much as Herbert Spenser did in the 19th century. But if cooperation plays a much larger role in evolution than previously thought, then the biological argument becomes less persuasive.

Indeed, government-run health care in most countries provides higher quality care at a fraction of the cost of America’s inefficient market-based system.   Competition is useful in some areas, especially in high tech where innovation is important. But in other areas of an economy, including health care delivery, centralized control and planning make more sense, as they eliminate unproductive rent-seeking.

It’s a battle between selfishness and cooperation, between freedom (including freedom to cheat) and justice.

Super Cooperators is written in a lively style by Harvard professor of Biology and Mathematics, Martin A. Nowak, with science writer Roger Highfield as co-author. The book has few equations or diagrams but the exposition and prose are clear enough so that the educated reader, especially someone with a little background in biology or computer science, can imagine how to reproduce many of the experiments.

Since  the 19th century biologists (including Darwin) pointed to the success of the social insects (e.g., ants) as examples of how traits can evolve that favor the group over the individual.  Called “group selection” or “kin selection” or “multilevel selection” or “inclusive fitness”, these mechanisms represent a kind of higher level evolution, wherein groups that are better able to cooperate out-compete groups comprised by more selfish individuals.    But until recently, most biologists have thought that mechanisms such as group selection have limited effect.   On the other hand, it is obvious that evolution has resulted in highly cooperative species, such as ants and homo sapiens.    Nowak and others researchers have laid mathematical and evidential foundations that explain the origin of cooperation and that support a broader role for cooperation in evolution than previously thought.

Much of the book describes computer simulations of competition in which virtual individuals compete in a virtual ecology (economy).   Researchers have experimented with different strategies for competition.  Depending on the how the economy is set up, the best strategy may involve either selfish competition or cooperation.  Sacrificing one’s own short-term gain can lead to an outcome in which everybody benefits (as in the tragedy of the commons).  Research shows under which conditions one strategy (e.g., “cooperate if the other person cooperated in the past”) can make inroads against individuals using a different strategy (e.g., “always be selfish”).    The research paradigm appears under the name of “Prisoner’s Dilemma”.

In the new framework for evolution, not all is rosy. “There is a dark side to cooperation that comes in the form of parasites, cheats, defectors, and other lowlifes.”  In an ecology of cooperating individuals, a “defector” can exploit the kindness of strangers and disrupt the cooperative strategy.   Cancer cells in the body are an example of non-cooperators.  In a political economy, defectors can take the form of welfare queens who refuse to work. Alternatively, the defector can take the form of wealthy individuals who benefit from government contracts and protections but offload costs (e.g., pollution) to others, don’t pay their taxes, and subvert government laws and regulations to be in their own favor.

Nowak identifies five mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation: (1) direct reciprocity; (2) indirect reciprocity — reputation, via language; (3) spatial selection — organizing into small, local groups helps to protect against defectors and parasites and to increase mutual trust;  (4) multilevel selection — selection at the group level — e.g., tribes that cooperate better out-compete tribes consisting of selfish individuals; and (5) kin selection — people naturally cooperate with people related by blood. For each of the five mechanisms, Nowak presents simple mathematical formulas that describe under what conditions cooperation can out-compete selfishness. For example, if the product of the benefits deriving from cooperation times the probability that you’ll encounter the same person again exceeds the short-term cost of cooperation, then it pays to cooperate. This and other cases imply that cooperation works better if people divide into small groups and cooperate in such groups. The theory explains the prevalence of groups such as families, villages, gangs, cults, corporations, policies, and factions in human societies. It also implies that humans should organize politically at different levels of granularity.

In the final chapters Nowak makes a (somewhat sentimental and melodramatic) call for greater worldwide cooperation, especially on the issue of climate change. He says:

The story of humanity is one that rests on the never-ending creative tension between the dark pursuit of selfish short-term interests and the shining example of striving towards collective long-term goals. …. 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.

One can view this area of research as giving a naturalistic explanation for morality.

The research gives intellectual succor for progressive-minded people who want to push back against the regressive forces in American politics who wish to dismantle the New Deal and return the country to the small government, small-minded days of the Articles of Confederation.

Frightening Libertarian Party platform — by the people who now control the GOP

The Koch Brothers basically control the GOP.  And here’s their 1980 Libertarian Party Platform (copied from Bernie Sanders’ webpage).  If this doesn’t scare you, you are sick.

Here are just a few excerpts of the Libertarian Party platform that David Koch ran on in 1980:

  • “We urge the repeal of federal campaign finance laws, and the immediate abolition of the despotic Federal Election Commission.”
  • “We favor the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid programs.”
  • “We oppose any compulsory insurance or tax-supported plan to provide health services, including those which finance abortion services.”
  • “We also favor the deregulation of the medical insurance industry.”
  • “We favor the repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive Social Security system. Pending that repeal, participation in Social Security should be made voluntary.”
  • “We propose the abolition of the governmental Postal Service. The present system, in addition to being inefficient, encourages governmental surveillance of private correspondence.  Pending abolition, we call for an end to the monopoly system and for allowing free competition in all aspects of postal service.”
  • “We oppose all personal and corporate income taxation, including capital gains taxes.”
  • “We support the eventual repeal of all taxation.”
  • “As an interim measure, all criminal and civil sanctions against tax evasion should be terminated immediately.”
  • “We support repeal of all law which impede the ability of any person to find employment, such as minimum wage laws.”
  • “We advocate the complete separation of education and State.  Government schools lead to the indoctrination of children and interfere with the free choice of individuals. Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended.”
  • “We condemn compulsory education laws … and we call for the immediate repeal of such laws.”
  • “We support the repeal of all taxes on the income or property of private schools, whether profit or non-profit.”
  • “We support the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency.”
  • “We support abolition of the Department of Energy.”
  • “We call for the dissolution of all government agencies concerned with transportation, including the Department of Transportation.”
  • “We demand the return of America’s railroad system to private ownership. We call for the privatization of the public roads and national highway system.”
  • “We specifically oppose laws requiring an individual to buy or use so-called “self-protection” equipment such as safety belts, air bags, or crash helmets.”
  • “We advocate the abolition of the Federal Aviation Administration.”
  • “We advocate the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration.”
  • “We support an end to all subsidies for child-bearing built into our present laws, including all welfare plans and the provision of tax-supported services for children.”
  • “We oppose all government welfare, relief projects, and ‘aid to the poor’ programs. All these government programs are privacy-invading, paternalistic, demeaning, and inefficient. The proper source of help for such persons is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.”
  • “We call for the privatization of the inland waterways, and of the distribution system that brings water to industry, agriculture and households.”
  • “We call for the repeal of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.”
  • “We call for the abolition of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.”
  • “We support the repeal of all state usury laws.”

In other words, the agenda of the Koch brothers is not only to defund Obamacare.  The agenda of the Koch brothers is to repeal every major piece of legislation that has been signed into law over the past 80 years that has protected the middle class, the elderly, the children, the sick, and the most vulnerable in this country.