Caril Zimmer in the 7/31 NYT: "When biologists speak of cooperation, they speak more broadly than the rest of us. Cooperation is what happens when someone or something gets a benefit because someone or something else pays a cost...
The benefit can take many forms, like money or reproductive success. A friend takes off work to pick you up from the hospital. A sterile worker bee tends to eggs in a hive. Even the cells in the human body cooperate. Rather than reproducing as fast as it can, each cell respects the needs of the body, helping to form the heart, the lungs or other vital organs. Even the genes in a genome cooperate, to bring an organism to life.
In recent papers, Dr. Nowak has argued that cooperation is one of the three basic principles of evolution. The other two are mutation and selection. On their own, mutation and selection can transform a species, giving rise to new traits like limbs and eyes. But cooperation is essential for life to evolve to a new level of organization. Single-celled protozoa had to cooperate to give rise to the first multicellular animals. Humans had to cooperate for complex societies to emerge.
“We see this principle everywhere in evolution where interesting things are happening,” Dr. Nowak said.
While cooperation may be central to evolution, however, it poses questions that are not easy to answer. How can competing individuals start to cooperate for the greater good? And how do they continue to cooperate in the face of exploitation? To answer these questions, Dr. Nowak plays games."
I think the missing link in conflict resolution is game theory. There are legions of practitioners who will talk about the spiritual side of peacemaking, or how mediation is more art than science, or about the links between mediation and meditation. I try to remain open to those conversations, but I think they alienate more people than they attract to the field.
Conflict resolution at base is about facilitating cooperation. And there are many strong rationales for cooperation that transcend the spiritual/art arguments that are usually used to support it. Economics has demonstrated the value of cooperation (e.g., the Nash equilibrium), as has biology (as I've discussed previously on this blog.) What's interesting is that Dr. Nowak is attempting to tie the two together.
I spent a good amount of time studying the Prisoner's Dilemma in grad school, and the idea of applying games to biology (like cancer research) is fascinating. I also liked the piece about reputation:
"Another boost for cooperation comes from reputations. When we decide whether to cooperate, we don’t just rely on our past experiences with that particular person. People can gain reputations that precede them. Dr. Nowak and his colleagues pioneered a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in which players acquire reputations. They found that if reputations spread quickly enough, they could increase the chances of cooperation taking hold. Players were less likely to be fooled by defectors and more likely to benefit from cooperation."
A powerful argument for the value of eBay's feedback system, if I might say so myself.
This discussion harkens back to the issue of fundamental human nature that I keep having with myself on this blog. It ends with a consideration of the ramifications of this debate in the realm of science and religion:
"The subject of human cooperation is important not just to mathematical biologists like Dr. Nowak, but to many people involved in the current debate over religion and science. Some claim that it is unlikely that evolution could have produced humans’ sense of morality, the altruism of heroes and saints. “Selfless altruism presents a major challenge for the evolutionist,” Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, wrote in his 2006 book, “The Language of God.”
Dr. Nowak believes evolutionary biologists should study average behavior rather than a few extreme cases of altruism. “Saintly behavior is unfortunately not the norm,” Dr. Nowak said. “The current theory can certainly explain a population where some people act extremely altruistically.” That does not make Dr. Nowak an atheist, however. “Evolution describes the fundamental laws of nature according to which God chose to unfold life,” he declared in March in a lecture titled “Evolution and Christianity” at the Harvard Divinity School. Dr. Nowak is collaborating with theologians there on a project called “The Evolution and Theology of Cooperation,” to help theologians address evolutionary biology in their own work.
Dr. Nowak sometimes finds his scientific colleagues astonished when he defends religion. But he believes the astonishment comes from a misunderstanding of the roles of science and religion. “Like mathematics, many theological statements do not need scientific confirmation. Once you have the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, it’s not like we have to wait for the scientists to tell us if it’s right. This is it.”"