Martin Nowak interview (translated)

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Martin Nowak, whose new book Evolutionary Dynamics is a must-read, recently gave an interview (PDF) for the Italian magazine Panorama. Unfortunately, it is only in Italian, so to put my break time to good use, I’ve translated it below. I’m fairly certain that everything is correct, but any errors are due only to me. See here for Razib’s posts on Nowak’s book.
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[Headline]: Give, and ye shall receive: it’s not the Gospel but Darwin
According to the American biologist and mathematician Martin Nowak, the motor of evolution and of survival of the species is altruism.
–by Chiara Palmerini

[Photo caption]: Equations of generosity. Martin Nowak. Below, the Amish, a community founded on mutual aid.

There was a pest that tormented biologists as early as Darwin: how is it that humans, and sometimes animals too, sacrifice themselves for others in a world that evolved according to the law of survival of the fittest? His successors have found some solutions. Richard Dawkins, for example, has maintained that the true selfish agents are genes, willing to do anything — including to sacrifice an individual, for example the mother, to perpetuate themselves within the child. The problem is that altruism and generosity are not observed only among relatives. What next, then? In a singular reversal of perspective, the biologist and mathematician Martin Nowak maintains that cooperation, far from being a problem for evolution, is one of the laws that propels it, on a par with random mutation of DNA and natural selection. At Harvard, Nowak directs the program for evolutionary dynamics, in which mathematics is applied to the study of evolution. While passing through Varenna, Italy, for the conference Evolvability: the evolution of evolution, organized by the “Piero Caldirola” International Centre for the Promotion of Science, he responds to Panorama.

Why is cooperation a law of evolution?

Because it permits the construction of complexity. For example, it’s cooperation between cells that leads to multicellular organisms. Without cooperation, the evolutionary process will not reach the highest levels.

Are cooperation and altruism the same thing?

According to most evolutionists, yes. But I think that the motivation should be important if it’s altruism: the true altruist helps without selfish motives.

In your recent work in Science, you describe five mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation. What are they?

The first is cooperation among relatives, summed up by the motto of John B.S. Haldane: “I’d lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins.” But cooperation is also observed between people not related by blood. The rule that matters here is: “I scratch your back, you scratch mine,” which still leaves out many aspects of cooperation among humans — we help even those who will not be able to return the favor.

So then?

Then the rule of indirect reciprocity comes into play, which is typical of human societies. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch the back of someone else.” Here reputation counts: helping someone serves to establish a good self-image, which will be rewarded by others. Even though some forms of indirect reciprocity are found among animals, only among humans does it develop fully. It’s no accident that as a species we are very interested in gossip. Language could have evolved for acquiring information and spreading gossip, in tandem with indirect reciprocity.

Is not Darwinian generosity an oxymoron?

No, even in a situation where all compete against all, forgiveness and generosity can be a winning strategy.

You cite the Gospel as an example of indirect reciprocity: give, and ye shall receive. Evolution and religion, however, do not agree so much.

If you ask me, it’s incorrect to interpret the theory of evolution as though it led necessarily to atheism.

Are you a believer?

Yes.
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4 Comments

  1. “the true altruist helps without selfish motives” 
    “helping someone serves to establish a good-self-image, which will be rewarded by others” 
     
    Therefore not altruistic as defined by Nowak himself.

  2. Nowak distinguishes between cooperation and altruism so I don’t think there’s any contradiction there. 
     
    He also defines altruism in terms of ‘motive’, which makes the term as scientifically vague as its common meaning.

  3. “the true altruist helps without selfish motives” 
    “helping someone serves to establish a good-self-image, which will be rewarded by others” 
     
    Therefore not altruistic as defined by Nowak himself.
     
     
    In the second quote, he’s making an observation about the effects of having a good reputation. He doesn’t say that a person is calculating this reward, and then helps others in order to achieve the reward.

  4. Well of course the ‘motives’ need not be consciously calculated!! We are talking about genetic evolution, not introspective psychology. In evolutionary game theory plants or slime moulds can have ‘motives’.

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