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?

Wish we’d had Dr. Nowak’s cooperation math in 2003, when some of us went blue in the face urging cooperation and community outreach as more evolved than trench warfare against neighboring parents to stay separate from them, to insure that the beds they’d made for their children to lie in, would give OUR kids no fleas —

I guess I see allies more readily than enemies. To me, [administrative and financial problems are] not reason to pile on charters and public schooling, but reason to sympathize with parents trying to do what they think best for their own children and having a horrible time of it.

I see it as a story of great turmoil and conflict that is hurting real parents and children on a daily basis — most of whom btw are not homeschooling, never will, and whose problems could not be solved by anything hsers suggest when discussing charters (abolishing all public schools, fighting charters, clearly defining hs, forming homogeneous hs support groups, etc)

Like [respected home education voices on different sides of the charter schooling debate] I see homeschooling not as merely law but as philosophy and lifestyle, one that’s about individual parents and families all supporting each other’s autonomy and private decisions, whatever they may be.

So, while the educational troubles of other parents may not be our “problem” as hsers, the least we can do in the name of parent autonomy is to refrain from exploiting other parents and their troubles for our own political purposes. Both as a practical matter and a philosophical one.

As I blogged the other day in a political context, It’s the “non-conscious self-protective instincts,” stupid!



3 responses

1 08 2007

From the Pinker profile in the Guardian:

But for a man who is accused of describing us as biological machines, he holds a very strong line on what makes us human. It has to do with our sense of wider humanity.

“Ultimately,” he concludes, “the question is: ‘How great is the circle?’ Does it include the guys in the next village, the guys over the mountain range, children, foetuses, patients in a vegetative state, animals etc? I think a lot of moral debates are not over what is the basis of justice, but who gets a ticket to play in the game.”

This powerful streak of individualism runs through all his writing. . .

“The apparent threat to the traditional notion of free will has nothing to do with genetic, neurobiological, or evolutionary explanations of behaviour,” Pinker says. “It is raised by any explanation of behaviour. There is nothing specific to brains, genes, or evolutionary history that lends itself to bogus justifications for bad behaviour; any explanation can be abused in that way.” In the same way, he dismisses those males who justify promiscuity or adultery by gleefully falling on evolutionary psychology as an excuse by claiming they are only behaving as their genes have programmed them to do. We have an inheritance, he argues, but we also have free will.

His clear thinking on these issues, maintained despite the passionate opposition he meets, is paradoxically life-affirming. Far from our natures – our genetic inheritance – ruling us and undermining our sense of identity, we can, according to Pinker, take refuge in a sense of common identity.

“The strongest argument against totalitarianism may be a recognition of a universal human nature; that all humans have innate desires for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The doctrine of the blank slate, which justifies the dismissal of people’s stated wants as an artefact of a particular time and place and thereby licences the top-down redesign of society, is a totalitarian’s dream.”

31 08 2007
Ancient History Lessons for Homeschool Hegemonists « Cocking A Snook!

[…] Lessons for Homeschool Hegemonists 28 08 2007 Always unschooled (and always ashamed of homeschooler hegemony) Favorite Daughter started her honors sociology class this week, with yet another Ph.D. prof who […]

31 08 2007

Our apparently prescient brainstorming started with this, in January 2004:

Paul, JJ and Nance were struck last year by the thought that systems theory might be mined for some practical applications in improving homeschooler coordination and communication. In short, networking, as in National Home Education *NETWORK* (we already know how unions and PACs and political parties work — we were thinking homeschooling could benefit from a more enlightened alternative.)

Somehow we hit on systems theory, probably because we have the kind of minds that can’t help dissecting interesting ideas and then reconnecting them in new configurations, kind of like the sociopathic Sid who lived next door to Woody Cowboy and Buzz Lightyear and built little Frankensteins from toy parts. 😉

Paul? You ready to plunge into the unplumbed depths?

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