Friday, 1 April 2011

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.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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