The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"



Game theory,introduced by John Maynard-Smith ("The Logic of Animal Conflict", 1973),  helps to explain how altruism evolved. Over the long term, non-zero sum games (“cooperative” games in which both players stand to win or lose) tend to have more positive outcomes than negative ones. In particular, one can devise strategies that will greatly enhance the players’ outlook in the long term. Thus it is not surprising that everything from ecosystems to human societies are built on altruism. (By contrast, “competitive” or “zero-sum” games represent a relatively static world).

The most famous of non-zero sum games is the “prisoner’s dilemma”, in which two prisoners are offered (independently) the same deal by the prosecutor. If one confesses and the other does not, the former goes free and the other one gets the maximum sentence. If they both confess, they both get a medium-length sentence. If neither confesses, they both get a minor sentence. This is a game that can be played only once. But imagine a similar game that could be played thousands of times with thousands of players, each player using a different strategy. Game theory proves that there is indeed a best strategy to play this game.

John Maynard-Smith’s use of game theory decoupled kinship and cooperation: individuals cooperate not because they share genes but because cooperation is the best strategy (and it has little to do with moral “altruism”).

The US political scientist Robert Axelrod held a tournament of computers programmed to play the game each against everybody else ("The Evolution of Cooperation", 1981). The “winner” (the one that did best over the long run), equipped with the program “Tit for Tat” written by Anatol Rapaport, was also the simplest one: it cooperated with the computers that had cooperated in the past, and cheated computers that had not cooperated in the past (basically, it did to others what others had done to it). “Tit for Tat” was creating an ever more cooperative society. It used the simplest algorithm, and it yielded the best outcome. Nature likes that combination. Even if individuals do not communicate, they will tend to cooperate, simply because, over the long term, it is the best strategy.

The Austrian mathematician Karl Sigmund and the Austrian biologist Martin Nowak ("Evolutionary Dynamics of Biological Game", 2004) came up with mathematical descriptions (“evolutionary dynamic models”) for five mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation: kin selection, group selection, graph selection, direct reciprocity and indirect reciprocity. These models show that competition leads to cooperation. Nowak’s theory, in particular, is that the Prisoner’s Dilemma, when played over and over, generates cycles from selfishness to increased altruism and back to selfishness. Nowak argues that most of the great innovations of life, and notably human language and cognition, are due as much to cooperation as they are to Darwin’s variation and selection.

The theory of kin selection is weak because the evidence does not support it: eusocial species are rare (basically humans, ants and a few others) while kin selection predicts that most species should evolve social skills (especially in species for which genetic similarity of kin is very high). The Romanian mathematician Corina Tarnita showed ("The evolution of eusociality", 2010) that the very mathematics behind kin selection could be wrong. Building on her findings, Edward Wilson proposed that altruism is due to social genes. Within any given group the selfish are more likely to succeed, but groups of altruists have an advantage over groups of selfish people. This led to the evolution of eusocial species that are genetically programmed to cooperate. Group selection leads to “virtue”, individual selection leads to “sin”.


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