Book Review: "The Evolution of Cooperation" by Robert Axelrod

Practical, insightful, and delightful. (5 out of 5 stars.)

Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation” delivers ideas that are at the same time obvious but surprisingly insightful to human nature. It is a small and readable book which every chapter left me thinking, “Of course, why didn’t I think of it like that?”

The core of the book focuses on a computer simulation tournament of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a simple game as follows: two convicts have been arrested and are interrogated separately. If they both remain silent, they only get three (or some other nominal amount) years of prison. But if one snitches on the other, he goes free and the other serves ten years. This gives both of them the incentive to snitch, however if they both end up snitching on each other, then they both get life sentences.

This simple game has many parallels in the real world where there is an incentive to “defect” but it would be mutually beneficial if both parties “cooperated”: nuclear proliferation, bipartisan cooperation, arms races, and the relationship between rule enforcers and the ruled. In this book, Axelrod details the results of the computer tournament and the properties of the computer players’ algorithms that did well (along with the algorithms that did not do so well).

From these computer experiments as a baseline, Axelrod extrapolates to the real world using examples from “Live and let live” situations that naturally occurred between enemies in World War I trench warfare to practical advice for those who seek to foster cooperation. “The Evolution of Cooperation” provides a refreshingly optimistic (while still realistic) view of cooperation that can be cultivated even in ruthless environments.

This is a quick read and a must read introduction for managers, politicians, social workers, teachers, or anyone who seeks to lead the world by bringing out the best from people.

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