In 1981 Robert Axelrod and Bill Hamilton published a paper titled The Evolution of Cooperation in which they analyzed game theory as a means of explaining the emergence of cooperative behaviour. In 1984 Axelrod published a book titled The Evolution of Cooperation in which he again examined game theory as an explanation for the emergence of cooperative behaviour. In 1988 Axelrod and Dion published a paper titled The Further Evolution of Cooperation in which they yet again discussed game theory as an explanation for the emergence of cooperative behaviour, and in 2000 Axelrod presented a symposium paper titled Six Advances in Cooperation Theory in which he outlined what he saw as the continuing contribution of game theory to our understanding of cooperative behaviour.
If this intro has you almost brain-dead, just think how Axelrod feels after paddling in the stagnant pond of game theory for twenty years.
Why is game theory-cooperation theory stagnant? Because it’s been tampered with for too long, left in the sun so long it’s on the nose. Researchers employing this approach are being held back, incapable of moving beyond theory and computer games. The answers to the important cooperation questions will not be found in game theory. It should hold the same position in cooperation theory that genes should hold in evolution theory; useful only as background information.
Let’s have a quick look at what twenty years of effort has produced.
Robert Axelrod’s conclusion to his 2000 paper was; The six papers in this symposium clearly demonstrate that Cooperation Theory continues to be a fruitful paradigm for the conduct of research on an ever-growing set of important theoretical questions. The symposium shows how using and extending the original paradigm of the two-person iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma provides rich possibilities for studying the effects a wide range of factors such as the timing of moves, hostage taking, social networks, adaptive play, envy, noise and mobility. In light of the extensive existing literature on related models dealing many of these factors, the time is now ripe for the comparison of results of closely related models on each factor, as well as for the continuing addition of new themes.
Not very impressive, is it? Mind you, the milking is impressive. They’re determined to get every last drop out of the “rich possibilities” found in this particular “fruitful paradigm”.
But surely in twenty years they must have discovered something more concrete than that outlined by Axelrod?
They have. They found that cooperation pays. Hold that thought for a moment
We participate in cooperation and receive its benefits every day of our lives, 24 hours of the day, from the moment of our conception until the moment we die. Our world is awash with cooperation, it’s the linch-pin of our existence. DS Wilson made the very good point that the reason selfish gene theory became an unstoppable bandwagon in the 1970s and 80s was that individualism was the cultural water we swam in at that time, and just as fish give little thought to the water in which they live, so the world at large gave no thought to the link between selfish gene theory and the cultural trends of the day. His analogy is even more apt in the case of cooperation. Just as fish give no thought to the medium that supports them, so we are blind to the medium that supports us. How else can we explain the staggering fact that twenty years of research found that cooperation pays? How could they have been so blind that they knew less about cooperation than an eighteen year old first-time mother? Does that sound like a bit of a stretch? Consider this from Axelrod’s Six Advances paper; “…these results have inspired a good deal of empirical work demonstrating that cooperation based upon reciprocity does indeed exist between individuals, between nations, and even among animals.” (I first made the point about young mothers knowing more about cooperation than selfish gene theorists in Twelve Misunderstandings of Evolution, but it was not well received in some quarters despite its obvious validity as shown by Axelrod’s “wow” statement of discovery. He could have saved himself twenty years of research by reading Aesop’s Fables, a treasure trove of information on the various forms of cooperation and selfishness, their origins and relative merits. Even a book on parenting would have done.)
The reason for this blindness, and for the stagnation that results, is that the enquiry into the origin and nature of cooperation based on game theory is being carried out within the constricting framework of selfish gene theory. Some of the false assumptions to be found in the publications listed above include the following, all of which form part of selfish gene dogma;
That the world is asocial, that cooperation is a problem for evolutionary theory, that Darwin’s theory was individualistic, that altruism is linked to relatedness, that while benefits accrue from cooperation, greater benefits can accrue from exploiting cooperation, that humans are egoists, that the evolution of cooperation requires that individuals have a reasonable expectation of meeting again so that they have a stake in their future interaction. With shoddy fundamentals such as these to work with, it’s no wonder the game theory approach to cooperation theory has become all noise, signifying nothing.
It’s worth having a look at the conclusion to the seminal paper in the series, Axelrod and Hamilton’s The Evolution of Cooperation. It was as concise as a conclusion can be.
Darwin's emphasis on individual advantage has been formalized in terms of game theory. This establishes conditions under which cooperation based on reciprocity can evolve.
This is not science.
There’s two statements here, both need correcting.
First, “Darwin’s emphasis on individual advantage” is misleading and wrong. When it came to evolution as a whole he gave emphasis also to the role of social influences, so to characterize his work as being based on the individual is unacceptable.
Second, to characterize the evolution of cooperation as being based on individual advantage is simplistic, again to the point of being misleading and wrong. Self-interest does play a role in cooperation, but one of the tactics employed by selfish gene advocates has been to blur the clear difference between self-interest and selfishness. The term “individual advantage” is all about individualism, and the primary purpose of this paper was to give “scientific” credibility to a social movement based on the alleged virtues of individualism, by pushing the totally false proposition that individualism is the dominant theme of evolution.
A secondary purpose was to buttress selfish gene theory itself by falsely explaining away cooperation as a subtle manifestation of selfish motives. It was truly remarkable that in some minds this was successful.