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SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed Hardcover – Mar 22 2011


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (March 22 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439100187
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439100189
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 499 g
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #330,539 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

“[Nowak’s] 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… Like other great controversialists, Mr. Nowak moves from decision matrices to emotive moral language…all politicians can draw inspiration and ideas from the intellectual resources of this exciting approach.”
Financial Times --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on April 7 2011
Format: Hardcover
The book starts at a very gentle pace, perhaps because the co-author, Roger Highfield wanted to add a human and personal touch to a book that depends on maths and logic quite a bit. If you were looking for real science to sink your teeth into and if you thumb through it in a bookstore, and read the first little, you may decide that this is another biographic biopic and set it aside as unlikely to satisfy what you have a need for just then.

But when you get to the end of the introduction to the prisoner's dilemma, you suddenly realise that the book which was hovering over the launch pad as if it would settle back and put its engines off, is now taking off majestically. For me, the realisation happened when Nowak completed the introduction to the dilemma and then made the startling declaration that it was not just another of the many games in game theory, but a powerful and complex thought system, according to him, something that far exceeds chess in its possibilities.

The rest of the book then becomes a dazzling account of Nowak's research and philosophy. Direct reciprocity, then indirect, then the formation of civilizations and so on, the tools, including the fascinating Game of Life, all presented with his gentle warmth and humanity.

By the end of the book, you will regret it is over, and sit back in the happy feeling that all is not lost for humanity and that we could still achieve a world, built on solid math and logic and reason, that has room for kindness, charity, selflessness and peace.

A different world indeed, from that sketched out for us by Dawkins and a world that Dennett is slowly coming round to.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 35 reviews
36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
The Mechanics of Cooperation April 9 2011
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I read a lot, but I rarely suggest books to people I am acquainted with (you know, people get sick of that sort of thing); however, since I finished reading this book, I can honestly say that this is the one volume I have actually recommended to my friends and family. This book covers a crucial aspect of our modern life and is far-and-away one of the most indispensable pieces of scientific writing I have read to date. For example, take this quote from the Preface: "Many problems that challenge us today can be traced back to a profound tension between what is good and desirable for society as a whole and what is good and desirable for an individual. That conflict can be found in global problems such as climate change, pollution, resource depletion, poverty, hunger, and overpopulation. The biggest issues of all - saving the planet and maximizing the collective lifetime of the species Homo sapiens - cannot be solved by technology alone. They require novel ways for us to work in harmony. If we are to continue to thrive, we have but one option. We now have to manage the planet as a whole. If we are to win the struggle for existence, and avoid a precipitous fall, there's no choice but to harness this extraordinary creative force. We now have to refine and to extend our ability to cooperate. We must become familiar with the science of cooperation. Now, more than ever, the world needs SuperCooperators."

One reviewer called Martin Nowak a virtuoso, this is most certainly true, and it may even be an understatement. It would seem that Dr. Nowak has his hands in nearly every discipline and knows nearly everyone who is anyone in the scientific community. Furthermore, whether he's discussing Game Theory, Evolutionary Biology, Mathematics, Multi-Level Selection, Language, the Tragedy of the Commons, Networks, or Evolutionary Graph Theory, the writing is always vigorous, entertaining, and accessible. In essence, you could probably spend countless days reading works like: Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution, Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save it, Living within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality, The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind, and Culture (Toronto Studies in Semiotics and Communication), or Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization, (like I have done) or, you could save yourself some time and read this one book. Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield have written an absolutely incredible book. I really can't recommend this book enough. Here is just one quote, of many, which I found to be sublime: "The story of humanity is one that rests on the never-ending creative tension between the dark pursuit of selfish short-term interests and the shining example of striving toward collective long-term goals. I believe we now understand how defection in the Prisoner's Dilemma can be trumped by cooperation. And, just as [Gustav] Mahler ends on an upbeat note, so I believe the emphasis on cooperation puts a more optimistic sheen on life than the traditional take on Darwin, which condemns all life to a protracted and bloody struggle for survival and reproduction. Mutation and natural selection are not enough in themselves to understand life. You need cooperation too. Cooperation was the principle architect of 4 billion years of evolution. Cooperation built the first bacterial cells, then higher cells, then complex multicellular life and insect superorganisms. Finally cooperation constructed humanity."

The chapters are: 0) The Prisoner's Dilemma, 1) Direct Reciprocity - Tit for Tat, 2) Indirect Reciprocity - Power of Reputation, 3) Spatial Games - Chessboard of Life, 4) Group Selection - Tribal Wars, 5) Kin Selection - Nepotism, 6) Prelife, 7) Society of Cells, 8) The Lord of the Ants, 9) The Gift of Gab, 10) Public Goods, 11) Punish and Perish, 12) How Many Friends Are Too Many?, 13) Game, Set, and Match, and 14) Crescendo of Cooperation. There are a couple of books I would also encourage the interested reader to pursue after reading this book, Peter Corning's: The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice and Chris Martenson's: The Crash Course: The Unsustainable Future Of Our Economy, Energy, And Environment)
55 of 62 people found the following review helpful
One man's cooperation March 20 2011
By Manfred Milinski - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
For Martin Nowak cooperation is the master architect of evolution. This man is obsessed with the idea that cooperation is an indispensable driving force of evolution at any level - mutation, selection and cooperation. Without cooperation among RNAs in the primordial soup, you and me would be still one of them. Is he crazy? Nowak has been Professor of Mathematical Biology at Oxford, the first head of the Program in Theoretical Biology at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, and now he is full professor of Biology and Mathematics at Harvard University in his own institute called "Nowakia". Of his numerous papers more than 50 were published in Nature or Science. Nowak is a leading evolutionary theorist of our time. Why is he crazy for cooperation?

Cooperation has always been Nowak's main subject that he studies mostly with only one technique: mathematics. "We can capture the way it (evolution) works with mathematics, distilling its essence into the form of equations." "SuperCooperators" is the grand review of his oeuvre on cooperation, a kind of textbook that reads like a bestselling novel with a wonderfully lucid and enthusiastic style, thanks to Nowak's ghost-writer and kind of co-author ("with" instead of "and") Roger Highfield, an ingenious science writer and the editor of the New Scientist magazine. A layperson could enjoy just reading this book and finally has happened to learn most about a fascinating part of biology. Imagine all textbooks were written this way! Try this appetizer from the chapter on the evolution of language: "Gossip. Banter. Chat. Let's talk. Let's organize a colloquium. Even better, let's have a party! Language allows people to work together, to exchange their ideas, their thoughts, and their dreams. In this way language is intimately linked with cooperation. For the mechanism of indirect reciprocity it needs gossip, from names to deeds and times and places, too. Indirect reciprocity is the midwife of language and of our big, powerful brain."

We learn about five ways to achieve cooperation: (1) Direct reciprocity - Tit for Tat that becomes generous but has to give way to the new champion for playing the Prisoner's Dilemma, "win stay, lose shift"; (2) Indirect reciprocity - Power of reputation. This seems to be the most important mechanism driving our sociality, language and brains; (3) Spatial games - Chessboard of life. Cooperators can prevail by forming networks and clusters; (4) Group selection - tribal wars; multilevel (group) selection works if there are many small, isolated groups; migration - egoists infecting pure altruist groups - undermines cooperation; however, "at the cellular level, there's plenty of evidence of group selection"; (5) Kin selection - Nepotism. Cooperate with close kin and defect with strangers according to Hamilton's rule. Nowak is reluctant to list kin selection as a mechanism for cooperation: "I still believe that kin selection is a valid mechanism if properly formulated."

Kin selection and inclusive fitness theory has been one of the corner stones of our understanding of the evolution of social behaviour. Hamilton's rule, b/c>1/r, was the e=mc2 of sociobiology until very recently when Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson in an Analysis article in Nature claimed that it's theoretical basis is mistaken, Hamilton's rule almost never holds and decisive empirical tests of inclusive fitness theory have never been performed. This article induced a strong reaction in the huge community of well-established researchers that made their career with studying kin selection. In SuperCooperators Nowak explains his criticism. In "The math of kin selection" he reviews the history of the concept, from Haldane's answer to whether he would risk his life to save a drowning man: "No, but I would do it for two brothers or eight cousins", to Hamilton, Price and Maynard Smith's final version. Around explaining the Price equation, the basis of current inclusive fitness theory, we learn about the biography of Bill Hamilton and George Price, and why Price's equation is the mathematical equivalent of a tautology.

In the chapter "The decline of inclusive fitness" Nowak writes: "Equations seemed to arise out of nowhere in kin selection. There were many attempts at calculations that had no precise formulation of the underlying mathematical model ... This is a recipe for disaster", and "We found that in this special world (`inclusive fitness land') where inclusive fitness theory works, the calculations yield up exactly the same prediction as standard natural selection theory. Hence inclusive fitness theory comes up with no novel predictions or insights." Nowak offers a new model for the evolution of eusociality where relatedness is a consequence rather than the cause of social behaviour: A mutant determines that daughters just stay with the nest and thus happen to stay with their mother to help raising further offspring. However, what if they happen to stay with someone unrelated? Why do parents insist on caring for their own offspring? - because they happened to be close at birth and not because they are related? As an empiricist I see many empirical results supporting the relatedness cause: e.g., the sex ratio in singly mated ants is closer to the workers' benefit than to the queen's, it's the contrary in slave maker ants where workers are in an evolutionary dead end. I expect a new "properly formulated" theory of social evolution based on relatedness will be compatible with existing evidence and include Hamilton's rule "of thumb". It will offer a plethora of new predictions enthusiastically tested by next generation students of sociality.

Nowak strongly objects also to punishment being an effective method for promoting cooperation. "But this view is mistaken in my opinion" and he dissects Fehr and Gächter's classic paper to depict any shortcomings. On this topic the winning team "Nowak & Sigmund" seem to be split: Sigmund: "Punish or Perrish", Nowak: "Punish and Perrish". Nowak, the theorist, even performed experiments to show that "Winners don't punish." Indeed, we do not know yet, how punishing ultimately pays off for the punisher. In another experiment Nowak tried to prove that positive (reward) rather than negative interactions (punishment) promote public cooperation, which turned out to be only wishful thinking. As with his attack on the basis of kin selection theory, Nowak challenges the established view on the evolution of punishment, potentially stirring up novel yet un-thought ideas.

SuperCooperators is also Nowak's autobiography. He reveals his private life - how he coming from an all-boys school met his wife - and his way of interacting with his supporters: mountain climbing with Peter Schuster, walking through Rauriser Urwald with Karl Sigmund, playing soccer with Bob May, or dining with Jeffrey Epstein, the Wall Street tycoon, who built an institute for him, at the beach of Epstein's Carebian island of paradise. Nowak has also some personal sentences about each of his successful collaborators and some pages on how "the eternal symphony" (Mahler's Song of the Earth) carried a deep resonance for him and his work.

Finally, Nowak describes the game that all people on Earth are playing - the climate game: "unless people fully realize the extent to which the planet is in peril, people will fail to do enough to save it .... I believe that climate change will force us to enter a new chapter of cooperation." In search of a deeper concept that underpins all apparently different approaches to cooperation he presents the solution: "Corina's theorem will hold for any evolutionary process on Earth, in this galaxy, as well as all the others, from those nearby to agglomerations of ancient stars that lurk in the faintest, farthest reaches. It applies to any and every game in the cosmos....."
30 of 36 people found the following review helpful
games, life and (almost) everything March 28 2011
By Dr. Karl Sigmund - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Martin Nowak is, first and foremost, a virtuoso. He has turned modelling into an art. Whether they deal with mutations inducing cancer, irregular verbs turning regular, the spread of HIV or the chemical lego of pre-life, his models always capture quintessential aspects with superb clarity and elegance. Even more remarkable as his light and confident touch in setting up the models is his dexterity in interpreting the results. He goes straight for the thrill. Nowak is enormously convincing and persuasive. This requires, of course, that he is convinced of himself. The evolution of cooperation has been the main theme of his stellar career, which led him in the briefest time from beginnings in Vienna to professorships in Oxford, Princeton and Harvard. Nowak's Hirsch-index is eighty (meaning that eighty of his more than three hundred papers have each been quoted in at least eighty papers), a fantastic achievement for someone in the mid-forties. Now he has decided to reach out for a larger audience, and written, with the expert support of Roger Highfield, one of Britain's foremost science writers, a book intended for the bestseller lists. Cooperation is a topic of central importance in many fields ranging from chemistry and biology to social and economic sciences, and Nowak is uniquely qualified, by his interdisciplinary background and his skills as communicator, to cover the whole canvas in a masterly tour.
One need not agree with all Nowak claims. In fact, some of the chapters will be highly controversial. Nowak defends his views with bravado, be they on kin selection or on Gustav Mahler's music. Some of these views make me slightly wince, but that is part of the fun. Nowak lives for his work, and merges with gusto his biography with the story of his field. Sobriety and a sceptical distance are for critics, not artists. Nowak runs on sheer enthusiasm, and conveys much of it to the reader. The book is a pleasure, heady, stimulating and brimful with adrenaline.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Interesting topic / most arrogant author Feb. 13 2012
By Tilu - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I picked-up this book following a rather positive and good book review in the German version of the financial times. I will spare you the details of the topic as these are nicely described by other readers (and I've not finished reading the book yet). But essentially it describes how cooperating is a good thing (particularly if everybody in a society participates) and how things can go wrong if there just a few bad apples (defectors, cheats) that take advantage of everybody elses generosity. Good stuff.

What makes the book absolutely unreadable is the arrogance and self-centerdness of the author. First off, there are two authors yet there is always just the word "I"...."I came up with this...", "I published in Science Journal..." and in so many words this guy things he is the the greatest scientist the world has ever seen. Please bow to him now! It is incredibly irritating.

I write this as being a person in science and the one thing you realize is that the more you know the more humble you become because the world is an incredibly complex place. Math is great (I use it everyday), but honestly it becomes really painful to read over and over again how the authors mathematical models are able to predict everything...they can't, they don't, they never will. Whenever people say how great they are, particularly in science, you immediately become suspicious. Because truly outstanding people NEVER self-glorify. Never. Because if you do, you are not great. This "guy" is clearly not great.

His ego is soooo large than I'm surprised he has been allowed to even be at the various Institutions he constantly keeps mentioning. If there ever was a person that likes to name drop, he is it. Maybe he should move to the tabloid world?

So all in all, a great topic but an irritatingly arrogant author--he does not deserve your money. Read-up on the topic somewhere else.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
a personal scientific journey (not an overview of cooperation genetics) Jan. 26 2013
By C. Kollars - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
The chatty writing, walks and hikes in woods and mountains, a ski hut, frequent major digressions, personal descriptions of grad student life, informal portraits of familiar names, interesting anecdotes, and indirect references to females, seemed eerily familiar. At first I wondered if I'd read this before. Then I realized, I'm reading the reincarnation of James D. Watson's "The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA"! Except in that earlier book there had been only the one central bit of science, that science was already very famous and thoroughly described outside the book itself, and the author was quite young.

This book too is a personal description of scientific research. But here the description stretches over decades in different countries, the science itself --not all of it familiar-- is described in the same book, and there's a strong attempt to tie all the bits of science together under a single thematic umbrella. As a result the book unfortunately invites being addressed as something different than it is. Also, there's a constant unresolved tension between chronological and topical organizations.

The book can seem to be an overview of cooperation genetics, but mis-reading it this way is misleading. Significant contributions by the many other researchers in the field of course aren't covered at all. Some of the important first five chapters seemed on initial reading to be purely third-hand and awfully short (although to be fair, on checking back they turn out to be anchored by non-trivial research forays after all). Some research forays fit into the theme of cooperation only incidentally (ex: cooperation within groups requires communication between individuals, and the principal way humans communicate is with language, therefore this research on the origin of verbs is about cooperation -- ???). And there are gaps wherever Nowak himself hasn't delved into a sub-area. In the particular sub-area of enforcing cooperation through punishment, Nowak's interpretations are perhaps overstated, somewhat outside the mainstream, and frankly invite controversy.

I was initially drawn to this book by Nowak's reputation as a mathematician. I expected detailed mathematical descriptions of approaches to some of the thornier problems of cooperation genetics. I was sorely disappointed. There was apparently a confluence of some editor's "no equations" mantra with the author's dislike of complication. As a result not only is there no mathematics at all, but even the prose descriptions include what seemed to me an awful lot of hyperbole and impreciseness and even hand-waving.

High marks for the quite engaging writing style, the more than adequate organization, and the very strong and persistent effort to tie everything together into the cooperation theme. In these respects this book stands above most. There are hints sprinkled throughout the book that Nowak's research forays into cooperation genetics have been driven by preexisting personal philosophy, rather than the other way around. Although he scrupulously avoids any actual scientific whoppers, the overall feeling I got was of someone pushing a philosophical and religious agenda, or even of the dreaded "teleology". Because he's already shot this wad, the last chapter where I'd expect to find it is instead an unenlightening catalog of everything that ails us today. It felt more like liberal cocktail party chatter than the last chapter of a popular science book.


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