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:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Magicians - Marcus Chown *****

The title may seem an odd one for a popular science book, but it refers to what Chown describes as ‘the central magic of science: its ability to predict the existence of things previously undreamt of which, when people went out and looked for them, turned out to actually exist in the real universe’. That may be true of all branches of science, but physics – which is what the book is about – is a special case, because its theories are rooted in mathematical equations rather than words. This makes the matter completely black-and-white: if the equations predict something you had no inkling of, then either the maths is wrong, or that thing really does exist. This book describes some remarkable instances where the maths was right.

Actually, I’m not sure the title is strictly accurate. It’s true that it centres on people – both the theoreticians who came up with the predictions and the experimentalists who proved them right – but in most cases the ‘magic’ is something the human players simpl…

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…