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Supercooperators: Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed [Hardcover]

Martin Nowak , Roger Highfield
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

17 Mar 2011
Everyone is familiar with Darwin's revolutionary idea about the survival of the fittest, and most people agree that it works, but Darwin's famous theory has one major chink. If life is about survival of the fittest, then why would we risk our own life to jump into a river to save a stranger? Some people argue that issues such as charity, fairness, forgiveness and cooperation are evolutionary loose ends, side issues that are of little consequence. But as Harvard's celebrated evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak explains in this ground-breaking book, cooperation is central to the four-billion-year-old puzzle of life. Cooperation is fundamental to how molecules in the primordial soup crossed the watershed that separates dead chemistry from biochemistry. Cooperation is the key to understanding why language evolved, an event that is as significant as the evolution of the first primitive organism. The book also brings to light Nowak's game-changing work on disease. Cancer is fundamentally a failure of the body's cells to cooperate but organs are cleverly designed to foster cooperation and, as Nowak explains, this new understanding can be used in novel cancer treatments. In his first book for a wide audience, this hugely influential scientist explains his cutting-edge research into the mysteries of cooperation, from the rise of multicellular life to Good Samaritans. With wit and clarity, Martin Nowak and the bestselling science writer Roger Highfield make the case that cooperation, not competition, is the defining human trait. Supercooperators will expand our understanding of evolution and human behaviour, and provoke debate for years to come.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd (17 Mar 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847673368
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847673367
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 24.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 329,943 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'Supercooperators looks beyond The Selfish Gene and invites us to think afresh about evolution. Contrary to the simplistic idea that selfishness is the only strategy for survival, the brilliant Martin Nowak proves that cooperation is also vitally important. This rich and rewarding book teems with new ideas and insights, which co-author Roger Highfield makes wonderfully lucid and entertaining.' --Graham Farmelo, author of THE STRANGEST MAN

'A fantastic journey into the science of cooperation, with important implications for both individuals and society alike.'
--Richard Wiseman, author of 59 SECONDS, QUIRKOLOGY and THE LUCK FACTOR

'Martin Nowak is one of the most creative scientists of our time, and Roger Highfield is a superb science writer. Their insights into the mystery of cooperation will change the way you think about everything. If you're looking for the next Big Idea book, you've just found it.' --Steven Strogatz, Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics, Cornell University, and New York Times contributor

'Martin Nowak is regarded as the foremost mathematical theorist working in evolutionary biology. His contributions on cooperation and altruism, here augmented by the expertise of Roger Highfield, fall in one of the most important domains of present-day biology.' --Edward O. Wilson, author of CONSILIENCE and Pellegrino University Research Professor, Harvard University

'Roger Highfield deftly weaves together a personal and informative account of the research of Harvard's Martin Nowak to reveal five mechanisms that rule human behaviour. On the way, they explore the origins of life, language, cancer and much more, and highlight how evolution can lead to cooperation as well as competition.' --Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and recent President of the Royal Society

'A panoramic view of the role of cooperation in the evolution... [A] sweeping survey... Nowak is a mathematical biologist, and his enthusiasm for numbers is extremely useful in his discussions of evolutionary theory. However, thankfully for the mathematically disinclined, there is little hard math here... A fleshed-out, persuasive chronicle of the bright side-collective enterprise-of the evolutionary road.'
--Kirkus Review

`SuperCooperators is part autobiography, part textbook, and reads like a best-selling novel.'
--Manfred Milinski, Nature.

An absorbing, accessible book about the power of mathematics... Nowak is one of the most exciting modelers working in the field of mathematical biology today.
--New York Times Book Review

About the Author

Martin Nowak is Professor of Biology and Mathematics at Harvard University. Dr Nowak is the recipient of Oxford's Weldon Memorial Prize; the Albert Wander Prizeof the University of Bern; the Akira Okubo Prize of the Society for Mathematical Biology; the Roger E. Murray Prize, awarded by the Institute for Quantitative Research in Finance; The David Starr Jordan Prize, given jointly by Stanford, Cornell and Indiana Universities; and the Henry Dale Prize of the Royal Institution, London. He has held major research posts at the Oxford University, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and now Harvard University. He has published over 300 papers and has been widely praised for revolutionising the mathematical approach to biology. Roger Highfield, DPhil, is the editor of New Scientist magazine and was the Science Editor of the Daily Telegraph for two decades. He has written or coauthored six popular science books, two of which have been bestsellers.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Super Cooperation 27 Mar 2011
From Darwin's "The Origin of Species" to Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" we learn about the ruthless nature of evolutionary pressure by natural selection. Yet observation of both the human and wider natural world demonstrates clearly that altruism is not just practised by well-meaning creatures but the very stuff which oils the machinery. Martin Nowak is a leading proponent of the importance of altruism - "being nice" - in naturual selection and has written a fine book explaining the game theory on which his research is based, the five strategies which emerge from it - direct reciprocity ("I'll help you if you help me"), indirect reciprocity ("if I help you, maybe someone that you know will help me"), spatial selection (where a group of cooperators - neighbours, say - help each other), group selection (where natural selection favours one group over another because it is acting as a group) and kin selection ("I help my relatives") and applications in nature and human society. Nowak's breakthrough in the field lies in modelling these strateigies mathematically - he first came to prominence through describing the infection pattern of HIV, providing an understanding of why it moved rapidly to full-blown AIDS in some people, yet lay apparently dormant for many years in others.

This would have led to a worthy (but difficult) book without Roger Highfield as co-author. Highfield, editor of New Scientist, is surely the finest exponent of the art of taking highly complex scientific subjects and rendering them both understandable and easy to read for the layman (compare his "Frontiers of Complexity" with Roger Penrose's "The Emperor's New Mind" and you will see).
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
I've read the book and believe this is a major contribution not just to evolutionary theory, your own social and work life, but also modern day politics. Novak and Highfield make a sobering and essential point towards the end; our ability to avoid species extinction - eg by global warming - relies on our ability to engender cooperation across the whole planet.

It's this essential challenge which the historical darwinian notion of 'survival of the fittest' is ill-equipped to solve. No one struggling to assist with political change can afford not to be aware of the book's central contentions. No one struggling with a difficult boss at work or exasperating relationship, will succeed unless they are using (even inadvertently) a strategy borrowed from some part of Novak's research.

There are very few novel concepts in biology that reach across to the social sciences, without falling into the trap of easy determinism. This account of game theory and strategy succeeds. Even if you don't agree with the conclusions, there are few better rigorous introductions to the notion of strategising across species, as well as human affairs.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars No Selfish Gene 17 Jun 2011
While this book does introduce the ideas that Nowak has been exploring throughout his academic life, it is light on detail. Whereas the selfish gene was dense with ideas and conclusions, this book spends more time talking about all the amazing scientists Nowak has worked with/inspired/been inspired by, along with nice descriptions about the Austrian alps.

It seems he was told to include lots of human anecdotes to keep his audience engaged, and to shy away from any maths/detailed explanation. What a shame, because the ideas are intriguing. (Oh, and I hate the references - stuffed together in the bibliography but with no 'reference' to them from within the chapter itself - after being frustrated by the paucity of detail about the subject, a nice link to more information would have been greatly appreciated)

All in all a good entrée, but certainly not the whole meal.

(BTW the reviewers who talk about 'selfishness not being to anybody's advantage' are plain wrong. The whole point of the Prisoner's Dilemma is that it pays to be selfish - the whole point of Nowak's research is to define under what circumstances cooperation can succeed in spite of this. Also, he regularly mentions the wave of selfishness/cooperation that ebbs and flows through his simulations - it is not static!)
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By Eduard
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As others have pointed out, the book doesn't go into the mathematics of cooperation, but that is not what it is about.
It is about showing how cooperation is a part of our lives, it is about showing why we should cooperate and why we shouldn't fear other people taking advantage of that (a fear which I think people generally have).

The book starts from the simple idea of the "Prisoner's Dilemma". Using computer simulations Nowack find which evolutionary strategies are the winning ones. Unsurprisingly, it's those that cooperate and even more, those that forgive!

The book further explains how cooperation within populations evolves and recedes and gives clues on how we should structure our own society to help cooperation flourish. It talks about which is better: to punish someone or to reward them?

It is true that the fundamental conclusions are not very surprising, but what I find interesting is that those conclusions can be based on experiments and mathematics. They coincide with general religious teachings, but because they are also backed up by mathematical models, I think, gives them much more power.

I would definitely recommend this book to anybody who has ever wondered if (or "WHY?") they should do a leap of faith or to anybody who asks what is our purpose in this world, because, instead of quoting scripture, Nowack presents data backed by experiment. He also presents different views and argues for or against them. Overall, most of the books conclusions follow in a logical manner.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Reads like a collection of biographies
Although the topic of the book is fascinating, it is not very well handled. It feels as if the author was torn between wanting to write about his research and writing a biography... Read more
Published 24 months ago by kiki
3.0 out of 5 stars Slightly disappointing
After reading the articles in Daily Telegraph I was disappointed. The book is very repetitive. Much of it is autobiographical and rather self-congratulatory! Read more
Published on 12 Oct 2011 by John Stephen
5.0 out of 5 stars Full of different insights for different readers
I found this book amazing. The author, with a very clear perspective and ease of explanation, tells about why competitive entities should cooperate instead. Read more
Published on 15 Aug 2011 by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, but hard work
I started not really believing that you can apply maths to evolution and altruism, but I'm now totally convinced.
This is truly outstanding research and I'm glad I read it. Read more
Published on 8 July 2011 by Orrery
2.0 out of 5 stars A bit over-egged?
I bought this after reading David Willets' (UK Minister for Universities and Science) review in the FT in May 2011. Read more
Published on 17 May 2011 by M. Dalgleish
5.0 out of 5 stars co op rules.
Marvellous look at co operation and its importance for humans as the ultimate co operaters.Selfishness is self defeating in the long run and not to any bodies advantage. Read more
Published on 27 Mar 2011 by Amazon Customer
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