Category Archives: Science And Society

The Evolution Of Democracy

Twenty years ago, a political science professor at the University of Michigan came out with a seminal book titled the Evolution of Cooperation.

In it, he described how cooperative strategies could have evolutionary-beneficial consequences, and thus be selected for. In particular, via a series of computer game tournaments in which algorithms were submitted to play an extended iterated prisoner’s dilemma, he identified a strategy that was the most successful called “Tit for Tat” (TFT). (Read the link for information as to how the game works.)

In this strategy, you retain a memory of past interactions with other entities, and you treat them exactly as they treated you the last time you dealt with them. If they cooperated the last time, you cooperate. If they defected on you the last time, you defect on them the next. If it’s your first interaction, you cooperate.

The strategy has four characteristics that made it successful. It’s simple and can be clearly and easily recognized after a brief period of time, it’s forgiving, it’s provocable and retributive (so that you can’t get away with screwing it), and it’s nice (that is, it never screws anyone for no reason–its default is to cooperate). In essence, it is cooperative, and is rewarded for being that way.

One of the interesting things about it is that the more similar algorithms it has to deal with, the better it does. Put in an environment of non-cooperators, it has a much harder time, but it can still be more successful than them, and if it has a few others to cooperate with, it can survive even in a sea of non-cooperators.

Non-cooperators, on the other hand, don’t do well in a cooperative society. A non-nice strategy (one that always, or occasionally, or randomly defects unprovoked) won’t do well in a world of TFTs, because after the first time they get screwed by it, they will not cooperate with it again, at least until it changes its ways. So while it gets a big payoff the first time, it gets a much smaller one in subsequent exhanges, whereas the TFTs interacting with each other always get the medium benefit.

Thus, it’s possible for a small group of cooperators to “colonize” a larger group of non-cooperators, and eventually take it over, whereas a group of non-cooperators invading a larger group of cooperators will not thrive, and will eventually die out. This is the basis for Axelrod’s (and others’) claim that there is evolutionary pressure for cooperation to evolve.

This may hold the key to fixing Iraq, and ultimately the Middle East. While there’s a lot of bad news coming from that country right now, the fact remains that much of it is calm and at peace–that part doesn’t make the news. It may be that nationwide elections won’t be possible in January, but certainly it should be for some regions (particularly the Kurdish region).

The Jihadists and ex-Ba’athists are determined to prevent a democracy from forming there, but if such can be established in large areas, it will provide an unnurturing environment for them there. Then we can gradually expand them, and tighten the noose around the Fallujahs over time. What we have to pay attention to is not the level of violence, but over how widespread a region it is. As more and more of the country becomes not only pacified, but wealthier, with a stake in continued peace and freedom, we can continue to shrink the territory in which the terrorists, the ultimate non-cooperators, can survive, and eventually kill them or starve them out.

Really Bad Timing

For my move to Florida, if this article is correct.

Scientists say we are in a period of enhanced hurricane activity that could last for decades, ending a 24-year period of below average activity. They also say the law of averages has caught up with Florida, with a change in atmospheric steering currents turning the state into a hurricane magnet.


Ivan probably won’t be the last storm to have us in its boresight this year.

It makes me start to wonder how big, or how many nukes it would take to disrupt these damned things, or if that’s even feasible (ignoring, of course, the radiation issues)?

[Update a minute or so later]

As if they didn’t have enough to deal with, with a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on them, the Caymans and Jamaica just had a Richter 6 earthquake.

I, of course, blame George Bush.

Rogue Waves

ESA (the European one, not the Elbonian one) has some satellite data that validates sailors’ reports of
ship-killing waves.

Mariners who survived similar encounters have had remarkable stories to tell. In February 1995 the cruiser liner Queen Elizabeth II met a 29-metre high rogue wave during a hurricane in the North Atlantic that Captain Ronald Warwick described as “a great wall of water

Uncertainty, Global Warming, and public policy

Another item in the latest Industrial Physicist is a piece on understanding the uncertainties in global warming models, and the public policy implications of those uncertainties. It’s well worth a read if you care about global warming in particular or science and public policy in general.

One of the hardest things about ensuring that public policy is based on sound science is that sound science inherently involves uncertainties. Politicians like yes or no answers, but science only gives really reliable answers in the very long term, far longer than the relevant political timescales. In order to make policy based on sound science, politicians have to take uncertainty into account, and allow for the possibility that the policies may need to be adjusted as new information becomes available.