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

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Simon and Schuster, Mar 22, 2011 - Social Science - 352 pages
EVOLUTION IS OFTEN PRESENTED AS A STRICTLY COMPETITIVE ENDEAVOR. This point of view has had serious implications for the way we see the mechanics of both science and culture. But scientists have long wondered how societies could have evolved without some measure of cooperation. And if there was cooperation involved, how could it have arisen from nature “red in tooth and claw”?

Martin Nowak, one of the world’s experts on evolution and game theory, working here with bestselling science writer Roger Highfield, turns an important aspect of evolutionary theory on its head to explain why cooperation, not competition, has always been the key to the evolution of complexity. He offers a new explanation for the origin of life and a new theory for the origins of language, biology’s second greatest information revolution after the emergence of genes. SuperCooperators also brings to light his game-changing work on disease. Cancer is fundamentally a failure of the body’s cells to cooperate, Nowak has discovered, but organs are cleverly designed to foster cooperation, and he explains how this new understanding can be used in novel cancer treatments.

Nowak and Highfield examine the phenomena of reciprocity, reputation, and reward, explaining how selfless behavior arises naturally from competition; how forgiveness, generosity, and kindness have a mathematical rationale; how companies can be better designed to promote cooperation; and how there is remarkable overlap between the recipe for cooperation that arises from quantitative analysis and the codes of conduct seen in major religions, such as the Golden Rule.

In his first book written for a wide audience, this hugely influential scientist explains his cutting-edge research into the mysteries of cooperation, from the rise of multicellular life to Good Samaritans. With wit and clarity, Nowak and Highfield make the case that cooperation, not competition, is the defining human trait. SuperCooperators will expand our understanding of evolution and provoke debate for years to come.

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SUPERCOOPERATORS: Why We Need Each Other to Succeed

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With New Scientist editor Highfield (The Science of Harry Potter, 2003, etc.), Nowak (Biology and Mathematics/Harvard Univ.; Evolutionary Dynamics, 2006, etc.) presents a panoramic view of the role of ... Read full review

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FT - Review
The invisible hand that binds us all
Review by David Willetts
Published: April 24 2011 16:35 | Last updated: April 24 2011 16:35
SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed
By Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield
Cannongate, 20 ($27)
Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations outlines the logic of modern capitalism; a world of competition in which benevolence is irrelevant. But in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he gave an account of morality resting on empathy and conscience as an impartial spectator observing our actions. The Adam Smith problem – how to reconcile these two great books – is also the challenge of how to order a society in which competition and ethical sensibility are combined.
Many of the stories reported in this newspaper turn on the extent to which profit should be constrained by wider obligations. This dilemma is especially acute for parties of the centre right, like my own, which have historically won success by pushing free markets, but within the moral framework of a historic community and religious tradition. But as this framework weakens, the market becomes more prominent – and we can appear to leave people alone in the market place.
So how do we find a way to explain these obligations in a society less susceptible to appeals to tradition or religion? The nexus of evolutionary biology, game theory and neuroscience provides the most exciting avenue, and this book is an excellent example of the genre. Martin Nowak, along with his co-author journalist Roger Highfield, sets out steps by which this type of new co-operation can be developed, beginning with direct reciprocity then indirect reciprocity and on through competition between groups that reward martial qualities of courage and trustworthiness. He starts off with the economic man of the market economists, but ends up with a way of thinking about human behaviour which is closer to that of the great religions. Mr Nowak is a Harvard professor, but he generates controversy for the fact that, unlike most thinkers in this area, he is also a Christian.
His willingness to argue for group selection, a theory suggesting that evolution operates beyond the genetic level, reawakens old controversies – but he does so using innovative mathematical models, able to incorporate dynamism and uncertainty. He shows, for example, how geographical clustering can promote co-operative behaviour. This research approach is getting richer and more sophisticated, while the ingenious experiments and fresh discoveries keep on coming. Adam Smith would have been pleased to know, for example, that putting a picture of two eyes looking at you on a communal fridge trebles contributions to the honesty box, compared with a picture of flowers.
Above all Mr Nowak’s excellent book shows, like much of this literature, that institutions matter. They are places where we interact with others frequently enough for direct reciprocity to flourish. They are also where reputations are made and lost, enabling indirect reciprocity to flourish too. He shows they work best when small enough to engender loyalty (so people do not betray their colleagues) and small enough for defectors to be recognised. Indeed the importance of public recognition – good and bad – is an argument in this book with a clear policy relevance.
Like other great controversialists, Mr Nowak moves from decision matrices to emotive moral language. He says the best strategy is to be hopeful, generous and forgiving. Hopeful means you first try co-operation – your opening move should be positive. Generous means not to be as concerned where you are relative to others as to obscure your own gains from interaction even if they are more modest. Forgiving means if someone else defects, you do not defect straightaway but try to re-establish co-operation, not least because it could have been an accidental mistake.
In this way evolutionary biology harnesses the idea of the survival of the fittest to show how co-operative patterns of behaviour are rewarded in a


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About the author (2011)

MARTIN A. NOWAK is Professor of Biology and Mathematics at Harvard University. He is Director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. In 1998 he moved to Princeton to establish the first center in Theoretical Biology at the Institute for Advanced Study. Nowak has won many prizes and has revolutionized the mathematical approach to biology. Nowak has made important contributions to the understanding of virus infections and cancer. He has pioneered the mathematical theory for the evolution of human language and altruistic behavior.Supercooperators will be Nowak's first book for a general audience.

ROGER HIGHFIELD, Ph.D. (Co-Writer) is the Editor of New Scientist magazine, which is now the world’s biggest selling weekly science and technology magazine. He has written/coauthored six popular science books, two of which have been bestsellers, including After Dolly, The Science of Harry Potter, The Physics of Christmas, The Private Lives of Albert Einstein, and Frontiers of Complexity. His most recent work was as the outside editor on genomic researcher J. Craig Venter's autobiography, A Life Decoded, published in November, 2007 (Viking, US; Allen Lane, UK) .

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