I'll help you, you help me

The Deep Science of Cooperation: Martin Nowak

I'll help you, you help meIf you are interested in cooperative studies or just want to build a more collaborative culture in your place of work, watch the below 20 minute talk by Martin Nowak. It’s based on his (and Roger Highfield’s) new book: SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed.

Nowak starts the talk with an overview of the key milestones in the evolution of life. What’s the most interesting thing that’s happened in the last 600 million years? The origin of human language. That’s right. It’s the most important evolutionary event since the rise of complex, multi-cellular life. That’s because for the first time on Earth, it enables a new mode of evolution that is longer tied to genetics, but ideas. This is the birth of cultural evolution.

More complexity and more cooperation...

There’s then an overview of Darwin’s thinking and a deeper look at evolution. The only thing that really evolves are populations, populations of reproducing individuals. Nowak then outlines the two commonly understood pillars of evolution: mutation and selection and goes on to discuss a third variable: cooperation. Without cooperation, there is no construction. It’s the master architect of evolution.

Don't forget to cooperate...

What is cooperation? It’s a kind of working together between two individuals, a donor and a recipient, and you can model it’s efficacy or fitness using computers. Nowak goes into some interesting detail on what these computer models tell us about how cooperation actually works in nature – and culture. Individuals with the option of collaborating face two choices: cooperate or defect. The most famous representation of this choice between cooperation and defection is called “the prisoner’s dilemma.” The problem is that the rationale analysis leads individuals quite consistently to defection, even though there is a bigger payoff to be had through cooperating.

“Natural selection will always favor defectors. Natural selection needs help to see the advantages of cooperation.” -Martin Nowak

So what is it that natural selection uses in order to develop the more optimal outcomes to be had through cooperation? Nowak proposes five mechanisms:

One of the key insights from negotiation analysis and cooperative studies is that we don’t simply choose to cooperate with someone just once. More typically, we end up facing the choice of cooperating with the same individual multiple on occasions. When we can rely on this assumption of repeated opportunities for collaboration, there is room for cooperation to emerge. In 1980, at a computer tournament organized by Robert Axelrod, Anatol Rapoport developed a winning strategy called “tit for tat,” which essentially says “I start off cooperating and stay in that mode as long as you do. But when you defect, I respond, in turn, with defection. Tit for tat.” Tit for tat is an effective strategy; beautiful in its simplicity. It acts as a kind of social mirror reflecting back whatever behavior one’s parter exhibits. Do unto others as they have done unto you.

But when the models were allowed to continue running, a new winning strategy eventually emerged called “generous tit for tat” and this strategy always chooses cooperation. After some time, however, this strategy too became suboptimal, as it leaves itself vulnerable to repeated defection from the other party.

Cooperation is dynamic, not static

When that happens the cycle of cooperation is interrupted. How much cooperation we have depends upon on how stable it is once it’s there and how fast it can be rebuilt once it is destroyed. This is very different from most economists’ understanding of cooperation as a static equilibrium, rather than something that displays this kind of dynamics.

“In all my subsequent work on evolution of cooperation, it’s the same story. Cooperation is never here to stay. Cooperation is there for some time. Then the system breaks down and you have to rebuild it.” -Martin Nowak

Nowak makes the interesting point that winning strategies for cooperation require three characteristics. They are: generous, hopeful and forgiving.

Nowak then moves on from direct reciprocity to look briefly at indirect reciprocity, where I help you, and somebody else helps me. This is the premise of the movie Pay It Forward. I don’t expect reciprocity necessarily from you. This kind of reciprocity depends upon reputation; where someone observes my behavior and spreads it through populations through gossip. Communication and language are critical to indirect reciprocity. As Harvard Professor David Haig puts it: “For direct reciprocity you need a face. For indirect reciprocity you need a name.” That’s because in direct reciprocity, all I need to do is recognize who you are. But with indirect reciprocity, I need some way of communicating about who you are without you necessarily present. That’s where a name, or some other word to represent you, is critical.

Nowak closes the talk by briefly outlining the three other mechanisms for cooperation: spatial selection, group selection and kinship selection. What led Nowak and Highfield to the name of their book is that humans are “SuperCooperators” because they use all five mechanisms to cooperate.

So, that’s the overview. Now watch this wonderful talk for yourself…and tell me what you think: