on February 12, 2004
A lot of interesting material is spun up from a simple premise: a two round tournament of programs for playing Prisoner's Dilemma. Game theory is one of the great cross-disciplinary topics. As the web is woven with nodes as distinct as Jean Jacques Rousseau and why the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor (a personal favorite for Socratic historical discussions), somehow it not only all makes sense, but you are left with the impression that the topic and the book combine to achieve the brass ring of writing: repeatedly fetching the proufound while remaining clear and simple. (Ironically, this book makes a good companion to readings on Complexity and Emergence. But that makes some sense since those topics have turned to automata and the realization that complexity is most often a function of simple constituents iterated.)
The read this and pass it on advice from the other reviewer here is good, and apropos, as this is about the infection of cooperative strategies in populations.
on January 20, 2004
This book has information for military theorists, biologists exploring gene regulation, antitrust policy-makers, and Miss Manners. It is a wonderfully clear explanation of how almost any two entities, interacting over time, develop a mutualism more profitable than greed.
The experimental support for these claims comes from a series of contests. Dozens of authors provided computer programs to play in the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma - a simple model, but one that describes a surprising number of real-world phenomena. Most importantly, it's a testable model. It almost puts a common aspect of social interaction into a test tube. What came out of that test tube was startling in its clarity and simplicity.
The book is very readable. Axelrod segregates the mathematical and non-mathematical discussions with some care. Math-free readers see the whole set of experiments and conclusions, clearly explained, and need to skip only a few paragraphs during the main discussion. The last few chapters reward math-positive readers with additional precision and rigor. Even then, the math is accessible to someone with good high-school algebra skills.
Axelrod's discussion truly timeless, except for references to the Cold War as current events. I can accept that. Even though that un-war is mostly over, it's a critical part of modern history and it still informs current policy. Any insight into that madness helps, and Axelrod is very helpful.
This book stands above any one category. It's one of very few that I recommend to the bookshelves of every educated person.
on August 10, 2002
If you read this book as long ago as I did, you probably
first heard about it from Douglas Hofstadter's "Metamagical Themas" column in _Scientific American_, or the book in which his columns were collected. (If you're just now being introduced to this book, check out Hofstadter's too; his discussion of it is very helpful and insightful.)
What Robert Axelrod describes in this book is a novel round-robin tournament (actually two such tournaments) in which various game-theoretic strategies were pitted against one another in the game known as the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma. Each strategy was scored, not according to how many times it "beat" its "opponent," but according to how many points it accumulated for itself. The surprising result: a strategy dubbed TIT FOR TAT, submitted by Anatol Rapaport, cleaned everybody's clocks in both tournaments.
Why was this surprising? First, because TIT FOR TAT was such a simple strategy. It didn't try to figure out what its "opponent" was going to do, or even keep much track of what its "opponent" had _already_ done. All it did was cooperate on the first move, and thereafter do whatever its "opponent" had done on the previous move. And second, because this strategy can _never_ do better than its "opponent" in any single game; the best result it could achieve, in terms of comparison with the other player, is a tie.
So it was odd that such a simple strategy, one that went up against all sorts of sophisticated strategies that spent a lot of time trying to dope out what their "opponents" were up to, should do so much better than all the "clever" strategies. And it was also odd that a strategy that could never, ever "beat" its "opponent" should nevertheless do so much better _overall_ than any other strategy.
As Axelrod is careful to point out, this isn't always true; how well TIT FOR TAT does depends on the population with which it's surrounded, and in fact it wouldn't have won even _these_ tournaments if certain other strategies had participated. But TIT FOR TAT is surprisingly robust, and its success does offer some tentative political lessons.
Axelrod spells them out, in the form of principles like "Be nice and forgiving" -- which means: never be the first to defect; be quick to forget what your "opponent" has done in the past. And in a follow-up computer simulation, he shows that it's possible -- under some conditions -- for a little cadre of "cooperators" to increase their numbers and "take over" a population that practices other strategies.
Axelrod's research was and is important for several reasons, one of which has to do with evolutionary theory: it shows that, under the right conditions, natural selection can tend to generate cooperation rather than competition, even among actors who act solely out of self-interest. Another has to do with the spontaneous growth of cooperative behavior in predominantly competitive or hostile environments (Axelrod's examples include holiday cease-fires in the trenches during the First World War). Yet another has to do with the need (or otherwise) for external authorities to _enforce_ cooperative behavior -- a point not lost on Axelrod's libertarian and/or Hayekian readers, including myself.
Nevertheless, as groundbreaking as this work is, the results are modest and Axelrod states them very cautiously. TIT FOR TAT doesn't _always_ "win," and in any case not all of our social interactions can be modelled as Iterated Prisoner's Dilemmas. It's a _very_ hopeful book, but readers will want to be careful not to claim more for Axelrod's results than he claims for them himself.
In short, this volume is a solid piece of political-sociological-mathematical research that has stood the test of time and stimulated all sorts of follow-up work. I expect it will be read for a long time to come -- this conclusion being a simple extrapolation from the fact that I've been reading it for almost two decades now myself. It's fascinating.
on December 28, 2002
If you're an intellectual and want to read a book that will change your perception of many facets of the world forever, this is the book for you. It's not a long read, but you will spend a lot of time thinking about all its implications as you read it. I found it applicable to everything from inviting people to parties, to business and personal relationships, to species competition, to wondering whether a theoretical race of super-powerful extraterrestrials would enslave us, to... Well, you just have to check it out!
I'm reading the sequel ("The Complexity of Cooperation") right now, which is also amazing. In it he quotes a letter written to him about EoC by a woman who claims that the principle developed in it helped her with her divorce proceedings! How can you miss a book with such broad applications.
on November 17, 2002
Want a deterministic explanation about how cooperation evolved from selfinshness? No more hypotesis, no more expeculations, no more theories. This book will explain you with facts, rules and basic algorithms how that happens. On top of that the style used is very easy to follow. The findings have so many levels that talking about cooperation in bacteria colonies or in human societies would reduced the scope of this book. You can find analogies everywhere for these findings and verify their accuracy. But, regardless, the models explained here will definitely give you a new perspective and a new way to see things in life.
on November 10, 2003
Few books really have an impact on our lives. After reading this one, however, I came to realize how the prisoner's dilemna and the ideas and real world examples of cooperation of this book apply to everything around us. I've applied these ideas to my work, my relationships, my game playing and they have clarified and strengthened all of thse areas. And truly, anyone can read this book. Don't be scared away by "game-theory" and "prisoner's dilemna" and "math." It sounds cheesy but I truly believe that if everyone read this book, the would be a better place. READ THIS BOOK!!!!
on December 19, 2003
This book is a must for anyone analyzing the dynamics of persons and groups. I've found most useful when analyzing crime prevention policy, and in particular, when searching for the proper structure of legislation. I believe that anyone in a position to design norms, be that legislators, policy analysts or business managers, would find this book of enormous help. It is basically, the rules that govern the basic structure of interaction between multiple players. If you ever need to design or build a "path of least resistance," this is the book for you.
on December 26, 2002
Though I've never seen the two linked elsewhere, this book explains how Linux and Open Source developers can succeed in a world populated by back-stabbing defectors. A wonderful book and an easy read. Recomended for anyone who cooperates.
For business readers, consider Co-opetition by Nalebuff etal and the Death of Competition by Moore.
on January 19, 2014
I was so impressed with this work that I telephoned Axelrod to say so. A humble man who has made one of the most significant contributions to negotiation theory in the past 5 decades. This should be required reading in first year law school for all lawyers and, failing that, it should be handed out at every conference on mediation.