Evolving to cooperate

Nowak points out that: “The most competitive scenario of natural selection, where everybody competes with everybody else, can actually lead to features like generosity and forgiveness….That I find great.”

Originally modeling cooperation in the prisoner’s dilemma, he developed a theory that also applied to professional cyclists. “Last year, cyclist George Hincapie came to a professional road race championship with only one teammate to help him set the pace and battle the wind; and both Levi Leipheimer and David Zabriskie came alone. Even though they were some of the best cyclists in the world, it would be nearly impossible for any one of them to win facing teams with many more riders. So all four worked together trading the lead, so three could conserve energy while one battled the wind. Hincapie and Leipheimer finished one-two.”

“Cooperation means someone pays a cost and someone else gets a benefit,” Nowak said. “I study what makes cooperation a winning strategy. I analyze it using a metaphor that comes from biological evolution natural selection and mutation,” and these basic principles, he said, can be described by exact mathematical equations.

“Nowak defines evolution more broadly than simply the changing of genes, which is what brought him into the study of language. The Nature paper, researched by some of his students, concludes that most English verbs behave in an extremely regular way, evolving, for instance, to end in “ed,” such as “helped,” “laughed,” “reached,” “walked,” and “worked.” Certain irregular verbs, including “be” and “think,” haven’t made that transformation, even though they are 38,800 and 14,400 years old respectively, because they are used so frequently. “The study reveals a simple mathematical law of language evolution,” said Nowak. “If a verb is used 100 times less frequently, it regularizes 10 times faster.’ ”

“Human societies are made up of individuals that cooperate. Whenever evolution is doing something amazingly new, cooperation is involved,”  Nowak said.

“The most successful cooperators, his equations show, choose generosity over greed, forgiveness over retaliation, but there’s a message, he believes, that goes beyond his mathematical models.”

See Cooperation Counts for Math Professor (Boston Globe, 10/15/07, by Heather Wax)


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