Nowak, Martin with Roger Highfield. Super Cooperators: Evolution, altruism and human behaviour (or, why we need each other to succeed)

Text Publishing, $34.95

Can a book about mathematical models of evolutionary biology and the development of altruism be written so delightfully that it’s as gripping as a well-paced novel? Oh, yes. Yes, it can.

Nominally a populist book, it still takes some mental grunt. Careful attention will reward you with personal “eureka!” moments. It’s written for the lay reader, if that lay reader passed senior maths and boasts a decent grasp on evolutionary theory.

This is frontier mathematics, and it is very exciting. A blend of game theory and evolutionary biology, Super Cooperators seeks to explain why cooperation conquers all. Cooperation arises out of competition, from the cellular level to the social. Cooperation, via indirect reciprocity, produces language, itself a cultural evolution.

The nucleus of Nowak’s work is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a hypothetical game where two people, being interrogated separately, are offered the opportunity to cut a deal if they dob in their accomplice. Outcomes (jail sentences) depend on whether both defect, both cooperate, or one defects while the other cooperates. Iterations of this game can describe cycles of behaviour. These in turn inform evolutionary strategies, or mathematical representations of what Nowak calls the five mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation: repetition, reputations, spatial selection, multilevel selection, and kin selection.

I fell in love with this book somewhere in the first 20 pages, and although it was not the simplest relationship to maintain, I remained enamoured to the final page.


Reviewed June 2011