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Why We Need Each Other to Succeed

by Martin A. Nowak with Roger Highfield

Pub Date: March 22nd, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4391-0018-9
Publisher: Free Press

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 cooperation in the evolution.

Given the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection, what are we to make of cooperation and altruism? Natural selection, in a well-mixed population, favors the selfish, the cheater, the deceiver. As the author writes in this sweeping survey, cooperation has been with us since the dawn of man—indeed, perhaps before the dawn, in the prelife, when two complementary molecular sequences possibly catalyzed reactions. Nowak is a mathematical biologist, and his enthusiasm for numbers is extremely useful in his discussions of evolutionary theory. However, thankfully for the mathematically disinclined, there is little hard math here. What natural selection needs, writes the author, are mechanisms to encourage cooperation, to give it a competitive edge. The author delineates five such mechanisms: direct reciprocity (tit for tat), indirect reciprocity (influence of reputation), spatial selection, group selection (often manifested in tribal wars) and kin selection (often manifested in nepotism). All the mechanisms find their rationale when tried against cost-benefit analysis, wherein the combined cost must be less than the shared benefit. Nowak also brings many other theoretical models to bear—game theory, spatial games, phylogenetics, the haplodiploidy hypothesis and others—and he investigates them in a slightly formal voice that is unencumbered by equations, graphs or charts.

A fleshed-out, persuasive chronicle of the bright side—collective enterprise—of the evolutionary road.