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The cooperation conundrum -

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Any system of cooperation is vulnerable to cheats - something that vexed Charles Darwin and still
causes problems today. Bob May discusses how religion might make us less likely to cheat and how
our cheating instincts could cause problems at the Copenhagen conference on climate change in
December 2009.

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Robyn Williams:So what will it take for us to tackle a really turbulent future? The hard smack of a
harshly firm government? A new spirit of cooperation? Oh yeah? Or maybe a faith in God. That last
suggestion comes from an atheist, this year's president of the British Science Festival, Australian
Lord May.

Bob May: Darwin's theory in its own day had a lot of problems, like the Earth couldn't be as old as
you needed it to be and various other technical problems that have all been solved. But one
remains, which is that of how you get cooperative behaviour. You know, prairie dogs take it in
turns to give alarm calls, and a small risk in doing so, benefits the community and benefits them
too, so that the benefit of giving the alarm calls is much bigger than the small risk when you give
it. But it doesn't seem there's a problem when you think about it; it's very vulnerable to the
prairie dog who cheats. It literally is a benefit in terms of reproductive success (less likely to
be eaten by a predator), you've got the benefit without the cost, how do you maintain it?

It's the heart of understanding how our institutions work today when the problems of climate
change, feeding half as many people again, and dealing with ecosystem services that we take for
granted but which are imperilled by rising rates of extinction and disruption of ecosystems. We
need globally cooperative action, and it's even worse than that, it needs to be in equitable
proportions. We in Britain need to be moving down in the carbon we emit. China and India need to be
allowed to move up (although more slowly than they're currently doing), so that we all converge, in
an ideal world, on a common figure of 50% of today's emissions globally. And that trajectory,
absent in understanding of how we first created the ties that do bind us to the extent they do, is
that much more difficult.

Robyn Williams: And Bob May should know; he was Britain's Chief Scientist and president of the
Royal Society of London, at the heart of policy. So how do we cooperate when we're inclined to
cheat and be greedy? How to handle a dodgy future? Lord May.

Bob May: There's one of these games which is a very good metaphor for what we have to do about
climate change, and let me describe it in a little bit of detail. You've got, say, ten people and
you give them each 20 monetary units, and now you're going to play ten rounds of this game, and in
each round you can put in nothing, or one pound or two pounds. And if at the end of the tenth round
the pot thus accumulated is 100 pounds, everybody gets to keep the money they didn't put in. So,
you can see ten people, the fair thing is each round everybody puts in one pound and keeps one
pound, so ten pounds goes in each step, ten steps, you reach 100 pounds, and everybody walks away
with ten pounds.

What happens invariably is initially some people put in nothing, so you fall below the...I use the
cricket image in a way that I couldn't so easily in fall below the run rate. Then
people begin to realise and start playing fair, and now you parallel the run rate but below it. And
then near the end people start putting in two units, more than half the time you narrowly fail.
They get to things like 94 or 98, and everybody walks away with nothing. Interesting versions on
this are games of that kind where you announce what everybody did every round. And then if the
people who were, as it were, can choose, for a small penalty to yourself, to inflict
a bigger penalty on them.

That often for the northern country tends rapidly to converge on fair play, but it does require
that some people take a cost for punishing, and there are still the cheats who don't even punish.
And there are some fascinating studies among countries. One person played this in 16 different
cities, and you'll be pleased to know that in Melbourne and Boston and Nottingham people rapidly
converged. But in Riyadh and Muscat it dissolved in madness, as when people were punished, instead
of reacting by thinking 'what ought I to be doing?' they just got pissed off and they punished the
other people and it just got locked into everybody throwing away their money punishing everybody.

Robyn Williams: Is this a metaphor perhaps for Copenhagen? Because what we're talking about
essentially is the deals being done before negotiating climate change and what we have to do, and
the disappointment has been, I suppose, for electors that you approach an election with high ideals
and then you watch people in government have to make compromises until almost nothing is left.

Bob May: And you see that in Britain where the government, particularly Tony Blair's government,
his first party conference speech majored on climate change and David Miliband really committed to
it, they really believed in it. We have legislation that is world leading, but when it comes to the
tough political it is difficult. My conjectured solution, and which can be mistaken
for a sort of religious revival, is that the origins of religion were in the highly adaptive
character they had of having an all-seeing, all-powerful, all-knowing punisher who was doing the
punishment for departures to social norm. And then you created below that an authoritarian
hierarchy that interpreted the wishes of the deity or pantheon and such structures clearly do bind

Over the years they've softened and become more compassionate, but one of the risks...and there's a
fundamental theorem about evolution that says when things change, the rate with which you can adapt
to them depends on the variation you have within the population. And there's a tension between well
adapted to the present and being adaptable to change because the things that make you very well
adapted to the present can be inimicable to being adapted to change, and I suspect that at the meta
level of society there may be some analogue of Fisher's fundamental theorem that says the ties that
have bound us through an authoritarian abstraction who is always looking and knowing...

Robyn Williams: God.

Bob May: God...have rigidities that make them very resistant to change. And it's not impossible
that what we're seeing in the world today is not a clash of civilisations, what it is is both in
the east and in the west, in the US, in the Vatican, no less than in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim
world in its extremes, is a retreat to a more fundamentalist, doctrinaire, authoritarian, rigid,
less compassionate past as a resistance to the forces of change. And that's an unhappy conclusion.

Robyn Williams: So how do we deal with it?

Bob May: I have no easy answer to that. It's not some paradox or trick, this problem of
cooperation, it simply is a fact that if you can get away with it it's in the interest of the
individual to let other people carry the burden. So we come to Copenhagen, it's going to be in
everybody's interest to agree that we need to be doing things but think of ways in which it really
would be proper if the other people did more than you did. And there's no easy answer to that, and
in fact what this really opens up is a kind of meta level question in evolutionary theory.

My successor as president of the Royal Society, an old friend, Martin Rees, gave a talk in one of
the big Darwin Festival things pointing out that over the coming next two or three decades,
astronomy may have advanced to the point where we can make a rough estimate of how many other
planets there are in our galaxy where they were suitable for life to appear. And now that opens a
fascinating meta level evolutionary question of is the trajectory we're on, which doesn't look very
hopeful at the moment, it looks like a trajectory that at best is going to go to the world of the
cult movie Blade Runner and more likely to Mad Max. Is that a trajectory that any inhabited planet
gets as it gradually begins to understand the world, use that mastery to do well intentioned things
(everybody lives longer, everybody has more energy subsidies, life gets better and better) but all
of a sudden you realise it's just out of control and there are more people than the planet can
sustain, putting a footprint on it that's what we're doing an inevitable part of
evolution on an inhabited planet or are we aberrant?

Robyn Williams: Are we alone in the universe because all the others blew themselves up, or just
wasted away? Lord May is this year's president of the British Science Association, wondering about
that great human challenge; cooperative behaviour.


Bob May

Department of Zoology University of Oxford


Robyn Williams


David Fisher

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