Behavioral Telescope Shows How Cooperation Works

Jag Bhalla
Behavioral Telescope Shows How Cooperation Works

Nature's games aren't all "red in tooth and claw" competitions. Evolution can create stable cooperation. "Behavioral telescopes" provided by a new kind of logic have revealed laws of team productivity that are almost mathematical moral truths.
Game theory is to the behavioral universe what the telescope was to Galileo, or calculus to Newton--a powerful new tool for probing previously unsolvable problems. Modeling the agency and behavioral contingency that are key in biology, but don't exist in physics, required new logic. Using these "behavioral telescopes" to scan for patterns in distant effects, scientists are discovering an evolutionary ethics that increases social productivity.
Game theory's most studied scenario is the Prisoners Dilemma, which due to its origin in Cold War nuclear strategy, assumes everyone is untrustworthy. Its two players can't communicate but must choose to either cooperate or defect. If both cooperate each payoff = Reward, if only one defects his payoff = Temptation while the cooperator payoff = Sucker, and if both defect each payoff = Punishment. In strong versions payoffs are ranked: Temptation > Reward > Punishment > Sucker. Conventional thinking says that since the other player is "rational" and can't be trusted, he will defect. So it's "rational" for you to defect. This "logic" guarantees poor outcomes. But evolution has a smarter solution.
Computer contests of iterated Prisoner's Dilemmas show, as Sam Harris notes, "that evolution probably selected for two stable orientations towards human cooperation tit-for-tat...and permanent defection." Permanent defection yields the low payoffs of "red in tooth and claw" zero-cooperation. In tit-for-tat a player cooperates initially then mimics the other player's last move. Thus tit-for-tat-players retaliate if defected against, but forgive a defector that starts cooperating. Once established in a population tit-for-tat provides higher productivity for all, and can become an 'evolutionarily stable strategy,' which means it can't be beaten by other approaches. Even with short-term incentives for defection, cooperation can thrive.
It wasn't humanly possible to tackle game-theory problems until computers enabled large-scale simulations. But evolution has been doing precisely that for hundreds of millions of years, running trials of what Darwin called "endless forms most beautiful" and similarly endless varieties of behavioral strategies, and naturally selecting adaptations that are more productive. Species that evolved tit-for-tat behaviors could overcame the productivity ceiling of short-sighted selfish competitions.
Key games in our nature, such as group hunting, have greater incentives for cooperation and disincentives for defection than Prisoners Dilemmas. Christopher Boehm has shown that hunter gathering cultures have punished uncooperative behaviors for perhaps 10,000 generations.
As Steven Pinker notes, "The emotions of sympathy, gratitude, guilt, and anger allow people to benefit from cooperation without being exploited by liars and cheats." Our highly interdependent social species has evolved mechanisms to create trustworthy team behaviors and to punish team disruptors. Any science that can't see this moral math isn't seeing humans clearly.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
Previously in this series:
It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient
Inheriting Second Natures
Our Ruly Nature
It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories
Tools Are in Our Nature
We Fit Nature To Us: Evolutions two way street
Justice Is In Our Nature

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