Tuesday, August 23, 2011

SuperCooperators & the Kibbutz

One of the knocks against the kibbutz philosophy, from critics, was that its communal economy was “unnatural”. Evolution, they argued, didn’t breed self-interested Homo sapiens to be self-sacrificing Homo kibbutzniks. Natural selection would never favour a genetic predisposition to help others first. That, at least, was the position of “social Darwinism”—the (often crude) application of evolutionary biology (and what Herbert Spencer called “survival of the fittest”) to understanding human society. Competition—at the level of the individual, the species or the “selfish gene”—must underpin the process of evolution.

There’s one catch. Human societies are based, to greater and lesser degrees, on cooperation—on what Peter Kropotkin, the biologist-cum-anarchist, called “mutual aid”. So, too, are many non-human species, from apes to ants. In fact, every multicellular organism is the result, at a basic level, of cooperation among specialized cellular mechanisms working together to create a more powerful whole. So how do scientists make these real-world acts of cooperation gibe with the Darwinian theory of natural selection?

A recent book called SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed offers a thorough and engaging overview of the subject, as well as a strong case for how cooperation is a key component of the evolutionary process. It’s written by Austrian-born mathematical biologist Martin A. Nowak (in cooperation with science journalist Roger Highfield), an intimidating super-brain who has been on the faculty of Oxford, Harvard and Princeton, and has collaborated with a wide range of leading academics and bright up-and-comers to apply the tools of “game theory” to understand how different cooperative strategies might evolve. (Check out a YouTube video of him here.)

He begins with a look at the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”—a game-theory exercise that poses an obstacle to cooperation. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma (much like the Tragedy of the Commons), “rational” self-interested players will choose to forgo cooperation, even when it would ultimately benefit them more. To encourage the “irrational” choice to cooperate, notes Nowak, “natural selection needs help”. He identifies the five mechanisms that can, under certain conditions, encourage cooperation—and notes that only human beings can access all five.

For a long time, the mechanism of “kin selection” (or “inclusive fitness”) was thought to explain away altruism: organisms cooperate so that their “selfish genes” can replicate either through themselves or close relations that carry the same genes, too. Altruism, in this view, is just selfishness at the genetic level. Nowak argues that kin selection, though, only applies to a select number of situations.

A second mechanism is—most obviously—”direct reciprocity” or “repetition” (known in game theory as “tit for tat”), wherein individuals might cooperate if it’s likely that they will meet again and reap the benefit of a favour in return. A third mechanism involves the extension of reciprocity from direct to indirect via a reputation economy. Here, individuals are willing to act altruistically and promote cooperation based on the reputation for similar behaviour in another individual. This complex form of cooperation requires (or rather, co-evolves with) language and a sense of a public identity—what we know as ”society”. Here, we begin to see the logic of kibbutz communalism—the role of gossip and reputation in a small community to promote and enforce cooperation and keep so-called “free-riding” (ie, the tragedy of the commons) to a minimum.

The last two mechanisms are similarly complex. One is “spatial selection”—the fact that cooperation can evolve and expand, even without indirect reciprocity, as individuals coalesce into clusters and networks of cooperative behaviour. Finally, “group selection”—long dismissed by most biologists—now stands on firmer ground as a theory. Nowak also calls it “multilevel selection” to underline that direct and indirect reciprocity can encourage natural selection to operate not simply at the level of the individual but also at the level of the community or the tribe. But he notes: “This cooperative mechanism works well if there are many small groups and not well if there are a few large groups.” That caveat offers food for thought when considering the issue of sustainable size for livable cities, communal societies and cooperative organizations.

Nowak brings a sense of urgency to his final chapter, where he notes that looming environmental crises—the Tragedy of the Commons on a global scale—make the need for human cooperation imperative. We have the tools. We are genetically programmed, in the right circumstances, to benefit from cooperation. There is nothing stopping us...except the paradox of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the short-sightedness of immediate gratification over the long-term benefits of cooperation.

“Humans are SuperCooperators,” Nowak concludes. “We are able to draw on all five mechanisms of cooperation. In particular, we are the only species that can summon the full power of indirect reciprocity, thanks to our rich and flexible language. We have names and with them come reputations that can be used to help us all to work more closely together. We can design our surroundings… to achieve more enduring cooperation.”

We just need to find the collective will to do so.

SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. Martin A. Nowak, with Roger Highfield. Free Press, New York, 2011.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Film: Fog

It’s been several weeks since I watched Fog, an hour-long documentary film from 2008 by director Rafik Halabi, and yet I remain haunted by its story, as though I’d been immersed in an epic novel or dramatic film. What I mean is that Fog, a fact-based foreign video project made on what was likely a tiny budget, has all the elements of great literature and art: War! Death! Family! Spirituality! Mystery! And a relentless quest for the truth. It is also one of those true stories that seems, on its surface, so preposterous that it has to be the work of fiction and fantasy.

The fog of the film’s title is the mist that wraps the slopes of Mt. Hermon, on the disputed border between Israel and Syria, into which Sergeant Mu’in Halabi, a Druze Arab soldier in the Israeli Defence Forces from Western Galilee, disappears during the early days of the October War of 1973. It’s the last that his three army companions see of Halabi during an abortive assault on the Syrian-held summit. Weeks later, army officials report to his family that his body has been found, with its eyes gouged out, but it is in an advanced state of decomposition and rapidly buried.

Later, a girl from his village claims to have heard his voice in a radio broadcast from Syria. Might he have been captured and still
be alive instead? The story grows more complicated when a four-year-old Druze boy, who had been born just a month after Halabi’s disappearance in a nearby village, reveals striking knowledge of the details of the soldier’s disappearance, as though he had been there, and claims to be the reincarnation of Mu’in Halabi. The Druze religion, a highly secretive outgrowth of Ismaili Islam, includes reincarnation as one of its beliefs. Even largely secular members of the Druze people don’t discount the possibility of being reborn in another body.

At age 22, Roni Ganam, the boy who claimed to be the reincarnated Halabi, has grown up to be a local soccer star, but is killed during his own army service, when his bus is destroyed by a suicide bomber. Again, not long after this tragedy, a new child is born, who reveals, a few years later, intimate knowledge about Roni’s life and sudden death. Has the spirit of Mu’in Halabi found a new incarnation? What seems undeniable is the consolation that the family members of both deceased soldiers take in their faith that their lost boys live on in another embodiment—that death is but a transition into a new life.

Enter Rafik Halabi, a veteran Druze TV news reporter (and author of The West Bank Story), who sets out as the director of this investigative documentary to pick through the evidence, disentangle the varying accounts of Halabi’s last hours and try to reach the truth—but who only finds himself drawn deeper into the mystery. By the end, the documentary sheds new light on what likely happened in the mists of Mt. Hermon, and yet still leaves the viewer looking through shades of ambiguity, too.

I’d ordered Fog mostly because I’d worked with several young Druze on Kibbutz Shamir and finally visited Majdal Shams last summer. The Druze seem to symbolize the immense complexity of life in Israel, which often gets lost in black-and-white accounts we receive in the North American media, let alone the one-sided pro-Israel or pro-Palestine rhetoric that divides the blogosphere and Internet comment boards.

Mu’in Halabi, from Western Galilee, was a Druze Arab and an Israeli citizen and a soldier in the IDF. In the October War, he was fighting against Syrian army units that would have also included Druze soldiers, loyal to Syria. They were fighting over the captured territory of the Golan Heights, where the Druze residents—after centuries of being a minority caught between major powers—are careful to hedge their allegiances. They now live in land that was formerly Syrian, but has been annexed by Israel, but could one day (however unlikely) be returned to Syria. Confused yet? There is little wonder that the Druze religion, and even society, has clung to secrecy (and a belief in the eternal cycle of reincarnation) as a survival mechanism. Fog is both a metaphor and a way of life.

So what’s the kibbutz connection to this fascinating documentary? Okay, beyond my rubbing shoulders with Druze guest workers on Shamir, it’s pretty minor. But there is one: the sumptuous, moving and note-perfect score was written and performed by Yair Dalal, a well-known Israeli musician of Iraqi background (known especially for his oud playing) and peace activist who lived during his thirties on Kibbutz Samar (where encounters with Bedouin musicians sent him off on new artistic directions).

In short, Fog is one real-life tale of death, life and mystery that is worth getting lost in.