April 24, 2011 4:35 pm

The invisible hand that binds us all

SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed
By Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield
Cannongate, £20 ($27)

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations outlines the logic of modern capitalism; a world of competition in which benevolence is irrelevant. But in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he gave an account of morality resting on empathy and conscience as an impartial spectator observing our actions. The Adam Smith problem – how to reconcile these two great books – is also the challenge of how to order a society in which competition and ethical sensibility are combined.

Many of the stories reported in this newspaper turn on the extent to which profit should be constrained by wider obligations. This dilemma is especially acute for parties of the centre right, like my own, which have historically won success by pushing free markets, but within the moral framework of a historic community and religious tradition. But as this framework weakens, the market becomes more prominent – and we can appear to leave people alone in the market place.

So how do we find a way to explain these obligations in a society less susceptible to appeals to tradition or religion? The nexus of evolutionary biology, game theory and neuroscience provides the most exciting avenue, and this book is an excellent example of the genre. Martin Nowak, along with his co-author journalist Roger Highfield, sets out steps by which this type of new co-operation can be developed, beginning with direct reciprocity then indirect reciprocity and on through competition between groups that reward martial qualities of courage and trustworthiness. He starts off with the economic man of the market economists, but ends up with a way of thinking about human behaviour which is closer to that of the great religions. Mr Nowak is a Harvard professor, but he generates controversy for the fact that, unlike most thinkers in this area, he is also a Christian.

His willingness to argue for group selection, a theory suggesting that evolution operates beyond the genetic level, reawakens old controversies – but he does so using innovative mathematical models, able to incorporate dynamism and uncertainty. He shows, for example, how geographical clustering can promote co-operative behaviour. This research approach is getting richer and more sophisticated, while the ingenious experiments and fresh discoveries keep on coming. Adam Smith would have been pleased to know, for example, that putting a picture of two eyes looking at you on a communal fridge trebles contributions to the honesty box, compared with a picture of flowers.

Above all Mr Nowak’s excellent book shows, like much of this literature, that institutions matter. They are places where we interact with others frequently enough for direct reciprocity to flourish. They are also where reputations are made and lost, enabling indirect reciprocity to flourish too. He shows they work best when small enough to engender loyalty (so people do not betray their colleagues) and small enough for defectors to be recognised. Indeed the importance of public recognition – good and bad – is an argument in this book with a clear policy relevance.

Like other great controversialists, Mr Nowak moves from decision matrices to emotive moral language. He says the best strategy is to be hopeful, generous and forgiving. Hopeful means you first try co-operation – your opening move should be positive. Generous means not to be as concerned where you are relative to others as to obscure your own gains from interaction even if they are more modest. Forgiving means if someone else defects, you do not defect straightaway but try to re-establish co-operation, not least because it could have been an accidental mistake.

In this way evolutionary biology harnesses the idea of the survival of the fittest to show how co-operative patterns of behaviour are rewarded in a competitive world. Game theory then uses rigorous maths to analyse the rationality of this behaviour, and neuroscience tells us what is hard wired in – Steven Pinker having demolished the 1960s illusion that we are a blank slate.

Different strategies appear to be practised in different countries. In Russia, for example, a co-operator is punished in a way very different from the west. Our institutional environment shapes us too, so a lot of politics is about how we get this right. David Cameron’s Big Society, or what I have called civic conservatism, is the British Conservative party’s recognition of this challenge. We cannot just offer freedom, opportunity and choice without also recognising the power of belonging, commitment and roots. But all politicians can draw inspiration and ideas from the intellectual resources of this exciting approach.

David Willetts is Britain’s minister for universities and science

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

SHARE THIS QUOTE