Friday, September 23, 2011

Are We the Inevitable Products of Mathematical Equations?

I have just finished reading Martin Nowak’s Super Cooperators, a book written with Roger Highfield. Nowak is a biomathematician at Harvard. He has spent a career designing mathematical models that demonstrate the conditions under which altruism can evolve. Altruism is when one animal is nice to another animal of the same species.

Nowak’s view of the world resonates with my spirit. He sees the natural world as full of cooperation. Cooperation is at least as important as the “survival of the fittest,” which Darwinism is often portrayed to be. I find his viewpoint inspiring just like the viewpoint of Lynn Margulis (whom Nowak hardly mentions). The fact that Nowak is a fellow devotee of the music of Gustav Mahler doesn’t hurt any either.

And some important results have emerged from Nowak’s mathematical models. I cannot summarize all of them, but one that I remember is the following. In simple, direct interactions, when a cooperator and a defector come in contact, the defector always wins. That is, the cooperator becomes a sucker for offering help that is not reciprocated. In large populations in which all the animals are equally likely to come in contact, altruism doesn’t have a chance. But in populations in which small groups can form, where animals can choose their friends, so to speak, altruistic groups can emerge. And when they do, they can beat out the pathetic defectors every time, at least temporarily. This is particularly the case in animal societies where the animals know the reputations of other animals, which is something they can do within small groups. This is, in fact, probably the most important way in which altruism evolved. It is an example of multi-level selection: selection among groups within a larger population.

However, in one sense, I consider Nowak’s work to be unrealistic. He begins the book by expressing his feeling that all of truth can be expressed precisely by mathematics. Toward the end of the book, he claims that his equations would be true anywhere in the universe. He admits that his conclusions are not too different from beliefs, such as the Golden Rule, found in traditional religions. But he still thinks he has made a monumental universal discovery. “Now, for the first time, aspects of these powerful ideas [from religion] have been quantified in experiments, captured in equations, and enshrined in science.” He seems to mean that ideas such as the Golden Rule are really true for the first time in the history of the universe as a result of his mathematical simulations.

Nowak’s mathematical approach is unrealistic because it omits all historical contingency. In Nowak’s models, animals are cooperators or defectors for logical reasons. So maybe his equations would work reliably on the planet Vulcan. But they cannot be relied upon for human behavior. The equations mirror many, but not all, aspects of human behavior. The primary historical contingency is religion. The memes of religion have parasitized the human mind to such an extent that, throughout human history, many people have considered it a religious duty, absent any benefit, and more important than life itself, to bring death and destruction to others. Nowak’s models do not include the thirst for evil that is so common in human motivation, in which loss is reward because it ensures eternal life in a heaven.

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