Super Co-operators (what could go wrong?)

I found this book whilst looking after a neighbour’s cat. This radically new way of looking at the evolution of life – think co-operation – was news to me. But I find parts hard to follow. Might better minds than mine find errors? Do I assume that anyone qualified to criticize

Super Co-operators (2011) Canongate books Ltd. Edinburgh EH1 1TE

must dismiss it as too silly for words? Why have I not heard of this approach at least as a hotly contested hypothesis such as Sociobiology?

Contrary to what I thought was general. Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield claim to demonstrate, with probability grounded in mathematics, that given favourable circumstances, life was bound to evolve due to co-operation. If they are right, it must have evolved somewhere in the universe innumerable times.

Ominously however they explain the failure to contact other life forms as due to the instability of intelligent life.  not only do I agree, but I have an explanation which they miss, but first, their amazing . mathematically derived, insights, which seem valid to me..

N & H’ start from a detailed exploration of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. (I suggest you do your own internet search there are several). Whilst others (e.g. Axelrod) use computer games, Nowak and Highfield consider ‘noise’ – What happens with real people (or groups) in normal situations? They demonstrate that ‘Tit for Tat’ can lead to vendettas, and even ‘Generous’ (i.e. occasionally forgiving) ‘Tit for Tat’ is in the long run too vulnerable to defectors. But N and H unknowingly hit on a strategy which turns out to be found several times in Nature: ’Win, stay, lose, shift (see Wikipedia).

They identify five mechanisms which will help the Prisoner’s dilemma to lead to co-operation:  Direct reciprocity (Tit for Tat); Indirect reciprocity (Reputation); Spatial games (Tendency to aggregate); Group Selection (Tribal wars) and Kin Selection (Nepotism)

If you find it necessary to buy the book. my neighbour’s is hardback, but among its cover recommendations is no less than E.O.Wilson of ’Sociobiology’ fame.

But focussed as they are on their valid insights, Nowak and Highfield misss what for me is an important element:

The Exponential orinciple.

When Jane Goodall visited the Gombe reserve by air, she was shocked to see that it was an island of primeval forest, marooned in the middle of agricutural land. In 1960, the entire area was forest. This was not due to capitalism, or any other of the  modern human practices which are destroying he Ecosphere, just imperceptible, but exponential expansion of the population which had been going on since the species first evolved.

Even at imperceptible rates, exponential growth hits limits which take the population by surprise, and creates conditions which are very different from what they have been prepared for by evolution. As Nowak and Highfield comment, although it is drummed into students that mutations are random, taking advantage of them certainly is not. There have been several epchs where a new ability allowed a population to expand exponentially. Plants first colonizing land above sea level, later. amphibians doing the same, and eventually, birds.

Social insects, ants, bees wasps and termites are obvious examples, but this is where Nowak and Highfileld advise caution. They state, albeit with surprise, that although there are many species which appear to be poised on the threshhold of co-operation, how few have actually crossed it.

Or have they? and then destroyed themselves, because the behaviour which had been extremely successful. suddenly became destructive due to the exponential principle?

I would like the super co-operators, Nowak and Highfield  to incorporate this idea in their next book, preferably before humans follow the logic..



3 responses to “Super Co-operators (what could go wrong?)


    David Malones Interview with Martin Nowack for the Why are we here TV series is very good Clive, He explains that the ratio of Competitiors to cooperators is a constant .
    “this pattern is very close to 12log2-8.

    David: What does that mean?

    Ard: It’s close to constant.

    MN: It converges to a constant which is approximately 31%, and this is a mathematical curiosity.”

    If anything I find this a persuasive argument against monoculture, and the mistake of the Anthropomorphic turn in environmental dogmatism.

  2. Thak you Roger. If youa e still reading my bog, please use the link in my last one to Katek Raworth
    As usual with your stuff, A lot to take in, but correct me if I am wrong, but wouldn’t a UBI be a ctalyst helpful to what Nowak says already happens?

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