Robert Axelrod on the evolution of cooperation

October 1, 2019

Using the prisoner’s dilemma from game theory through a biological lens, Robert Axelrod, along with evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton, unearthed a theory on the evolution of cooperation that ultimately influenced views on war, governing the internet, cancer research, and more. The journal article, and subsequent book with the same title, emphasized that individuals may interact more than once, which alters behavior. Axelrod and Hamilton posited three sequential questions of robustness, stability, and initial viability of strategies used in the prisoner’s dilemma—defecting to preserve oneself or cooperating with another for longer-term benefits for both. They found that the simplest of strategies, tit for tat, is evolutionarily stable.

This research has been cited tens of thousands of times, by scholars from a wide range of disciplines, helping Axelrod earn an eye-popping Google Scholar h-index of 63. Originally a journal article, then expanded and published as a book, the work has been translated into 11 languages.

» Read “The Evolution of Cooperation” in Science Vol. 211, originally published March 27, 1981.

Below is a printed version of this edition of State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View previous editions.