Lie Back and Enjoy It? Evolution Rules How We Play the Game

1 08 2007

The New York Times
July 31, 2007
Scientist at Work | Martin Nowak
In Games, an Insight Into the Rules of Evolution

By Carl Zimmer

“While cooperation may be central to evolution, however, it poses questions that are not easy to answer. How can competing individuals start to cooperate for the greater good? And how do they continue to cooperate in the face of exploitation? To answer these questions, Dr. Nowak plays games. . .”

Dr. Nowak is a “mathematical biologist” — new one on me! — who directs Harvard’s “Program for Evolutionary Dynamics” and creates game models to understand human evolution puzzles from cancer and religion to economics and language confusion (like the funding of public schools and the real meaning of “home education”?)   He seems to think it all comes down to human networking and systems theory, to how we conflict and cooperate to build or sabotage our networks and “community.”

Tight clusters of cooperators emerge, and defectors elsewhere in the network are not able to undermine their altruism. “Even if outside our network there are cheaters, we still help each other a lot” . . . Dr. Nowak identified the conditions when [cooperation] can arise with a simple equation: cooperation will emerge if the benefit-to-cost (B/C) ratio of cooperation is greater than the average number of neighbors (K).

“It’s the simplest possible thing you could have expected, and it’s completely amazing,” he said.

In the NHEN forums we who love to think and discuss, explored the idea of homeschooling as systems and networking theory.

We also started a resource collection I dubbed “Institutionalism versus Individualism” — before economist homeschool dad Paul persuaded me to change my perspective from conflict to cooperation simply by changing the word “versus” to “and” instead.

Cognitive linguist and author of “How the Mind Works” Steven Pinker (also at Harvard and cooperating with Nowak on these networking games and models) would have been proud! 🙂 Revel in his personal evolutionary brilliance here.

Such mathematical biology also has insights for parents agonizing over whether video gaming interferes with education, or is a highly evolved educational adaption in its own right. And for something completely different, a legislative stance that I mused about at NHEN in 2004 evolves into an even better education freedom argument with this new work to bolster it:

I suggest we use cognitive science like this as legislative evidence and argument at every opportunity; research can be used to show that home education is naturally closer to “what really works in learning” than school models. The question this begs is: when we appropriate dollars and legislate accountability, why shouldn’t school models have to prove themselves to US, rather than the other way around?

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