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evolution and game theory

I've been reading Dan Dennett's Breaking the Spell the last couple days. It's really good, but it reads like a textbook... which is to say, very slowly. I was really hoping it would go as quickly as some of the other Musketeers' books, but no such luck. This isn't really a bad thing, it's just going to make it harder to get done all the other things I need to get done before I go to the conference. Work is starting up again the middle of next week, and that will make it tough to fit everything in.

One thing it has done, though, is gotten me thinking a lot about evolution, and the mechanisms for it. This book, and a debate I was having with a libertarian (I find them to be cold frankly), have gotten me thinking a lot about evolution and game theory. I think game theory might actually open up a whole new line of argument to use against libertarians, but I am going to have to think about it some more.

Dennett is making a lot of interesting arguments about the development and evolution of religion, and although I'm not quite halfway through the book, it has me thinking also about the end of the story... the increasing sophistication of religion actually transforming the environment and driving evolution in the same way game theory does, but that ultimately some balance point may be tipped--or perhaps it already has--with the advent of science. Science makes it difficult to believe in religion, and the trappings of religion make it difficult to have the kind of frame of mind necessary to do well in science. And in the modern world, science, despite the tremendous investment necessary (and minimal financial rewards), does provide better tools for living in our complex world; not to mention that scientific fields are considerably safer than blue collar jobs. As a meme it may very well have evolutionary advantages, but it may also be biologically advantageous, just as some have argued religion is/was.

What game theory contributes to the discussion of evolution is that a maximal strategy is never a pure one. Just as in a "game" where all the players adopt the strategy everyone-for-himself, if there are any that cooperate, they will obtain a strategic advantage. And in a "game" where everyone cooperates, players that adopt the strategy everyone-for-himself will gain an advantage.... as long as they don't do it too often, or they will get kicked out of the cooperative group.

Getting back to libertarians, the person I was arguing with seemed very much bothered by these "everyone-for-himself" renegades in a cooperative society. It seems to be one of the primary reasons some libertarians give for rejecting a cooperative society--to use the modern term, a welfare state. This particular libertarian seemed convinced that even small deviations from "the rules of cooperation" deserve harsh preventative measures, or harsh reprisals. It isn't their liberties that are being eroded, after all. Sometimes, arguing with these people, I am not sure they really qualify as libertarians! Whereas more liberal people like myself are content to limit through non-coercisive means (such as education), at least up to a point (then try peer pressure, then maybe fines/community service). Only when infractions become truly serious are harsher, potentially more coercisive measures called for (such as prison--not forced-sterilization or banishment).

(I realize I'm being rather vague here, but I am still trying to think the issue through based on a couple of recent examples.)

Because I understand what game theory is telling me, I don't perceive this occasional non-cooperation as a "threat" so much as inevitable noise in the system. I think I also recognize that, again according to game theory, none of us are best served by a single strategy, and I want to preserve my right to occasionally think only of myself. In the long run, the benefits of general cooperation still outway the costs of the "noise".

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