Learning about evolution, cooperation and our future

What is the role of cooperation in evolution and how does cooperation itself evolve? That’s the topic of our discussions during the course Literacies of Cooperation, facilitated by Howard Rheingold.

The report about the first session can be found here (exploring the biology of cooperation).

We had a second live session about The Evolution of Cooperation, which also is the title of a work by professor Robert Axelrod. Let me quote Howard:

Axelrod’s work is fundamental. Thinking about cooperation, evolution, game theory, and computer simulation led him to use what has since become the e. coli of cooperation studies, the computer-simulated interated prisoner’s dilemma game, a strategy game that probes the ways human react when given the choice between assured self interest and potential but not guaranteed benefits of cooperation. Axelrod’s “Three Conditions” brings the gist of his research to a practical level that can then be used as a lens for looking at collective action online: what are the most important conditions for ensuring cooperation among strangers in a competetive environment.

But first something about the way in which we organize the live sessions in Blackboard Collaborate. One of the neat aspects of these sessions is that Howard incites people to take up certain roles: a lexicon team, searchers, contextualizers, mindmappers, session notetakers en wikimasters. People can propose questions during the chat, and people can jolt short answers on the whiteboard (this involves yet another task: question wrangler).

On the wiki we gather session notes – making life easier for those who missed part of the activities during the week. We’ve a growing collection of mindmaps and resources about stuff such as Honeybee Colony Thermoregulation, the symbiotic relationship between golden jellyfish and algae and cleaner wrass eating parasites from larger fish. One might well ask what all this has to do with human societies in this century, but this will become more obvious – I hope.

Cooperation in a competitive world

Robert Axelrod and W.D. Hamilton found that cooperators can thrive in a competitive environment… if they can find each other and establish mutualistic relationships. We can see how sometimes environments which are dominated by competition can at a certain point harbor colonies of cooperation, and then grow to a situation in which cooperation becomes the dominant theme, only to break down to the previous phases and go into a cycle.

Computer simulations of ‘evolutionary games learned Axelrod and Hamilton these characteristics for success:
- 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 too tricky.

Also read The Evolution of Animal Communication by William A. Searcy & Stephen Nowicki (Princeton University Press, 2005) – about for instance ‘deception and evolutions’.

A group with cooperators – whether or not those cooperators pay a cost for that – can have an evolutionary advantage, they can survive and reproduce more effectively. Small differences in that regard can make big differences in the very long term.

Cooperation can involve direct reciprocity, but also and maybe even more importantly indirect reciprocity. This simply means that I can consider doing a favor to someone who never before did a favor to me – but others may signal that this person is cooperative and reliable. Hence the importance of gossip – some even think that language was developed so as to enable our ancestors to gossip and in that way establish reputation when the groups became too big for one individual to keep track.

Of course, these days we have alternative systems to establish reputation as demonstrated by eBay for instance – one of the questions of the course will be whether these online developments are radically changing our possibilities to adapt to a changing environment.

Read also Martin Nowak about all this or watch him.

A co-learner said in the chat:

I thought it was interesting that Nowak talked about language being the big way of fast-forwarding evolution and the introduction of reproduction of culture/ideas/

In that same text chat also Carver Mead‘s book Collective Electrodynamics was mentioned. He was quoted as saying:

In a time-symmetric universe, an isolated system does not exist. The electron wave function in an atom is particularly sensitive to coupling with other electrons; it is coupled either to far-away matter in the universe or to other electrons in a resonant cavity or other local structure.

Shadow of the future and other topics

We also discussed the notion “The shadow of the future”: individuals will cooperate more if they know they’ll meet again in the future. Question in the chat: what are the communication mechanisms of initiating reciprocity? Are there ways to predict success or failure of cooperation? or sustaining cooperation?

What about kin selection? Would you jump in the river for two siblings or eight cousins – what about one brother? Read also The New Yorker about Kin and Kind.

Talking about gossip and social grooming, there are quite some studies about the notion of fairness among pre-speech children and primates. Watch this video about capuchins rejecting unequal pay (primate fairness):



Are we born with a sense of fairness? Toddlers who look longer to unfair actions (it violates their expectations) tend to behave in a more fair way themselves. Here is a Wikipedia entry about Sesame Street research, an article about whether we are born with a sense of fairness and another one about the evolution of fairness.

We discussed the role of religions: stories inciting the group to act cooperatively and eventually to sacrifice their individual self-interest (because of the reward in the after-life or compelling examples) could enhance the chances of such a group in the competition with other groups. Read also: Wikipedia about Darwin’s Cathedral (read also this book review and here is the book itself).

Evolution and the future

Culture is what we learn from each other based on biological evolved attentional and social capacities. This evolved capacity for social learning was particularly adaptive during times of radical environmental change. Learning capacities also created processes that changed the selection environment in which genes develop. E.g. cooking meat selects for those with efficient digective chemistry.

One of the question asked by the co-learners was whether one can design for cooperation? If so, through what tools? But also, what are the outside factors that can disrupt cooperation? How do systems protect and resist these forces?

We continued talking about the channeling of tribal instincts via symbol systems. This involves cultural transmission and selection that continues the evolution of cooperative human capacities at cultural rather than genetic level and pace.

Have a look at this toolkit for collective action and the technologies of cooperation.

Cultural tools channel innate sociality into cooperative arrangements. Institutions may be punishment, language, technology, invidual intelligence and inventivenesss, ready establisment of reciprocal arrangements, prestige systems, solutions to games of coordination (which could involve our newish web-technologies)…

In this regard Howard mentioned the book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. Wikipedia says: It argues that biological evolution and cultural evolution are shaped and directed first and foremost by “non-zero-sumness” i.e., the prospect of creating new interactions that are not zero-sum.

This is Robert Reich’s take on the Non-Zero Sum Society.

We came quite some way from the molecules and algae. In the course, we’ll continue the discussion of evolution issues for the next few days and then we’ll tackle social dilemmas.

TwitterFacebookGoogle+LinkedIntumblrPinterestRedditStumbleUponEmail

About rolandlegrand

I'm social media manager at Mediafin, the publisher of Belgium's leading business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. I have a special interest in the intersection of immersive media, business and philosophy.
Tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply