Skip to main content

Super Cooperators – Martin Nowak & Roger Highfield ***

We’re all used to the Darwinian perspective of nature being about raw competition, fighting tooth and nail for survival – but the reality is much more complex. Specifically, cooperation is a major feature of life, and mathematical biologist Martin Nowak, aided by journalist Roger Highfield, sets out to explain just what is going on.
What is particularly interesting here if you are used to biology being all about field studies of the interaction of lesser spotted mole rats (or whatever), is that Nowak takes a modelling approach, making heavy use of game theory and other mathematical techniques to simulate the nature of cooperation. This really is interesting, though some of the topics covered (like indirect reciprocity and group selection) can leave the reader a little bogged down.
The trouble is, the authors are rather fond of flowery, hand-waving language and make some very broad assertions up front (like cooperation has to be put alongside mutation and selection in evolution) without initially justifying them. I am not saying that they are necessarily wrong in the importance they give to cooperation, but the result comes across as more than a little pompous. To be fair, though, this settles down rather once we’re into the main part of the book.
The book also falls into something of a trap that emerges when an active scientist co-authors with a journalist. Journalists like human interest, and the result seems to be that the scientist is encouraged to put a lot of themselves into the book. This is all very well when writing about the history of science, when details of Newton’s life, say, help us put his work into context. But when it’s a living author doing this about themselves, the result is to come across – unintentionally I believe – as self-important. Some readers will like this approach, so I can’t say it’s definitely wrong, but I’m afraid it puts my back up.
Overall, then, the result is an interesting concept, with some delightful ideas behind it, that would have made an excellent feature article in New Scientist, but stretched over a book it feels to rather drag. If you are particularly interested in the field, then this is a book you must read, but I’m not sure if it has enough going for it to be a must read for those with a broader interest in science.
Paperback:  
Also in hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

Euler's Pioneering Equation - Robin Wilson ***

The concept of a 'beautiful equation' is a mystery to many, but it seems to combine a piece of mathematics that expresses something sophisticated in relatively few terms and something that looks satisfying. The equation that has proved standout amongst mathematicians, as by far the most beautiful (and is only placed second to Maxwell's equation amongst physicists) is Euler's remarkable eiπ+1 = 0. What seems remarkable to me about this is that it just seems bizarre that this combination of things produces such a neat result. (Incidentally, as far as I can see, the only reason for the 'pioneering' in the title was to enable the fancy graphic on the cover of the book.)

Getting popular maths books right is incredibly difficult. When I started reading this book, I really thought that Robin Wilson had cracked it. After an introduction, he gives us a chapter on each of the elements of the equation (except the plus and equals signs), from the more basic aspects like 1 a…