October 02, 2006


The cat and the two dogs have developed a system of mutual cooperation based on laziness. This could be the key to world peace.

El Cabrero has recently become addicted to the HBO series "Deadwood," which, among other things is about how cooperation can develop in a basically lawless situation.

This is also the subject of one of the best and most practical social science books I've ever read: The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod, which came out in 1984.

Axelrod's study of one aspect of game theory has enormous practical applications in international relations, war and peace, domestic politics, community organizing, and many other aspects of public and private life.

If you have to deal with other people (or with goats), it's worth a little of your time.

(It's also one of many books that the folks at the Bush administration never bothered to read.)

If you are like El Cabrero, mention of game theory conjures up Cold War images of mad scientists at the RAND Corporation playing around with nuclear war scenarios, but this work (and the next few Goat Rope posts) focuses on one basic question:

Under what conditions will cooperation emerge in a world of egotists without central authority?

More concretely, when should a person or group cooperate with others who may or may not reciprocate? How can you promote cooperation for mutual benefit? When should one defect or do the opposite? Should a person or group continue to cooperate when the other part doesn't reciprocate? How should one respond when the other party defects without creating and endless spiral of retaliation?

On the one hand, developing cooperation in a world of potentially dangerous egotists is a pretty tall order. On the other hand, it happens all the time in human and natural life.

Species as simple as bacteria develop cooperative relations with other organisms under certain conditions, presumably in the absence of consciousness and mutual understandings.

Countries, criminals, coalition allies and even opposing armies have been known to develop reciprocal cooperative relationships with rivals under very adverse conditions.

One very useful tool social scientists have developed to study situations like this is called the Prisoner's Dilemma, which will be the subject of the next Goat Rope post. Trust me, it's worth it.


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