Nowak's Super Cooperators

Book review by Arthur Dahl 18 April 2011

Harvard Professor Martin A. Nowak, with Roger Highfield, have written a remarkable book: Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed (New York, Free Press, March 2011) that summarizes two decades of research on the mathematics of evolution, and concludes that ethical and religious values of cooperation, not competition, are essential to succeed in resolving today's environmental, economic and social crises.

After long dominance of theories of human society and economics based on self-interest, competition and aggressiveness, Nowak and his colleagues have now established, with the support of mathematical models, extensive data and controlled experiments, that cooperation gives an advantage in natural selection and drives the evolution of increasing complexity and efficiency. Five mechanisms contribute to building cooperation: repetition of contacts allowing for direct reciprocity, reputation where sharing knowledge leads to indirect reciprocity, spatial selection of cooperating groups, multilevel selection of groups when they are in competition, and kin selection for close relatives. In a world of structure, cooperation can emerge, and natural selection promotes social intelligence. There is always a dynamic relationship between cooperators and defectors or free-riders; if cooperators become too dominant, they are vulnerable to defection, producing a cyclical rise and fall of cooperation, but if cooperators can move and group together, abandoning defectors, they can maintain themselves. Multilevel selection with competition between groups leads to growing clusters of cooperation and division of labour, and a cyclically advancing society. The collective effort of society depends in part on suppressing the ability of the individual to mutiny and defect. Transparency helps, as people conform more if they know that they are observed. Interestingly, punishment is costly and ineffective, and almost never leads to a positive outcome of increased cooperation, while rewards build cooperation and encourage creativity.

The research also shows the values and behaviours that successfully encourage cooperation. It pays to be nice first, to be predictable and to establish trust. If defectors dominate, a group will fail, but forgiveness is a necessary response to retaliation in order to re-establish trust. Successful groups show loyalty and empathy. It is necessary to be extroverted and follow the lessons learned from others who are successful, rather than introverted and placing one's own immediate goals first. Cooperation is fundamentally altruistic, in that the individual pays an immediate cost to give a benefit to someone else. It works when the whole group succeeds, providing reciprocal benefits. Happiness spreads through social contact, and altruistic cooperative behaviour also spreads through three degrees of contact. Nowak points out that religions teach the same values, and the first human communities may have come from religion. The fact that many religions teach that God sees and knows everything encourages honest and fair behaviour.

Language may have evolved as a tool for cooperation, both for individual reciprocity, and for communicating reputations. Indirect reciprocity would not work without language. The communication of information between people and institutions is fundamental to establishing and maintaining cooperation. The structure of relationships in a population is important. Networks that are star-like, with many radiating connections, or are funnel-shaped expanding outwards, amplify good qualities and cooperation, while hierarchical structures suppress cooperation. Small groups are better than large groups at achieving cooperation. We can therefore structure our communities and organizations to foster better cooperation. The benefit/cost ratio must be greater than the average number of connections for cooperation to dominate; defectors always beat cooperators in well-mixed populations. If the relative rate at which cooperators team up is greater that one (positive assortment), then cooperation wins in all evolutionary processes.

This work on cooperation highlights behaviours that encourage human evolution and success in daily life. The conclusions of a mathematical analytic approach are the same as those of ethics and religion. The Golden Rule is about reciprocity. Evolution is shown to encourage selfless, altruistic and saintly behaviour. Love, hope and forgiveness are essential to overcome selfishness and to solve our biggest problems. The teachings of world religions can be seen as recipes for cooperation validated by science.

Nowak puts his research in the larger framework of today's social challenges like climate change and resources limits. Unless people fully realize the danger through honest and reliable information without censorship and spin, they will fail to do enough. Cooperation has to come from the bottom up, not be imposed by leaders at the top. Creative cooperation comes from participation, friendship and reward. The problem is not technology but human behaviour. The public goods dilemma is solved by indirect reciprocity. We need a fundamental extension of morality, ethics and behaviour to overcome the tragedy of the commons and to achieve global cooperation. Common resource pools are best managed by the users' own rules and enforcement, with graduated sanctions for bad behaviour. Global cooperation means respecting the needs of others including future generations, being generous, hopeful and forgiving, and avoiding a wasteful lifestyle. Nowak concludes that we are on the brink of advancing to the next level of cooperation in a global society.

For IEF members, Nowak's research, now summarized in this book and accessible to the wider public, confirms what we have always understood. There is harmony between science and religion in their fundamental lesson for today: we must abandon the values of the materialistic society and economy and build new cooperative communities from the bottom up.

Reprinted from International Environment Forum blog

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Last updated 23 February 2016