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Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation

Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation

by Martin A. Nowak (Editor), Sarah Coakley (Editor), Johan Almenberg (Contribution by), John Hedley Brooke (Contribution by), Philip Clayton (Contribution by)

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According to the reigning competition-driven model of evolution, selfish behaviors that maximize an organism’s reproductive potential offer a fitness advantage over self-sacrificing behaviors—rendering unselfish behavior for the sake of others a mystery that requires extra explanation. Evolution, Games, and God addresses this conundrum by


According to the reigning competition-driven model of evolution, selfish behaviors that maximize an organism’s reproductive potential offer a fitness advantage over self-sacrificing behaviors—rendering unselfish behavior for the sake of others a mystery that requires extra explanation. Evolution, Games, and God addresses this conundrum by exploring how cooperation, working alongside mutation and natural selection, plays a critical role in populations from microbes to human societies. Inheriting a tendency to cooperate, argue the contributors to this book, may be as beneficial as the self-preserving instincts usually thought to be decisive in evolutionary dynamics.

Assembling experts in mathematical biology, history of science, psychology, philosophy, and theology, Martin Nowak and Sarah Coakley take an interdisciplinary approach to the terms “cooperation” and “altruism.” Using game theory, the authors elucidate mechanisms by which cooperation—a form of working together in which one individual benefits at the cost of another—arises through natural selection. They then examine altruism—cooperation which includes the sometimes conscious choice to act sacrificially for the collective good—as a key concept in scientific attempts to explain the origins of morality. Discoveries in cooperation go beyond the spread of genes in a population to include the spread of cultural transformations such as languages, ethics, and religious systems of meaning.

The authors resist the presumption that theology and evolutionary theory are inevitably at odds. Rather, in rationally presenting a number of theological interpretations of the phenomena of cooperation and altruism, they find evolutionary explanation and theology to be strongly compatible.

Editorial Reviews

Nature - Sean Nee
Martin Nowak is undeniably a great artist, working in the medium of mathematical biology.
John F. Haught
What makes Evolution, Games, and God so interesting and valuable is that the essays collected here, in addition to providing readable introductions to and discussions of the role of game theory in evolutionary explanation, also provide information and/or considerations relevant to the larger question of whether science is now at the point of providing an exclusively naturalist, and even physicalist, explanation of human tendencies that formerly seemed to require the realities of God and soul. The essays deal in an informed and sophisticated way with this and other related questions, and they do so without the venom that characterizes so many other popular treatments of the question of science, faith and morality.
Celia Deane-Drummond
Evolution, Games, and God is perhaps science and religion at its best: going further than the somewhat stale debate about whether such a discussion is possible by plunging into a specific topic that is in itself changing rapidly and at the cutting edge of scientific analysis. It also brings in, rather more extensively than some volumes, a philosophical perspective that chastens scientific and theological reflection, without compromising the insights that are possible in both fields of study.
Ariel Glucklich
I have been anticipating this book for years and it has exceeded my high expectations. Nowak and Coakley combine the courage of applying a specific evolutionary theory to altruism with the prudence of recruiting sharp minds to explore and challenge their own thesis. The result is essential reading for anyone interested in carefully bringing science into conversation with moral and theological phenomena while avoiding the pitfalls of reductionism.
Times Higher Education - Matthew Reisz
The book is almost heroically interdisciplinary, touching on everything from brain science, meerkats and slime molds to experimental economics and the theological concept of kenosis (or divine 'self-emptying').
Choice - A. C. Love
A good entry point into the controversial subject of the adequacy of biological explanations of human behavior.
Times Literary Supplement - Denis Alexander
This is an important volume because it completely subverts the idea that the evolutionary narrative is in some profound sense antithetical to theology. Not so. The ‘selfish gene’ as a metaphor makes no sense of biological realities. Co-operation is here to stay, as important at the level of interacting genes in genomic as it is at the level of interaction between organisms.

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Chapter 4: Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation

Evolution is based on a fierce competition between individuals and should therefore only reward selfish behavior. Every gene, every cell and every organism should be designed to promote its own evolutionary success at the expense of its competitors. Yet we observe cooperation on many levels of biological organization. Genes cooperate in genomes. Chromosomes cooperate in eukaryotic cells. Cells cooperate in multi-cellular organisms. There are many examples for cooperation among animals. Humans are the champions of cooperation: from hunter gatherer societies to nation states, cooperation is the decisive organizing principle of human society. No other life form on earth is engaged in the same complex games of cooperation and defection. The question how natural selection can lead to cooperative behavior has fascinated evolutionary biologists for several decades.

A cooperator is someone who pays a cost, c, for another individual to receive a benefit, b. A defector has no cost and does not deal out benefits. Cost and benefit are measured in terms of fitness. Reproduction can be genetic or cultural. In any mixed population, defectors have a higher average fitness than cooperators (Figure 4.1). Therefore, selection acts to increase the relative abundance of defectors. After some time co-operators vanish from the population. Remarkably, however, a population of only cooperators has the highest average fitness, while a population of only defectors has the lowest. Thus, natural selection constantly reduces the average fitness of the population. Fisher’s fundamental theorem, which states that average fitness increases under constant selection, does not apply here because selection is frequency dependent: the fitness of individuals depends on the frequency (=relative abundance) of cooperators in the population. We see that natural selection in well-mixed populations needs help for establishing cooperation.

Kin Selection

When J.ºB.ºS. Haldane remarked, “I will jump into the river to save two brothers or eight cousins,” he anticipated what became later known as Hamilton’s rule (Hamilton 1964). The ingenious idea is that natural selection can favor cooperation if the donor and the recipient of an altruistic act are genetic relatives. More precisely, Hamilton’s rule states that the coefficient of relatedness, r, must exceed the cost-to-benefit ratio of the altruistic act:

r > c/b (1)

Relatedness is defined as the probability of sharing a gene. The probability that two brothers share the same gene by descent is 1/2, while the same probability for cousins is 1/8. Hamilton’s theory became widely known as “kin selection” or “inclusive fitness” (Grafen 1985; Taylor 1992; Queller 1992; Frank 1998; West, Pen, and Griffin 2002; Foster, Wenseleers, and Ratnieks 2006). When evaluating the fitness of the behavior induced by a certain gene it is important to include the behavior’s effect on kin who might carry the same gene. Therefore, the “extended phenotype” of cooperative behavior is the consequence of “selfish genes” (Dawkins 1976; Wilson 1975).

Meet the Author

Martin A. Nowak is Director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics and Professor of Mathematics and Biology at Harvard University.

Sarah Coakley is Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity and Deputy Chair of Arts and Humanities at the University of Cambridge.

Heather D. Curtis is Associate Professor of Religion at Tufts University.

Dominic D. P. Johnson is Alistair Buchan Professor of International Relations at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

Stephen M. Kosslyn is John Lindsley Professor of Psychology in Memory of William James, Emeritus, at Harvard University and Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

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