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* Book: SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield


Gideon Rosenblatt, reviews a presentation on the book's ideas:

"If you are interested in cooperative studies or just want to build a more collaborative culture in your place of work, watch the below 20 minute talk by Martin Nowak. It’s based on his (and Roger Highfield’s) new book: SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed.

Nowak starts the talk with an overview of the key milestones in the evolution of life. What’s the most interesting thing that’s happened in the last 600 million years? The origin of human language. That’s right. It’s the most important evolutionary event since the rise of complex, multi-cellular life. That’s because for the first time on Earth, it enables a new mode of evolution that is longer tied to genetics, but ideas. This is the birth of cultural evolution.

There’s then an overview of Darwin’s thinking and a deeper look at evolution. The only thing that really evolves are populations, populations of reproducing individuals. Nowak then outlines the two commonly understood pillars of evolution: mutation and selection and goes on to discuss a third variable: cooperation. Without cooperation, there is no construction. It’s the master architect of evolution.

What is cooperation? It’s a kind of working together between two individuals, a donor and a recipient, and you can model it’s efficacy or fitness using computers. Nowak goes into some interesting detail on what these computer models tell us about how cooperation actually works in nature – and culture. Individuals with the option of collaborating face two choices: cooperate or defect. The most famous representation of this choice between cooperation and defection is called “the prisoner’s dilemma.” The problem is that the rationale analysis leads individuals quite consistently to defection, even though there is a bigger payoff to be had through cooperating.


Nowak makes the interesting point that winning strategies for cooperation require three characteristics. They are: generous, hopeful and forgiving.

Nowak then moves on from direct reciprocity to look briefly at indirect reciprocity, where I help you, and somebody else helps me. This is the premise of the movie Pay It Forward. I don’t expect reciprocity necessarily from you. This kind of reciprocity depends upon reputation; where someone observes my behavior and spreads it through populations through gossip. Communication and language are critical to indirect reciprocity. As Harvard Professor David Haig puts it: “For direct reciprocity you need a face. For indirect reciprocity you need a name.” That’s because in direct reciprocity, all I need to do is recognize who you are. But with indirect reciprocity, I need some way of communicating about who you are without you necessarily present. That’s where a name, or some other word to represent you, is critical.

Nowak closes the talk by briefly outlining the three other mechanisms for cooperation: spatial selection, group selection and kinship selection. What led Nowak and Highfield to the name of their book is that humans are “SuperCooperators” because they use all five mechanisms to cooperate." (

More Information

Video: Martin_Nowak_and_Roger_Highfield_on_Cooperation_in_Human_and_Natural_Evolution