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Marco A. Janssen
Arizona State University
Nowak is currently a professor of mathematics and biology at Harvard University. Moreover, he directs since 2003 his own research program on Evolutionary Dynamics. This program has been made possible by a 30 million pledge by Wall Street tycoon Jeffrey Epstein. This is just one ingredient of the remarkable story of Nowak scientific life.
The book starts with laying out the puzzle of cooperation illustrated by the prisoner's dilemma. If both players are selfish and rational they will defect. Why do we see so much cooperation in human societies and other domains of the biological world? This puzzle was introduced to Nowak by Karl Sigmund, a professor in mathematics from the University of Vienna, while Nowak was a student in biochemistry. Sigmund talked about the famous Axelrod tournament and Nowak got hooked. The tournament of Axelrod assumed that the strategies did not make errors. What if there are errors? Will Tit for Tat still be a good strategy? His analysis showed that a more promising strategy is a more Win Stay, Loose Shift. This strategy leads to cooperation if both agents do the same, and defect if not. Hence agents can forgive.
The analysis of strategies that do well in direct reciprocity is one of the five chapters in which Nowak discuss five ways in which the prisoner's dilemma can be solved. The second chapter is on indirect reciprocity. In a landmark paper with Karl Sigmund Nowak showed that when agents derive information on their reputation (image score) cooperation can evolve in one-shot prisoner's dilemma. The third chapter is on spatial games and features another landmark paper on spatial chaos. This paper, written with Lord Robert May, shows that cooperation can evolve if agents interact with neighbours and imitate the best strategy of their neighbours. The forth chapter is on group selection. This controversial approach is now better known as multi-level selection. Finally, the fifth chapter is on kin-selection, the first theory on cooperation based on genetic relatedness.
The discussion on the five ways to overcome the prisoner's dilemma is especially interesting due to the discussion on the scientific process. How long hikes with Sigmund let to inspirations that let Nowak drop all other activities he was working on. How chance meetings let to new ideas. How he got, to Oxford, Princeton and finally Harvard.
In the second part of the book discusses cooperation in biology. It covers his applications to the origins of life, the study of cancer and the dominance of ant colonies. This work might be less familiar to the readers of JASSS. Especially the work on cancer, defectors in our own biology, can lead to practical applications.
The final part of the book focuses on human societies. Humans are called supercooperators since they are the only organism that uses all five ways to solve social dilemmas. First the evolution of language is discussed. Nowak made important contributions to the study of language by simulating agents benefiting from mutual understanding in language games. According to Nowak, the emergence of language is the most important development in life since 600 million years. It resulted to new types of cooperation. Especially in the context of indirect reciprocity it is key to have language. We need gossip and other types of information transmission to derive reliable estimates on the reputation of strangers.
Then Nowak discusses public goods and the use of costly punishment to derive cooperation. This is the only part of the book where he discusses empirical research. With two graduate students he performed experiments which showed that punishment is not something special, but in line with earlier work on reciprocity and tit for tat. Then Nowak continues with his recent work on network theory and set theory. The book closes with a reflection on the consequences of his work. Cooperation is a crucial ingredient to evolution, but there always will be cycles. The question is how to re-establish cooperation after it has been collapsed.
This book provides a nice overview of the findings of Nowak's work. Note however, that Nowak has substantial work in other areas of research not discussed in the book such as infectious diseases. Together with science writer Roger Highfield Nowak provides an inspirational story on science in practice. This covers the importance of his mentors in his early years, and his current role of a mentor to his students at Harvard.
In conclusion, this is a marvellous book. Although I may not always agree with the findings of Nowak's research, it is a motivating account on the messy practice of science. I highly recommend this book for students and faculty in social simulation and science in general.
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