The Evolution of Cooperation

Fukushima worker“We carried on work to restore the reactors from where we were, right by the sea, with the realization that this could mean certain death.”

-Michiko Otsuki (Employee of Tokyo Electric Power Company)

I have always been fascinated with the eternal question if we live our lives according to determinism or if we have free will? Then, if we do have free will, what forces drive the individual human to selfish or altruistic acts, and in what way are group dynamics and the factors for group consensus decisions different from decisions by an individual? During some events in 2012 these questions have been immediate and direct in my mind.

In this blog post, we will examine the forces and evolution of cooperation. Cooperation is a basic requirements in any organisation consisting of several individuals, whether it is an army, a society, a corporation, a club or a family.

Random Acts of Altruism

In April 2011, as reactors at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant were melting down following a lethal earthquake and tsunami, a maintenance worker in his 20s was among those who volunteered to re-enter the plant to try to help bring things back under control.

Fukushima explosionThe worker knew the air was poisoned with radiation and expected the choice would keep him from ever marrying or having children for fear of burdening them with health consequences. Yet he still walked back through Fukushima’s gates into the plant’s radiation-infused air and got to work, for no more compensation than his usual modest wages. He was one of 50 employees remaining on-site after 750 other workers were evacuated. The story of these heroes was told in Scientific American in the June 2012 issue.

Although they may not always play out on such an epic scale, examples of selfless behavior are abound in nature.

Lion and kidCells within an organism coordinate to keep their division in check and avoid causing cancer, worker ants in many species sacrifice their own reproduction to serve their queen and colony, female lions within a pride will suckle one another’s young. And humans help other humans to do everything from obtaining food to finding mates to defending territory. Even if the helpers may not necessarily be putting their lives on the line, they are risking lowering their own reproductive success for the benefit of another individual.

People tend to think of evolution as a strictly dog-eat-dog struggle for survival. In fact, cooperation has been a driving force in evolution, and we humans are especially helpful because of the mechanism of indirect reciprocity, which is based on reputation and leads us to help those who help others so we may get respect and more help later.

However the evolution of cooperative behavior is founded in selfish pursuit; survival. Man is not inherently good by nature, just look at children’s selfishness until they learn the value of cooperation, or look at peoples behavior in circumstances or war, famine or for a matter of fact severe economic recession and crises, like our current times in Europe.

John Martin - The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”

– Ezekiel 16:49-50


Rapid Acts of Kindness

What makes people willing to put the team, the species, the “we” ahead of the individual “me”? Perhaps our first impulse is to be selfish, and cooperation is all about reining in greed? Or maybe cooperation happens spontaneously, unless too much thinking gets in the way?

Recently we got new insight in these questions, as research by Harvard scientists show that people’s first, instinctive response is to cooperate and that stopping to think encourages selfishness. Click on the banner below to read the article.

Rapid acts of kindness

David Rand, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology, Joshua Greene, the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, and Martin Nowak, professor of mathematics and of biology and director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, published their findings in the Sept. 20 issue of Nature.

The researchers recruited thousands of participants to play a “public goods game.” Subjects were put into small groups and faced with a choice: keep the money you have been given, or contribute it to a common pool that grows and benefits the whole group. Hold onto the money and you come out ahead, but the group does best when everyone contributes.

The researchers wanted to know whether a person’s first impulse is cooperative or be selfish. They started by looking at how quickly different people made their choices, and found that fast deciders were more likely to contribute to the common good.

Next they forced people to go fast or to stop and think, and found the same thing: Fast deciders tended to be more cooperative, and the people who had to stop and think gave less.

Finally, the researchers tested their hypothesis by manipulating people’s mind-sets. They asked some people to think about the benefits of intuition before choosing how much to contribute. Others were asked to think about the virtues of careful reasoning. Once again, intuition promoted cooperation, and deliberation did the opposite.

The findings reveal a dark side to careful thought and deliberation. In an ever increasingly more complex world, any decision made with sound judgment need to be built on careful deliberation, and if the generic nature of such deliberation is biased to be selfish and conflictive, then where are we really going?

Could this core behavior pattern explain the inequalities, the unfairness, the violence and criminality and acts of brutality in our societies? Is it all down to instinct? Is there no collective memory that becomes more and more refined as our civilizations and culture develops?

The Selfish Gene

The Selfish GeneThe British scholar Richard Dawkins, emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford,  made a brilliant reformulation of the theory of natural selection in his book “The Selfish Gene” thirty years ago.

Dawkins has the rare distinction of having provoked as much excitement and interest outside the scientific community as within it. His theories have helped change the whole nature of social biology, and have forced millions of readers to rethink their beliefs about life.

In the book, Dawkins explains how the selfish gene can also be a subtle gene. The world of the selfish gene revolves around savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit, and yet, Dawkins argues, acts of apparent altruism do exist in nature. Bees, for example, will commit suicide when they sting to protect the hive, and birds will risk their lives to warn the flock of an approaching hawk.

Dawkins argues, remorselessly, that individual lives are merely punctuation points in automaton genes’ quest for eternity. Since individual life is short, and life on Earth is a 3.8 billion year epic, what matters must be the information transmitted from generation to generation. So it is the genes that control the future: an animal is just the chromosomes’ way of making another chromosome. Individual life becomes a punctuation point in the DNA’s blind, automaton desire for eternity.

In the struggle of life and death, altruism becomes not just desirable but inevitable, even in vampire bats; hawks and doves have no choice but to coexist; there become good reasons why populations always more or less seem to keep in step with resources; and male and female sexual behavior naturally proceeds towards the spendthrift and cautious strategies we observe today.

This is the book in which Dawkins introduces the theory of memes, the seemingly self-replicating pool of art and science, literature and music, knowledge, folklore and platitude that survives each human life, and indeed coins the word itself, and fires the opening salvoes in what will become Dawkins later all-out intellectual artillery assault on all aspects of religion, best formulated in the BBC television documentary The Root of All Evil.

The book The Selfish Gene ends with the lovely conclusion: "We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on Earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

The Evolution of Cooperation

So, then, if there is a greater memory that survives the individuals and if our behavior is predestined through our genes unstoppable drive to survive and replicate on the species level, what are really the social forces that drives cooperation? Given that cooperation is an important factor in the evolution of a species, how does it work?

What are the forces, the prime drivers, that makes lions or bees or ants or self-reflecting humans cooperate to their own individual disadvantage? It turns out to be the factor of iterative time, or as we economists call it iterations of actions.

The Evolution of Cooperation25 years ago I took a course at Stockholm School of Economics about organisation theory and leadership. One of the books was Robert Axelrod’s excellent The Evolution of Cooperation (1984). The author is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

In the first paragraph of the book, Axelrod rhetorically asks:

“Under what conditions will cooperation emerge in a world of egoists without central authority? This question has intrigued people for a long time. And for good reason. We all know that people are not angels, and that they tend to look after themselves and their own first. Yet we also know that cooperation does occur and that our civilization is based upon it But in situations where each individual has an incentive to be selfish, how can cooperation ever develop?”

The book provides valuable insights into the questions why unforced cooperation occurs. It explores how cooperation can emerge in a world of self-seeking egoists, whether superpowers, businesses, or individuals, when there is no central authority to police their actions.  It is a wonderfully clear explanation of how almost any two entities, interacting over time, develop a mutual cooperation more profitable than egoistic greed.

Support for the books theoretical claims comes from a series of experiments made as contests. Dozens of participants provided computer programs to play the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, a simple model, but one that describes a surprising number of real-world phenomena, based on game theory. It was invented around 1950 by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher and brought to fame by John von Neumann, John Nash and Robert Axelrod.

Most importantly, the Prisoner´s dilemma is a testable model. It almost puts a common aspect of social interaction into a test tube. For Axelrod, what came out of that test tube was startling in its clarity and simplicity.

prisoners dilemmaThe Prisoner’s Dilemma in the simplest case is with  two fictive suspects. A and B are arrested, and kept separated so that they cannot communicate.

If A and B cooperate, they will be both sentenced to one year. However, if suspect A cooperates, but suspect B defects, A is going to be sentenced to ten years, and suspect B will be released. Vice versa, if B cooperates and A defects, A will be released and B sentenced to ten years. Finally, if both defect, they will both be sentenced to five years each.

It is clear that the best collective solution for the  suspects is cooperation. On the other hand, each individual will be tempted to maximize his own individual benefit, and each of them benefits most if he decides to defect while the other one does not. This means that one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma rarely leads to cooperation. However when you let the players iterate and play the game again and again and again, the outcome becomes different.

To cooperate, or not cooperate? This simple question, and the implicit question of whether to trust, or not, here expressed in an extremely simple game, is a crucial issue across a broad range of situations in life.

shark eating fishWhy shouldn’t a shark eat the little fish that has just cleaned it of parasites: in any given exchange who would know? Fig wasps collectively limit the eggs they lay in fig trees, otherwise, the trees would suffer. But why shouldn’t any one fig wasp cheat and leave a few more eggs than her rivals?

At the level of human society, why shouldn’t each of the villagers that share a common but finite resource try to exploit it more than the others? At the core of these and myriad other examples is a conflict formally equivalent to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Yet sharks, fig wasps, and villagers all cooperate.

It has been a challenging problem in evolutionary studies to explain how such cooperation should evolve, let alone persist, in a world of self-maximizing egoists. The explanation lies in understanding that we all play out life in a series of steps, where selfish behavior in one “round” is to our individual disadvantage in following rounds.

Men with clubsAxelrod initially solicited strategies from other game theorists to compete in the first tournament. Each strategy was paired with each other strategy for 200 iterations of a Prisoner’s Dilemma game, and scored on the total points accumulated through the tournament.

In Axelrod’s computerized tests, the best multi-step outcome is for a player to cooperate on the first move, and subsequently echoes (reciprocates) what the other player did on the previous move. In both actual tournaments and various replays the best performing strategies were nice:  that is, never be the first to defect.

Being "nice" can be beneficial, but it can also lead to being suckered. To obtain the benefit, or avoid exploitation, it is necessary to be provocable to both retaliation and forgiveness. When the other player defects, a nice strategy must immediately be provoked into retaliatory defection.

The same goes for forgiveness: return to cooperation as soon as the other player does. Overdoing the punishment risks escalation, and can lead to an "unending echo of alternating defections" that depresses the scores of both players.

Monopoly with chess piecesThe success of any strategy depends on the nature of the particular strategies it encounters, which depends on the composition of the overall population.

To better model the effects of reproductive success Axelrod also did an "ecological" tournament, where the prevalence of each type of strategy in each round was determined by that strategy’s success in the previous round. The competition in each round becomes stronger as weaker performers are reduced and eliminated. The results were amazing: a handful of strategies, all "nice", came to dominate the field.

In summary, success in an evolutionary "game" correlates with the following characteristics:

  • Be nice: cooperate, never be the first to defect.
  • Be provocable: return defection for defection, cooperation for cooperation.
  • Don’t be envious:: be fair with your partner.
  • Don’t be too clever: or, don’t try to be tricky.

Click on the link below to download the original article from 1982 that the book was based on.

To conclude, the best success strategy for life is to be nice. Whether the “game” is socially related (friends, girlfriend, marriage, relatives) or comes from the much simpler world of business (negotiations, partnerships, deals, and longtime relationships between corporations), the game is very real indeed and the parties involved do try to formulate consecutive (iterated) negotiations over their transactions.

Let us not forget, especially when it comes to business, healthy repetitive transactions are way better than looking for new suppliers, business partners or customers; which more often than not comes with associated monetary actual and shadow costs.

Sadly, one of the players stands to benefit more if he at the last iteration stops cooperating and decides to act in a selfish way. Therefore where there is a finite amount of iterations the economically practical action is to stop cooperating and try to maximize potential rewards. Of course that is affected by who decides when the last iteration occurs, and in real life reputation risk may exceed the gain made by last minute deceit.


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