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Ladder Award: Martin Nowak for his mathematical explanation of “Why we need each other to succeed”

A Ladder is awarded to Martin Nowak, professor of biology and mathematics at Harvard University, for demonstrating mathematically how successful evolution requires not only selection and mutation, but also and most importantly, cooperation.

He shows how co-operation is essential for the evolution of life and how humans had to cooperate for complex societies to emerge.

Most people understand direct forms of reciprocity – I help you and you help me – however, Nowak stresses the most important survival strategy is indirect reciprocity i.e. cooperation for the greater good.

As well as providing a strong scientific case for cooperation being fundamental to survival and thriving, Nowak receives a Ladder for showing the need and value of understanding the science of cooperation.

He defines three properties of cooperation as being: hopeful, generous and forgiving.

1 Hopeful: when a person sees a stranger they are hopeful to establish cooperation
2 Generous: there is no demand to win in every circumstance
3 Forgiving: if one party defects then there is a way back to cooperation

Nowak shows how a threat of punishment is not a successful strategy for getting people to cooperate.

He also shows that patterns of cooperation are not stable – often breaking down. Importantly, he also shows that there are always more evolutionary strategies available to develop new forms of cooperation.

An important element in whether or not people cooperate is ‘reputation.’ Using game theory, Nowak shows how those who have a reputation of not cooperating are shunned or punished, while co-operative players are rewarded.

Nowak argues that humans have a talent for cooperation – they can indeed be super-co-operators.

He asks important questions such as how can climates of cooperation be sustained in the face of problems like competition which make otherwise ample resources scarce?

Stories about who did what to help whom serve to reinforce behaviours and create reputations that support the evolution of successful cultures of cooperation.

Village connections would like to see more stories about how cooperation creates success.

Do you have any such stories to offer? Your stories and comments (below) – whether you agree or not – and nominations for a Ladder or Shovel Award most welcome.

Thanks also to Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand for interviewing Martin Nowak and so bringing his theory on evolution to wider attention. Kim also deserves a Ladder for her consistently inspiring and stimulating programmes.

See: The mathematics of being nice Michael Marshal talks to martin Nowak in New Scientist.  “Using mathematics to tackle some of biology’s biggest questions, Martin Nowak has concluded that an ability to cooperate is the secret of humanity’s success…

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