The maths behind evolution and how working together made us truly human


DICK AHLSTROMreviews SuperCooperators: The Mathematics of Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour (Or Why We Need Each Other to Succeed)by Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield; Canongate Books 330pp, £20 (€23)

LOOK AT life in all its vast complexity, the teaming species, countless bacteria, plants that have colonised every niche the planet has to offer. Now realise that the outstanding success of life, its ability to take hold and flourish can be boiled down to a few mathematical terms.

It all comes down to co-operation, according to the authors of a new book. Several decades of mathematical research have refined and refined again the impact of co-operative behaviour on human evolution but also the evolutionary progress of all other species. The research shows a species can get much further if it co-operates than if it adopts a selfish “it’s all about me” attitude.

And this isn’t all about biology and pop psychology. The research can be applied to business models, to the growth, expansion and subsequent collapse of commercial empires. It suggests one can calculate the optimal number of participants in a business meeting if you want to make progress and achieve co-operative behaviour.

SuperCooperators is based on provable mathematical research and hard experimental evidence. Like any theory derived from facts and objective observations you can chose to believe or reject it as you see fit. And yet the central premise – that life on Earth has advanced because a selective advantage arises through co-operative behaviour – seems an idea that is difficult to dismiss.

We are all familiar with the traditional view of evolution, survival of the fittest, dog eat dog, selfish genes vying to be passed on and inherit the Earth. The modified theory as proposed by authors Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield can be reduced to a few simple yet powerful ideas: that one good turn deserves another and what goes around comes around.

Nowak is professor of biology and mathematics at Harvard University and please note the twinned maths and biology. He has spent decades studying evolutionary processes, attempting to understand something as fuzzy as life and what gives a species competitive advantage by forcing this through the cold, strict logic of mathematics. Nowak does not assume something is true because he sees the biological results, he wants formulas and experiments to prove that it is true.

“What I find amazing is that these calculations show that despite nature’s competitive setting – based on natural selection – the winning strategies of direct and indirect reciprocity must have the following ‘charitable’ attributes: be hopeful, generous and forgiving,” the authors write.

These ideas, direct and indirect reciprocity, are two of five such evolutionary characteristics that together ensure that when natural selection operates we will see more co-operation than competition. The proof of this is seen in how our complex human world, but also other complex societies of insects, animals and plants, is dependent on the capacity to co-operate.

The authors describe the complexity of a leaf-cutter ant nest where seven different kinds of ant carry out 30 distinct tasks without having to be told what to do. One task is as essential as the next and without all aspects of the nest functioning properly the whole will collapse and its three million inhabitants disperse.

Bee colonies are another marvel of complex social behaviour, and like the ant colonies their success is based on assumptions that all of the various component parts of the whole will work for the good of the whole colony and not for individual gain.

The authors argue that when it comes to complexity there is nothing to beat our own convoluted and imperfect social network, formed through the interaction of seven billion players spread across five continents and thousands of islands. Human interaction could not operate on the scale that it does without a tremendous amount of co-operative enterprise.

Think local. We trust that the milkman will deliver the milk and he trusts that you will pay him at the end of the week. We both believe that the money we use to trade has value maintained by the governments that stand behind it, and we assume our taxes will pay for regulatory bodies that will ensure the milk is safe to drink. Now add those who built the milk float, made the milk cartons and the machines to fill them, drilled for the oil that the refinery turned into diesel, etc, etc.

Multiply this by billions and start to imagine the resultant complexity of human activity. Much of what we do is based on co-operative behaviour, pulling together to achieve a safe and structured society that is predictable. Nowak and Highfield would argue that natural selection made us inclined to react this way, that co-operative behaviour applied at the right time and the right way can improve fitness and as a consequence survival.

The book itself is a co-operative venture with Nowak’s research and discoveries made accessible and engaging through the writing skills of Highfield, science editor for years at the Daily Telegraphin London and currently editor of New Scientist, and co-author of six popular science titles.

Unlike many general audience science books, this one delivers on its promise of providing an interesting and entertaining tour through the complexities of natural selection and the hard science behind human behaviour.

Dick Ahsltrom is science editor of The Irish Times