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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
The Evolution of Co-Operation (Penguin Press Science)
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on 3 May 2011
As Richard Dawkins puts it, this really feels like one of the most important books of modern times, and a text that should be essential reading from school age up. Drawing on the findings from the most simple of game scenarios -- the Prisoner's Dilemma -- it maps out some crucial lessons for how individuals, and societies, can enhance their wellbeing: forgive easily, communicate clearly, don't be the first to let someone down, stay in contact and retaliate/be assertive if you have to be. More than that, it shows how cooperative strategies actually have greater longevity and stability than more competitive ones, and in that respect heralds the possibility of a fairer, more enduring society. The maths may be a bit tricky for some readers, and some bits are a touch repetitive, but it really is worth sticking with (and applying!).
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on 23 July 2008
I have to admit this is not a riveting read. It is largely a factual description of experiments Axelrod carried out over a number of years, with a variety of experts competing to find the most successful tactics in games of iterated prisoner's dilemma.


However the outcome of the research is truly eye-opening and fascinating. Unlike a single round game of prisoner's dilemma (where co-operation is, to say the least, dangerous), the most successful tactics were to co-operate rather than act selfishly, unless that co-operative behaviour was abused by the other player (in which case neither player would do very well). Axelrod also shows how co-operation can spread through a network squeezing out selfish behaviour.

You know the book has to be worth a read when Richard Dawkin's, author of the Selfish Gene, writes in the introduction:

"THIS IS A book of optimism. But it is believable, realistic optimism... As Darwinians we start pessimistically by assuming deep selfishness, pitiless indifference to suffering, ruthless heed to individual success. And yet from such warped beginnings, something that is in effect, if not necessarily in intention, close to amicable brotherhood and sisterhood can come. This is the uplifting message of Robert Axelrod's remarkable book."

There we are, a book to save Dawkins from himself - has to be good.
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on 2 May 2000
Sometimes, the individual benefit seems to conflict with the benefit of the community as a whole, even though the community includes this very individuum. One such example has been formulated as the Prisonner's Dilemma: two suspects, A and B, are arrested, and kept separated so that they cannot communicate. If they continue to cooperate, they will be both sentenced to one year. However, if suspect A cooperates, but suspect B defects, A is going to be sentenced to five years, and suspect B will be released. Vice versa, if B cooperates and A defects, A will be released and B sentenced to five years. Finally, if both defect, they will both be sentenced to three years each.

It is clear that the best solution for both of them is cooperation. On the other hand, each individual is also tempted to maximize his own individual benefit. And each of them benefits most if he decides to defect, which in turn brings the worst possible outcome for both (six years total). So one-shot Prisonner's Dilemma rarely leads to cooperation. Now, what if the very two chaps are later arrested again? Will they cooperate when given another chance? And if they know they will face the same situation every five years? Professor Axelrod tested the iterated Prisonner's Dilemma with computer programs, and investigated under which circumstances cooperation can emerge.

The book is nicely scattered with fragments of game theory and examples from world politics. All in all, as Richard Dawkins has commented in the foreword to the Penguin edition of this book, in breathes with optimism, and is a delight to read. Still, it has one problem, and actually shares it with Dawkins: the book reaches its climax right at the beginning. The book starts with a strong and very convincing idea, but later fails to keep the same pace of dynamic. The idea is splendid, but the structure of the book could be improved.
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VINE VOICEon 27 February 2010
Axelrod describes how cooperation can arise even between adversaries (the example he gives is the "live and let live" strategies adopted by soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front). The model he uses is the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma. The two most important aspects of this model is that players do no know when the game will end and as a corollary of this players expect to have a future interaction. Axelrod held a contest between Game Theorists to find the best solution to the model and a strategy called "Tit for Tat" won. In the next round contestants tried to beat or exploit "Tit for Tat" and it still one. Axelrod explains why and also shows how this model is stable even to spatial invasions and how it can arise even from a population of meanies.

His work is easily accessible and non-technical. It is a great example of how simple rules can produce complex behaviours. If you are interested in politics, international relations, or just in getting the most from your personal interactions then you should read this book. The one weak point is chapter 5 which takes a view of molecular biology which has subsequently been shown to be over-speculative and in many aspects wrong. However skipping this chapter does not affect the coherence of the rest of the book.
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on 6 June 2013
There are many occasions in life where you are faced with a dilemma of whether to co-operate (co-operate and hope for a "win-win") or look to exploit another party. What strategy should you adopt? How should you react to their strategy?

The author builds a comprehensive theory using a series of contests between various algorithms. These are set up to compete under the classic "prisoners dilemma" where mutual co-operation is well rewarded for both parties, but not as well rewarded as an exploitation by the exploiting party.

The simple strategy of "TIT FOR TAT" comes out best in most cases! Essentially: Look to co-operate first, never be too greedy, respond quickly to anyone being nasty to you.. and in the long run you will likely be successful! Though do be aware of the conditions where this can break down, especially where there is no future relationship between the parties.

A good read that illuminates many aspects of negotiation that you probably already knew, but hadn't analysed. I did get the impression that the author would have dearly loved to have found a rather more profound result?

Most interestingly the author considers cases from business to biology, and also international relations.
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on 22 December 2014
If you're interested in co-operation, this should be an essential read.

The book obsesses about tit-for-tat in the prisoner's dilemma and is a bit of a product of its time. There's no talk of Dyson's theory that any agent with a theory of mind can force a program like tit for tat to be extorted along the lines of the ultimatum game. Nor of how in some evolutionary set-ups, tit for tat is not stable. But that's not really the point Axelrod is making. Axelrod is interested in the prisoner's dilemma as a metaphor for something fundamental about how organisms interact with each other. In particular, he brilliantly shows how important the number of expected future interactions imparts onto the best strategy for agents to play each other and how this interacts with the pay-offs. He provides a mathematical theory linking these together with strategy. As you read, you immediately see countless examples of this in daily life: do you tip the waiter in a restaurant you will never go back to again, will you do the dirty on a client you won't see again, etc. The conclusion seems to be that people are nice to each other when they know they'll be future interactions and nasty otherwise. The lessons for business, daily life and running a society are obvious.

While the field has significantly evolved from when the book was written, this book is a fascinating and brisk read in the terms that the viewer cannot help but see the concepts he is talking about in almost elemental terms of good, evil and so on. It's also somehow deeply reassuring on a human level that there is a mathematical basis for why and when "good" will triumph and under what circumstances.
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on 30 October 2012
Enjoyed this text hugely. Have never read anything about game theory before but Axelrod explains his ideas and arguments clearly and succinctly. Was fascinated to see how his thesis has applications in every corner of the world, from biological micro-organisms to WWI trench warfare. I found it particularly interesting as I am now studying global environmental politics. It offers an interesting rebuttal to the theory of 'The Tragedy of the Commons'. A must read for all.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 January 2009
Every so often a book comes along that is so groundbreaking it changes the popular worldview. This book, written in 1984 by Robert Axelrod, is just such a seminal work, an original analysis that changed the way experts view cooperation. Its ramifications apply to individuals, organizations, countries and even nonthinking - but nevertheless cooperative - biological life forms, such as bacteria. Axelrod based his book on the famous Prisoner's Dilemma, a classic game created in 1950 by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher of the Rand Corporation. Canadian mathematician Albert W. Tucker added the prison sentence payoffs and gave the game its colorful name. Players have two choices: cooperation or betrayal. Axelrod organized two repeating Prisoner's Dilemma tournaments played by computer programs devised by game theorists, scientists and other experts. His analysis of the tournaments' results confirmed that cooperation is always a better long-term strategy than betrayal and, thus, evolution has favored it. This book, based on that analysis, has become a true classic. getAbstract suggests that anyone who wants to understand the dynamics of cooperation should start by reading this pivotal, illuminating study.
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on 21 June 2011
This is a really interesting book. It is a classic, which has been referred to in many other books, but is worth reading for its own sake. It describes an experiment involving a tournament of the classical game theoretic "prisoners' dilemma", from which Axelrod draws conclusions that are relevant to many areas of social science. It is not a mathematics book and is accessible to everyone. The major conclusion is that co-operation does not require altruism, but requires "durability": the likelihood of further interactions with those you are interacting with now.
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on 4 March 2011
I'm astounded people can go through their lives without insight into why human beings do the things they do. The "it just is that way" attitude is something I can't settle for any more.

This book is a must read as part of anyone's life education, buy this and The Selfish Gene for your kids and make them read them as teenagers.
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