The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod I trust you all watched the first of Adam Curtis’s new documentary on freedom last night (The Trap, repeated BBC4 surely, so look out for it.) It might have left you in a state of paralysis as he traced the impact that a strain of game theory has had on politics and economics in the 60s through 80s. Running up to a synthesis with Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” ethos and the Adam Smith institute’s panacea of free-market modelling. I may well be wrong, but I have an inkling where Curtis might be going with this, for watching the show felt like reliving my student days.

I went to college in the late 80s – a time when the terror of the threat of imminent nuclear war had been replaced by the terror that Margaret Thatcher would be Prime Minister FOR EVER. Why were the Tories always being re-elected? There was a secret despair that maybe the right were, er, right. It sounds clichéd for the good reason it was happening, as the selfishness “greed is good” wafting through the City air seemed to be on a winning streak. Even the 87 crash didn’t really dislodge the feeling that we’d lost the vision of a Great Society forever. I had become depressed (well I was a student). I had grown up believing in a socialist view of the world where, among other things, people were not just out for themselves and their immediate family, that there is more to people than pure self interest. (A vision shared with old-Torys of course, but there you go.)

There are still 2 more parts of Curtis’ doc to go and you may be wondering what saviour might descend to defeat the evil Game Theory. Well I know where I’d take it for a happy ending, because what lifted me out of my political depresson was a book on… Game Theory. Just the title of Robert Axelrod’s ‘The Evolution of Cooperation’ made me want to buy it. I read it in one go on a coach trip from Cambridge to Newcastle. After that I read a lot of books on Biology, including Dawkins* for the first time, and everything clicked back into place for me. The early 90s, for me, was all about the “Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma”.

One detail that foxed me in the doc last night was the presentation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I must admit I didn’t follow it, and if you hadn’t heard about PD before, it didn’t explain the name, making no reference to a Prisoner. So why didn’t he explain it in the standard manner? Especially as it fits the themes of freedom and paranoia, even the title of the show ‘The Trap’, so well.

There have been many books since to explain PD and iterated-PD in a wider context, as part of game theory’s more sophisticated toolkit, but this book was first, hit home, hit me hard, and is an ideal place to start. What is interesting about game theory is NOT that being selfish always wins, but that there are many circumstances in which cooperation spontaneously becomes the stable, preferred, strategy. The trick that the Free Market fundamentalists had pulled off was to pretend that there was only one possible playing field, and only one strategy, when in fact we own the field and can change it to suit us. Axelrod’s book leads you through the straightforward maths of the iterated-PD tournaments, and then takes a wander through some wonderful anecdotal stories about co-operation emerging in what appear at first blush to be unlikely venues. Outbreaks of co-operation between enemy trenches in WW1 and such like. For me the connection between clarified abstruse science and unlikely human stories is what marks out great science writing – and this book was the motherlode.

I have to be careful here, because if I had one criticism of the doc last night, it was the confusion of human morality with game theoretical abstractions. Perhaps this was deliberate, but I do worry it will lead to some self-righteous commentary from the shriller, less astute of my fellow lefties.** Social and psychological research shows that we do have a tendency not to do over our fellow man (alluded to in the doc last night, when the early game theory predictions didn’t match observations of people actually playing PD). There are many possible reasons that this may be the case – that it naturally occurs within entirely moral-free environments is cheering. When you add on the extra layer of morality, the “should” that comes from being moral agents, we have all the afirmation of human nature we ever needed anyway.

You can’t prove any political theory with calculus and a fast computer, but it’s fair to say this book saved my political soul. Now I hope you’re wondering how on earth four other books can better this? Me too. Stay tuned.

* I won’t be covering any of Dawkins’ books in this series. The early good ones you SHOULD have read anyway, and I’m giving space here to a lesser well known canon of books.

**Talking of idiots. Madeleine Bunting watched the show. Her sharp analysis (I am being sarcastic) added an extra note to Curtis’s exploration of the idea of selfishness and game theory – that Dawkins ‘Selfish Gene’ was published in the mid 70s. While this might have seemed like an odd omission to MB, anyone who has actually bloody read and understood the book will know that it, and Dawkins in general, has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature. (If Curtis goes on to include it in eps 2 or 3 kill me.) The association between the metaphorical selfishness of the genes and human nature was sort of hanging in the zeitgeist for the same reason that Dawkins adopted the metaphor in the first place, but it is not one that should be made. Bunting has something against Dawkins (good commentary on a rubbish Bunting article that fails to attack Dawkins) so was never going to notice this.