Harvard-based Martin Nowak, former Professor of mathematical Biology at Oxford University and a winner of the Weldon memorial Prize, challenges Darwin’s notion that evolution is based solely on principles of mutation and selection and points out that cooperation and collaboration, “the snuggle for existence”, have had a much more far-reaching infl uence on the development of life on earth than individual self-interest.
In a wide-ranging and accessible introduction to his theories, he declares that “cooperation is the architect of creativity throughout evolution” and demonstrates how it is essential to everyday life at every level – from cells cooperating in order not to mutate into cancer tumours to buyers trusting sellers on eBay. many animals and insects are, of course, superb cooperators and lest we become too “smug”, he reminds us that ants have lived in harmony with nature for 100 million years while humans are endangering it after only 200,000. however, what makes humans different and gives them the potential to be supercooperators is language. “Language offers a way to take the thoughts of one person, encode them, and insert them into the minds of others… If someone has a great idea, it can spread instantly.” In a fascinating chapter he declares that “language was born of soap opera and politics”; when the biggest, strongest male realised he could be toppled by smaller, weaker males ganging up on him, talking was the way out.
Other chapters deal with how reward, not punishment, encourages creativity, whether you can have too many friends and how being “hopeful, generous and forgiving” as prescribed by most religions can actually be proven mathematically to be a winning formula for life on earth. nowak comes across as a cheery, optimistic man, with palpable enthusiasm for his work and a great fondness for Oxford. “I adore the gothic architecture of William Butterfi eld,” he says of Keble, and Wolfson College was “an academic nirvana full of young, attractive researchers who were passionate about their work.”
Whether or not you accept nowak’s theories, Supercooperators is a thought-provoking, readable and thoroughly entertaining demonstration of intellectual virtuosity.