SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed Hardcover – Mar 22 2011
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“[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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Their attack on evolution came into general awareness in 2010 with the publication of a now infamous paper in nature which was almost universally rejected by over 140 biologists who responded with letters and many papers since have shown in detail why it is mistaken. Wilson and Nowak have not responded in any meaningful way in 5 years of articles, lectures and several books. There is no choice but to agree with Dawkin's trenchant comment "For Wilson not to acknowledge that he speaks for himself against the great majority of his professional colleagues is--it pains me to say this of a lifelong hero --an act of wanton arrogance." In view of Nowak’s subsequent behavior one must include him as well.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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)
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....."
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.
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.
Nowak is currently the head of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard University. He was hired by Harvard after an admirer offer to contribute a Very Large Sum to the Harvard endowment as part of a deal to install him as Professor of Mathematics and Biology at the august institution. Nowak steps on lots of peoples toes, and there is little chance he would have been hired at the venerable school without the huge monetary emolument. This is no criticism of Nowak---Harvard does not cotton up to anti-Establishment, transdisciplinary, iconoclastic intellectuals. To round out Nowak's multidimensional cerebral life, he is an observant and pious Catholic, and his work at Harvard is co-sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, famous for its support of projects that link science and spirituality.
The main theme of SuperCooperators is both important and ubiquitous in modern behavioral science: we humans are who we are because we evolved that way biologically, and cooperation has been the key to our success as a species. "Out breathtaking ability to cooperate is one of the main reasons we have managed to survive in every ecosystem on Earth, from scorch, sun-baked deserts to the frozen wastes of Antarctica to the dark, crushing ocean depths" (the hyperbole is a typical of Nowak's literary tricks; in fact we have not survived in any of the three ecosystems he mentions, but we have in most of those he does not). If the last half of the Twentieth century was the Homage to Selfishness, the first half of the current century is the Homage to Cooperation. Perhaps the most important contribution to this new theme is John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary's The Origins of Life, which depicts each stage in the development of biological complexity as the synergistic synthesis of hitherto competing biological entities, from single-cell to multicellular organisms, from prokaryotic to eukaryotic cells, all the way up to social species, of which our species is among the most successful. As for humans, Samuel Bowles and I have argued this position for some fifteen years, our book "A Cooperative Species" (Princeton, 2011) coming out in a few months, and our colleagues Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson predated our effort by at least a decade.
SuperCooperators is extremely accessible to non-scientists. It dispenses with footnotes and highly accurate but complex phraseology, in favor of explaining concepts in a witty, conversational, and light-handed manner. One is struck throughout with Nowak's love of mathematics and science. He repeatedly conveys to the reader his the love of knowledge for its own sake (he regularly quotes from Albert Einstein, a man whose passion for truth approached theological levels). He also conveys his commitment to and fondness for his co-researchers, both teachers and mentors (the book is dedicated to Bob and Karl---presumably his mentor Robert May and his teacher and coauthor Karl Sigmund). In fact, SuperCooperators is much more a book about the work of Nowak and his Harvard Program for Evolutionary Dynamics than it is an even-handed overview of the field and its development. This was a good choice on Nowak's part, because it permits him to convey the degree of collegiality and personal commitment that is one of the great comforts of scientific research, and is often ignored in favor of maintaining the emotional flatness that is (falsely) reputed to be the hallmark of good science.
How do we account for human cooperation? Nowak offers five very broad mechanisms: direct reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, spatial selection, multilevel selection, and kin-selection. He devotes a chapter to each of these mechanisms, in each case highlighting his own contributions. This may sound self-aggrandizing, and it is. But I do not think this is a mistake. The benefit for readers is a sense of intimacy with the writer, who becomes the protagonist in a scientific melodrama, a knight in shining armor slaying falsity and promoting truth wherever his wanderings take him. However, this approach does not allow the reader to appreciate the substantive scientific issues involved. For instance, Nowak is strong supporter of kin-selection, but a bitter critic, along with Harvard colleague Edward O. Wilson and co-worker Corita Tarnita, of William Hamilton's explanation of kin-selection in terms of "inclusive fitness." Now you must understand, dear reader, that the inclusive fitness concept has become the standard explanation of cooperation in population biology and animal behavior theory, so Nowak's critique, presented in Nature in 2010, produced a major shake-up in the profession. Nowak presents his critique here, but does not attempt to relate the counterarguments, which are at least extremely interesting, and probably indicate serious problems with the Nowak-Tarnita-Wilson argument. For one think, the authors pose inclusive fitness theory as an "alternative to natural selection," which is pretty ludicrous. Right or wrong, inclusive fitness theory is a form of natural selection, not an alternative to natural selection.
To convey his light-handed treatment of scientific themes, consider Nowak's treatment of multilevel selection. After two short paragraphs going over the history of group selection (focus on Wynne-Edwards' latter years studying red grouse with binoculars from the window of a room in a rest home in the Dee Valley), Nowak confesses that earlier attempts to model multilevel selection were "too complicated for my taste" and that he and Karl Sigmund did not find them "particularly convincing." This manner of presenting objections to a scientific theory bypasses all substantive issues (what were the earlier models and what were their successes and deficiencies) and moves directly to the subjective emotions of Nowak and Sigmund. How does Nowak describe his and Sigmund's passage into the theory of multilevel selection. "In the heart of the Rauriser Urwald," he writes, "Karl [Sigmund] and I came across a little wooden board bearing a poem by Goethe (1749-1832)...Goethe's poem begins as follows: "Muesset beim Naturbetrachten immer eins wie alles acten." This translates as "When looking at nature, you must always consider the detail and the whole." I could not think of a better way to express the idea of multilevel selection and, though I realized the field had a long, troubled, and vexatious history, I began to think about whether it might work in the real world." Now, of course, the Goethe quote can be interpreted in many ways, but none of them has anything to do with multilevel or any other form of selection. Moreover, I frankly do not believe that this story is accurate. It sounds like an apocryphal yarn, like the one about Newton and the apple.
Nowak goes on to explain the model of multilevel selection with Arne Traulsen that is no different than a dozen previous models of the within-group cost and between-group benefit of altruistic behavior, and with no mention of Price's equation, which was the inspiration for all previous mathematical models of multilevel selection (Nowak belittles Price's equation later in the book as being "tautological", which is incorrect, as it depends on a empirically meaningful analytical representation of biological fitness). The paper Traulsen and Nowak wrote (PNAS 2006) was indeed simple and elegant, but hardly earthshaking. The elegance derives from its simplifying assumptions (recall Nowak's distaste of complexity), which include (a) no migration; (b) fixed maximum group size; (c) groups of maximum size consist of all cooperators or all defectors. None of these conditions is biologically relevant, so the Nowak Traulsen contribution is likely only of passing interest. To reiterate, I do not consider Nowak's self-aggrandizement a mistake, given his goal of presenting the non-scientist reader with a highly human treatment of behavioral and mathematical theory. The historians will sort out who actually did what, and the average reader does not really care at all. However, this approach does lead to the suppression of scientific content in favor of personal feelings and memorable anecdotes.
Given his strong personal commitments to his co-workers, it is not surprising that Nowak rarely has praise for the sustained and seminal contributions of contemporary researchers who work outside his research group. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, Robin Dunbar, Alan Grafen, Amos Zahavi, and Joseph Henrich are not mentioned at all, and others, including Samuel Bowles and Marcus Feldman, are mentioned in passing for a particular study or two, but nothing revealing the depth of their thought or nature of their contributions to modern behavioral science. Similarly, he has little room for contributions from other fields, such as economics, sociology, and psychology, or evidence from archeology, history, anthropology, or paleontology. This I also consider a shortcoming. Weaving the contributions of others with his own in a more substantive way would give the reader a better appreciation for the contemporary state of research on cooperation and conflict in the animal and human world. Perhaps this is just tit-for-tat, as I find that few authors from the behavioral sciences outside of Nowak's circle pay much attention to the work of Nowak and his students. My problem with Nowak's models is that they tend to remove important aspects of the subject being modeled in the interest of obtaining elegant formulas. What, for instance, is the value of a model of group selection without migration and variable group size? What, indeed, are we supposed to make of the Prisoner's Dilemma played on a grid, when in real life no species plays any games at all on a grid.
I like the fact that Nowak does not shy from headlong attack on ideas that he thinks are wrong. I am not so happy, however, when the ideas of people with whom I work are being attacked. Nowak's Chapter 12, "Punish and Perish," is just such an attack. In various works, my colleagues and I have proposed that humans exhibit a behavioral syndrome we call "strong reciprocity," according to which most humans have a predisposition to cooperate in collective endeavors that depend on voluntary participation, the success of which depends on a high rate of cooperation and a low rate of defection, and also have a predisposition to punish those who free-ride on the cooperation of others, without requiring that their efforts be repaid in the future. The latter predisposition has been called "altruistic punishment," and it is this concept to which Nowak objects. I think Nowak has correct objections to assertions we do not make but that he attributes to us, and incorrect objection concerning statements we do make.
Nowak begins Chapter 12 by saying that "Punishment is not, as some have claimed, a mechanism for the evolution of cooperation." Rather, he claims, "punishment fits neatly into the framework of the Prisoner's Dilemma." Here Nowak's claim is incorrect. The Prisoner's Dilemma, and direct reciprocity as well, are only relevant in dyadic interactions, and it is quite true that altruistic punishment is irrelevant in such interactions, or in fact in even broader interactions where reputation effects are powerful and ubiquitous. However, human cooperation occurs in large groups in which reputation effects have little or no power. It is these situations that altruistic becomes relevant for sustaining cooperation.
For instance, consider voting in a democratic society. It is costly to vote and because one vote cannot change the outcome of an election except in the smallest of communities, a purely self-regarding person would never vote. Voting is thus mostly an example of the positive side of strong reciprocity, that of altruistic cooperation. However, many people vote because their family, friends, and associates would disapprove of their lack of community spirit if they did not vote. If A does not vote and B expresses disapproval, then B incurs the cost of disrupting the normal relationship between A and B. Disapproving of A is thus an act of costly altruistic punishment, supporting democratic norms at personal expense without the likelihood of any personal gain therefrom. Without such altruistic punishment, voting might be considerably less common than it is, a situation that could delegitimize political democracy.
Consider also ostracism, which is a common group punishment to a member who violates the norms associated with group membership. An individual is ostracized when all (or at least most) group members rupture normal relations with the individual and/or actively prevent the individual from participating in group activities or sharing the benefits of these activities. We tend to ignore the altruistic punishment side of the ostracism phenomenon, but it is always present, unless there is an external third party who has an incentive to enforce the ostracism decision.
Nowak does recognize the existence of mufti-player games, as when he says "If I punish you for defecting in games with other players, that is indirect reciprocity." This statement, however is incorrect. Indirect reciprocity depends on the ability of the group to establish strong reputational information, but such information is generally not available in large groups. If I express to you my disapproval of your not voting who, other than yourself, will see this action and use it to increase my stock of "good reputation"? The answer is generally, no one; nor do I express my disapproval because I hope to gain reputation-wise.
Of course altruistic punishment is not a "mechanism of evolution" in the sense of direct reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, and the others among Nowak's "big five." The big five are social mechanisms, whereas, altruistic punishment is an evolved form of behavior exhibited by humans that contributes to human cooperation, and hence to the emergence of our species as a world-scale key player. It operates in direct interactions, large groups, and explains important aspects of multilevel selection in humans, but like big teeth, wings, or an advanced immune system, it is not a "mechanism" of evolution.
Nowak also stresses that in the many experiments that have shown the efficacy of altruistic punishment in fostering cooperation, in fact the cost of punishing often completely offsets the gains from cooperation. He does not, however, present the important study by GÃÃ,Ã,Â¤chter, Renner and Sefton (2008) in which subjects are allowed to interact over 50 periods rather than just 10. They found that after the initial rounds, the net benefits to the group with the punishment option significantly exceeded those of the no-punishment group with the difference in net payoffs growing over time, except for the final round in which the hapless end-game free-riders were heavily punished.
Given that most social dilemma interactions in neighborhoods, work teams, and the like, extend over far more than 10 periods, the concern that altruistic punishment lowers group benefits to be misplaced. The experiment to which Nowak refers (Dreber et al. 2008) does not constitute evidence for the counterproductive punishment hypothesis for the additional reason that their two-person game made punishment irrelevant, for one could always retaliate on a defector simply by withdrawing cooperation, thus obviating the need for any special kind of punishment. But while the 50-period design of the GÃÃ,Ã,Â¤chter et al. experiment corrects one of the design biases that suggested counterproductive punishment in the earlier experiment, their design still misses something essential to altruistic punishment in the real world: it is effective only if it is regarded as legitimate according to widely held social norms.
Ertan, Page, and Putterman (2009) designed an ingenious experiment to explore this possibility. They allowed experimental subjects prior to playing the public goods game to vote on whether punishment should be allowed and if so, should it be restricted in any manner. From their first opportunity to vote, no group ever allowed punishment of high contributors, most groups eventually voted to allow punishment of low contributors in the baseline treatments, and the result was both high contributions and high efficiency levels. In the laboratory, groups solved their free-rider problems by allowing low contributors alone to be punished. Apparently the determination of the punishment system by majority rule made the punishment not only an incentive but also a signal of group norms.
Nowak also argues that what we call altruistic punishment is often costly but not motivated at all by prosocial feelings of punishing norm violators. Rather it is motivated by spite and a taste for revenge. Punishing those who have hurt you is normally motivated by a taste for retribution rather than a selfless expression of support for public morality. Indeed, in our research we tend to term this costly punishment, and it is altruistic in the sense of being other-regarding. However, fully understand that retribution is generally not motivated by prosocial intentions. Much of the punishment that occurs under the rubric of strong reciprocity is motivated by the urge to retaliate simply because hurting those who hurt you is a selfish, however socially useful, pleasure.
Nowak's critique of altruistic punishment in Dreber et al. probably should not have been published because it is well known that cooperation can be sustained in the repeated prisoner's dilemma by self-regarding players without punishment (it is called tit-for-tat), and interpreting cooperating as "reward" in this setting is just a semantic ploy with no substance. However in 2009, in Science, Nowak published a true public goods game with punishment (groups of size four), called "Positive Interactions Promote Public Cooperation," with coauthors David G. Rand, Anna Dreber, Tore Ellingsen, and Drew Fudenberg. The paper contends that experimental evidence with human subjects in the laboratory shows that reward is more effective than punishment in eliciting cooperation in a public goods game.
The paper has two serious and obvious flaws. First it is indefinitely repeated, so there are no end game results. This design contrasts with virtually all previous studies of the public goods game, which assumes that players know exactly how many periods will be played, and much can be learned from the course of play from early to late rounds. It is well known, for instance, that the rate of decay of cooperation depends on the length of the game, and even when cooperation is sustained for most of the game, it can break down towards the final periods. In the Supplementary Online Material (SOM) the authors justify this deviation from the standard protocol by saying that indefinite repetition is more realistic than a fixed number of periods. This is true, but irrelevant. Having a fixed number of periods is an experimental control condition that is introduced precisely to avoid the ambiguity of indefinite repetition: there are an infinite number of equilibria to the indefinitely repeated game, and which if any is chosen is likely to depend on extraneous framing effects.
Much more important however, the "reward" in the experiment costs 4 points for the rewarding subject while the recipient gains 12 points. Of course reward will outperform punishment if the experimenter pays sufficiently for the reward, while the players pay for the punishment! It would be a surprising result if the authors came to the same conclusion with the recipient getting 4 points, not 12.
In fact, it is clear that the punishment/reward stages of the game in this paper form another public goods game with a multiplier of 3, in which individuals cooperate with no end-game effects. The fact that rewarding players can choose to whom to direct the benefits they generate is interesting, but we still have two overlapping public goods game in which the second includes a signal (previous contribution) that partially recreates the conditions of a two-player repeated prisoner's dilemma. This is a worthy subject of study, but in no way supports the authors' conclusions.
By the way, the reader would never suspect the existence of any of the egregious flaws in this paper by reading the published material. It is all available only in the Supplementary Online Material, which is read only by experts. I doubt that the reviewers of the paper even glanced at the Supplementary Online Material. If I were a Science editor, I would compel reviewers to review, separately, the main contribution and the supplementary material. The quality of reviewing might improve considerably, at least in areas with which I am acquainted.
Nowak's hostility to altruistic punishment appears to flow from his preference for rewarding good behavior rather than punishing bad behavior. This is of course very enlightened thinking when it comes to raising children and managing employees. But here he confuses the sorts of social dilemmas dealt with in the human cooperation literature with reward an punishment in the sort of principal-agent models that economists commonly deal with, such as employer employee. In an employer-employee setting, despite the predictions of standard economic theory, punishing bad behavior often has severely efficiency-reducing effects, whereas trusting an employee to "do the right thing" is often the most cost effecting strategy an employer can use. In effect, by trusting, the employer sets up a setting where the strong reciprocity predispositions of employees operate to great effect. This was shown by our colleagues Ernst Fehr. Simon Gaechter, and Georg Kirchsteiger (1997) in one of the most famous experiments in behavioral game theory, in which they show that trust is a potent contract enforcement device. More recently, Ernst Fehr and Bettina Rockenbach, in their paper "Detrimental Effects of Sanctions on Human Altruism", Nature 422 [March 13] (2003):137-140, showed clearly that when employers have an available punishment device but choose not to use it, they elicit the best performance from workers. Sanctions are important, but they surely backfire when deployed in inappropriate circumstances.
Social dilemmas where cooperation is voluntary and regulated by peer-relationships are not principal-agent models, which are dyadic hierarchical interactions. However, it is usually true even in principal-agent models that the principal has some means of punishing miscreant agents (e.g. firing them). Nowak's idea of a world in which reward reigns supreme and the threat of punishment is absent is not our world.
Nowak's iconoclasm is a wonderful gift to scientists, because he stirs up the muddy waters in fruitful directions even when he is ultimately wrong in his critiques. In the long run, however, Nowak's modus operandi may be costly to an assessment of his scientific contributions. Nowak often jumps into a field he barely knows, makes arguments that experts merely dismiss as half-baked, and is taken seriously only by scientists and non-scientists who are even more ignorant of the field than Nowak. Human cooperation is a case in point.
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