Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


Cooperation Is Self-Interest

There are different lessons a person can take away from the economic example known as the Prisoner's Dilemma.  The traditional rationalist perspective, for instance, is that deciding based on individual self-interest is the best option because it guarantees a better result than not.  But that is only the case from an individualistic perspective, where the operating assumption is that everyone will act from purely individual self-interest.  What's always seemed the more powerful lesson to me, though, is that the absolute best result can only be achieved when everyone acts cooperatively and puts the group's interests ahead of their individualist inclinations--not only does the group do better, but from a long-term perspective everyone does better as individuals as well.

I particularly like this definition of the game from Investopedia:
A paradox in decision analysis in which two individuals acting in their own best interest pursue a course of action that does not result in the ideal outcome. The typical prisoner's dilemma is set up in such a way that both parties choose to protect themselves at the expense of the other participant. As a result of following a purely logical thought process to help oneself, both participants find themselves in a worse state than if they had cooperated with each other in the decision-making process.
The hitch is that achieving this result requires that every individual must trust that every other individual will behave cooperatively, because once that trust breaks down so does the group and the cooperation.  Many will tell you that such trust is unnatural and not attainable, and so they base all of their views, positions, and actions on the idea that it will never happen and see individualistic self-interest as the only option.  I passionately believe the opposite, which is probably apparent to anyone who knows me (or this blog) at all.  And I believe it's not just pie-in-the-sky thinking, as there is a multitude of examples from nature and the history of human societies supporting the idea that cooperation is not only possible, it leads to thriving successes.

A couple of the essays in This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works address the idea.  Jennifer Jacquet begins with the idea of the Prisoner's Dilemma and shows how both computer simulations and biological systems have learned that cooperation based on reciprocity is generally the most advantageous strategy:
Tit for Tat

Selfishness can sometimes seem like the best strategy. It is the rational response to the prisoner's dilemma, for instance, where each individual in a pair can either cooperate or defect, leading to four potential outcomes. No matter what the other person does, selfish behavior always yields greater return. But if both players defect, both do worse than if they had cooperated. Yet when political scientist Robert Axelrod and his colleagues ran hundreds of rounds of the prisoner's dilemma on a computer, the repetition of the game led to a different result.

Experts from a wide range of disciplines submitted 76 different game strategies for Axelrod to try—some of them very elaborate. At the end of 200 rounds, one strategy was far more successful than the others. It was also the simplest. Tit For Tat, a scheme where the player cooperates on the first move and thereafter does what was done on the previous move, was the winner. The importance of cooperation to evolution was detected by humans, but simulated and verified with machines. . . .

In nature, cooperative behavior would translate to more food, more space, and therefore greater individual reproductive success. Contrary to predictions that selfish behavior or retreat was optimal, Milinski's observation that sticklebacks most often approached the predator together was in line with Axelrod's conclusion that Tit For Tat was the optimal evolutionary strategy.

Milinski's evidence, published in 1987 in the journal Nature, was the first to demonstrate that cooperation based on reciprocity definitely evolved among egoists, albeit small ones. A large body of research now shows that many biological systems, especially human societies, are organized around various cooperative strategies.
Seirian Summer uses an entirely different game to illustrate her point, but it ends up being the same point: The evolution of cooperation and helping behaviour is a beautiful and simple explanation of how nature got complex, diverse and wonderful.  More fully:
Help, I Need Somebody!

. . . The evolution of cooperation and helping behaviour is a beautiful and simple explanation of how nature got complex, diverse and wonderful. It's not restricted to the charismatic Meerkats, or fluffy bumble-bees. It is a general phenomenon which generates the biological hierarchies that characterise the natural world. Groups of individuals (genes, prokaryotes, single-celled and multicellular organisms) that could previously replicate independently, form a new, collective individual that can only replicate as a whole.

Hamilton's 1964 inclusive fitness theory is an elegant and simple explanation why sociality evolves. It was more recently formalised conceptually as unified framework to explain the evolution of major transitions to biological complexity in general (e.g. Bourke's 2011 Principles of Social Evolution). Entities cooperate because it increases their fitness—their chance of passing on genes to the next generation. Beneficiaries get enhanced personal reproduction; helpers benefit from the propagation of the genes they share with the relatives they help. But the conditions need to be right: the benefits must outweigh the costs and this sum is affected by the options available to independent replicating entities before they commit to their higher-level collective. Ecology and environment play a role, as well as kinship. The resulting division of labour is the fundamental basis to societal living, uniting genes into genomes, mitochondria with prokaryotes to produce eukaryotes, unicellular organisms into multicellular ones, and solitary animals into eusocieties. This satisfyingly simple explanation makes the complexities of the world less mysterious, but no less wonderful.
Entities cooperate because it increases their fitness—their chance of passing on genes to the next generation.  Even from the supposedly pure self-interested perspective of hard biology, the best strategy is often not pure competition but cooperation.  I'm writing this post because I wanted to share some of my favorite essays from the book This Explains Everything--I'm sure a little digging could come up with the research and evidence these authors mention, that's just not what I'm about at the moment as it's the conclusion that interests me: nature is not individualistic.

One other response to the question "What is your favorite deep, beautiful, or elegant explanation?" in the book includes an idea that I really love.  Sherry Turkle takes the idea a different direction after introducing it, but I find it's also relevant to the idea of cooperation.  It's about connection.  Because the trust required to cultivate cooperation depends on connection.  And the idea that follows a is fascinating and poignant thought about our innate yearning for connection:
Transitional Objects

 . . . Several classes were devoted to the work of David Winnicott and his notion of the transitional object. Winnicott called transitional the objects of childhood—the stuffed animals, the bits of silk from a baby blanket, the favorite pillows—that the child experiences as both part of the self and of external reality. Winnicott writes that such objects mediate between the child's sense of connection to the body of the mother and a growing recognition that he or she is a separate being. The transitional objects of the nursery—all of these are destined to be abandoned. Yet, says Winnicott, they leave traces that will mark the rest of life. Specifically, they influence how easily an individual develops a capacity for joy, aesthetic experience, and creative playfulness. Transitional objects, with their joint allegiance to self and other, demonstrate to the child that objects in the external world can be loved.

Winnicott believes that during all stages of life we continue to search for objects we experience as both within and outside the self. We give up the baby blanket, but we continue to search for the feeling of oneness it provided. We find them in moments of feeling "at one" with the world, what Freud called the "oceanic feeling." We find these moments when we are at one with a piece of art, a vista in nature, a sexual experience. . . .
And I can think of many adults who, in addition to experiences, still use objects and interests to pursue that feeling on oneness with the world.  Alongside our predilection for pursuing self-interest, we have an equal drive to connect with others.  And the more people come to believe that the two are not contradictory instincts, that connection and cooperation do indeed serve self-interest, the better off we will all be.


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