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Science History Podcast

Apr 11, 2019

We live in a surreal and dangerous time – autocrats are on the rise and societies are regressing toward ethnic competition. Given this political moment, I decided to dedicate an episode of the podcast to the history of research on cooperation. My guest, Robert Axelrod, has been a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan since 1974.  Prior to that, he was a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, among many other awards. Pertinent to today’s episode, he received the 1990 National Academy of Sciences Award for Behavioral Research Relevant to the Prevention of Nuclear War. He also received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama. Axelrod is the author of seminal books in the field, such as The Evolution of Cooperation, published in 1984. In this episode, we discuss the famous computer competition on the prisoner’s dilemma that Axelrod ran in 1979, and the lessons learned regarding cooperation, altruistic behavior, kin selection, evolutionary stable strategies, and frequency dependent selection. The focus of our discussion is the winning strategy from the tournament, a strategy called tit for tat. We discuss modifications of tit for tat, including generosity and contrition to account for misunderstanding and misperception, and we discuss how this informs arms races and international relations. We also delve a bit into his interactions with Richard Dawkins, W.D. Hamilton, and E.O. Wilson, as well as his work related to cyberwarfare and cancer.