Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Please share with me so that I can beat you

[Ed note: The Connectedness staff is behind in blogging, due to an overload of Web Science synthesis. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.]

Martin Nowak is one of the world's pre-eminent gurus of evolutionary dynamics (which I called "die and adapt" a few months ago). Yesterday at the Harvard Kennedy School Complexity Series, Nowak brilliantly outlined five reasons why I might willingly die so that you can live, and and what adaptations occur in our population as a result:
  1. Kin selection: you are genetically similar enough to me (e.g., child, sibling) that I could rationally decide to sacrifice my own body for the sake of helping your/my DNA
  2. Direct reciprocity: you and I interact repeatedly, and I expect that over time you will repay the favors I give you now
  3. Indirect reciprocity: I may never see you again, but I care about my reputation (and know about yours), and I gain enough in reputation to make it worth doing you a favor.
The above three mechanisms of cooperations were rounded out by two more: graph selection and group selection, which allow one to model (1) a world where people don't randomly mix with the entire world but instead have specific neighborhoods of interaction, and (2) a world where tribes develop collective strategies. This last one (group selection) is still somewhat controversial, and Nowak himself has flip-flopped over the course of his career with respect to it. Currently he believes it is an important dimension of a complete model of the evolution of cooperation.

The talk and audience were theoretical-minded, but the person sitting on my right shared a very pragmatic reason for attending:
"The successful push-pull of collaboration and competition ... [in] both open source programming and wikis and is certain to find its way into many enterprises as collaborative design becomes commonplace."
More about that in his paper, "In Praise of Tweaking," where he makes clear one specific enterprise that is deliberately investing in theoretical evolutionary dynamics in order to redesign its own process of production. Thank you, Ned Gulley.

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