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July 08, 2012, Sunday

‘Super Cooperators’

“Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution and Why We Need each Other to Succeed” by coauthors Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield presents a new synthesis of cooperation and competition.

Nowak is a professor of biology and mathematics at Harvard University, and in this book cooperates with bestselling science writer Highfield. The pair believe that mutation, selection and cooperation are the defining principles behind everything. In other words, cooperation is the art of winners, not competition.

They open the book with the “prisoner’s dilemma.” Two men are arrested, but the police do not possess enough information for a conviction. Following the separation of the two men, the police offer both a similar deal: If one testifies against his partner (defects/betrays), and the other remains silent (uncooperative), the betrayer receives a one-year sentence and the silent party receives the full four-year sentence. If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only two years in jail. If each “rats out” the other, each receives a three-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain silent; the decision of each is kept quiet. What should they do? The best option is for each to trust the other and remain silent. In other words, cooperation. All selfish alternatives bring worse results, because if each of them incriminates the other they will receive three years apiece. The reason for incrimination is the effort to selfishly minimize the sentence.

Imagine a bank where one man stands at the counter as a smiling clerk patiently explains the various options of an offer or product. If the man asks for the best interest rate, the clerk can interpret this apparently simple request in two ways. From his point of view, the best interest rate is the most meager and restrictive, the one that earns the bank the maximum profit. From the customer’s point of view, the best rate is the one that earns the most money. If the clerk offers the former, that is an example of defection. But if he recommends an account that gives the customer, rather than the bank, the maximum return, that is an example of cooperation. Banks that do not satisfy their clients and behave selfishly will be pushed out of the market, because once clients understand that their bank is not providing the best return they will work with another bank. Banks that cooperate will last, and others will erode. The rule of capitalism is cooperation and competition at the same time. The race is in cooperation. The ones that cooperate best with employees, clients, suppliers, the government and even competitors will be the winners. The destiny of selfish people and organizations is self-destruction.

The authors claim that human society fizzles without cooperation. Even the simplest things that we do involve more cooperation than you might think. Consider, for example, stopping at a coffee shop one morning to have a cappuccino and croissant for breakfast. To enjoy that simple pleasure could draw on the labors of a small army of people from at least half a dozen countries.

According to Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the principle of “survival of the fittest,” animals in nature always compete and fight to stay alive. However, Novak claims that in terms of cooperative behavior humans are very far from competition. He gives a humorous example to make his point. Take 100 chimpanzees and put them in economy class on a seven-hour flight. They would, in all likelihood, stumble off the plane at their destination with bitten ears and bleeding limbs. Yet millions of humans tolerate being crammed together this way in order to roam about the planet.

The authors present five qualities that they believe lie behind the rise of cooperative behavior: direct reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, spatial games, group selection and kin selection. Novak and Highfield examine the phenomena of reciprocity, reputation and reward. They believe selfless behavior arises naturally from competition. Winners have a competitive attitude in the beginning, and this makes them distinct, but it is their cooperative approach that makes them successful in the end.

This book is a thought-provoking new look at cooperation, game theory and the theory of evolution.

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