Tag Archives: Selfish

What Is The Best Strategy?

Tit For Tat? Or Screw Your Buddy?

The other day I was riding my bike downtown, not going anywhere in particular. The weather was particularly nice, so I was just riding around. I had brought a couple of books in case I found a decent place to hang out. There wasn’t anything good playing at the movies, so I wasn’t in any hurry to be anywhere at any specific time.

I found this really strange bookstore. I hadn’t noticed it before. There were all these stacks of books that looked like they weren’t in any discernable order. Just slightly more organized than random. Like they just unloaded them from the used book truck and put them in stacks wherever there was space.

I went inside and started looking around. A sort of pattern emerged. The non-fiction books were over there, and the novels were up here in the front. And in the non fiction section, the how to books were kind of off to the side, the general non fiction books, like books about sociology, and the history and evolution of the sewing machine, and books about baseball were over there. And then the used textbooks were kind of off to the side next to up there.

As I started poking around, I was astounded by how cheap these books were. This one for twenty-five cents. That one for a dollar. The most expensive book I found was one titled “Step-by-Step Guide to Alchemy: How To Turn Any Object Into Pure Gold,” was three dollars. I turns out that it was a textbook that was used over at the university in an undergraduate course in metaphysics. I would have bought it, being able to turn anything into gold would seem to be quite a handy skill to have, but it was a really huge book, and even if it did fit into my backpack, there was no way I was going to haul this thing around the rest of the day.

So I continued to look, and I find this book about computer simulated game theory. It was written back in the seventies, and was about different programs that were developed to play a game called “The Prisoners Dilemma.” This is a classic puzzle from game theory. Here’s how it goes:

You have to people. Each has two cards. One card says “altruism,” the other card says “selfish.” Each player chooses which card to play. There are two players per game. If both players play the “altruism” card, they each get 500 points. If one player plays the “selfish card” and the other player plays the “altruism card” the selfish card player gets 900 points, while the altruism player gets nothing. If they both play the “selfish” card, each is penalized 100 points.

The game is called “prisoners dilemma” because if you have to supposed criminals, in separate rooms, they basically have the same choice. If they both claim innocence, the cops got nothing. If one guy rats out his buddy, while his buddy claims innocence, the first guy goes free (or gets a special deal) while his buddy is sent up the river. If they both rat out each other, then they both get penalized. This of course assumes that they both got caught unexpectedly, and didn’t have time beforehand to strategize.

So what they did, back in the seventies, was they had this round robin tournament. They invited whoever wanted to play to come up with a strategy that they thought would work best. Each player would play every other player (all computer simulated) and they would see who had the most points at the end. They would play a certain number of rounds per player, and then switch.

What they were most interested is what kind of strategy would work best, in the long run, with many different opponents. A selfish strategy, or an altruistic one.
I believe there is a game show in the UK that follows these same rules, but I don’t think it is as statistically relevant as this computer simulated tournament.

So which strategy do you think won? Selfish or altruistic? Which is better, look out for number one, or screw the other guy as often as possible?

The strategy that won, hands down, every single time, was a strategy called “tit for tat.” This strategy simply copied the last play made by your opponent. So if you met up with an opponent that played the altruism card last time, you’d play the altruism card in the current round. The reason this worked was that all the strategies that were based more on altruism, whenever they met a similar based strategy, they would quickly rack up points, as they would both play the altruism card most of the time. The tit for tat would just copy what it’s opponent did the last play, so it would play the altruism card most of the time with an altruistic opponent.

When the tit for tat strategy came up with a purely selfish opponent, neither of them would get any points, because the tit for tat would always copy the previous move of it’s opponent, which was always selfish.

The points accrued by two altruistic strategies when they met each other far out weighted the points lost when an altruistic strategy met a selfish strategy. Needless to say, whenever a selfish strategy met another selfish strategy, they didn’t get any points.

This computer simulated tournament was originally designed by evolutionists who wanted to see how altruistic strategies spring up in nature by organisms that are primarily selfish in nature. Like honey bees pollinating flowers in exchange for nectar, and monkeys that groom each other for no apparent reason. Somewhere, somehow, there is a payoff. And based on the computer simulation, you seem to get the most pay off with a “help the other guy out” mentality. While you might run into a few selfish people, you’ll more than make it up when you run into another like-minded “help the other guy out” strategist.

So anyway, I picked up that little book, which only cost fifty cents, and fit snugly into my backpack, and went pedaling off down the street, wondering what I would stumble upon next.

The Virtue Of Selfishness

What’s In It For Me?

Recently (like yesterday recently) I started reading a new book (new for me, it was first published back in the seventies) by Dawkins, called “The Selfish Gene,” while I’m only about fifty pages in, so far it is fascinating. Up until the book was first published, there were a lot of misconceptions (as there still are) about evolution, and the mechanics of evolution. What Dawkins offers in “The Selfish Gene” is a new paradigm of looking at the mechanics of evolution and the driving forces behind it.

In the preface to the edition I’m currently reading, he says it wasn’t uncommon for him to receive letters from readers explaining how this book caused them great feelings of despair and loneliness, and some even sinking into bouts of depression.

It reminds me of a scene in the movie “Knowing” with Nicolas Cage. He plays a professor of astrophysics, who is still suffering emotional pain and confusion from losing his wife, and struggling with raising a son on his own. His son’s school opens a time vault, when kids back in the fifties put in pictures of what they thought the future would look like. One creepy girl wrote a bunch of numbers as her picture. Then in the present, when they open up the vault, Cage’s character’s son gets the piece of paper with all the numbers on it. The numbers, of course, accurately predict various catastrophes, including the impending end of the world.

The scene I’m referring to is when he is standing in front of the class and poses the question (paraphrased):

What is the nature of the universe? Is there some grand plan, is all this unfolding according some grand scheme, or is everything we see just a result of random interaction of matter, with no intrinsic meaning whatsoever?

Of course all the kids in his class have expressions of “Dude who took a dump in your Cheerios this morning?”

But that is what those letter writers to Dawkins said that this book convinced them of. That the universe is nothing more than a random sequence of events, leading up to us, starting from a blog of organic matter in a pool of sludge millions of years ago, and somehow, through successive mistakes in replication, here we are. Bob’s your uncle.

Here’s the basic argument from “The Selfish Gene” Millions of years ago, there were a bunch of molecules that could reproduce themselves. In order to replicate themselves, they had to use elements form their environment. Whatever they could find in the sludge floating around them. Some molecules were better at replication that others. Either they were faster, or lived longer, or better at attracting the elements from their environment, the pool of sludge.

After a while, the ones that were better at replication outnumbered the ones that weren’t so good at replication. If you put a couple of rabbits in the same environment as a couple of turtles, after a few months, there will be many more rabbits than turtles. And if the rabbits and the turtles eat the same food, guess what is going to happen to the turtles?

This is how it all started with DNA. The DNA that was better at making copies of itself soon outstripped the DNA that was not so good. Now consider this: Each time they replicate themselves, they can make a mistake. Sometimes the resultant replication will be better at replication, sometimes it will be worse. So sometimes, when it makes a mistake in replication, it actually may improve its replication rate.

And the environment doesn’t contain an endless supply of resources to use in the replication process. Groups of these DNA molecules have to “compete” for resources. Sometimes a mistake is made in the replication process, and its “copy” is better at securing these resources. Anytime a mistake is made in replication that both increases its replication rate, and increases its efficiency in securing resources, the mistake is a “good” mistake, and will be propagated into the future. Mistakes that decrease it’s replication rate, and decrease its ability to get stuff to make more copies of itself would be “bad” mistakes, and wouldn’t propagate into the future.

You let this process go on for a while, and pretty soon these DNA molecules have come up with some pretty ingenious ways of replicating themselves. They’ve built structures around themselves, and used these structures to secure resources in order to reproduce.

Let this go on for millions of years, and some startling changes have happened to these original molecules. They have formed several different types of organisms. Some live in water some live on land. Some fly, some walk. Some climb trees, some live underground. Some band together into groups, or herds, and work together to secure resources to further their likelihood of replication.

This is where it gets interesting. Many believe that we are somehow programmed through our DNA for the survival of our species. What made Dawkins book such an interesting paradigm is that every so-called “altruistic” act that seems to be “taking one for the team,” can be explained in terms of pure selfishness from the individual gene’s point of view.

It might seem nice the bees and flowers can work together to help each other out, but the honeybee only cares that it gets the nectar. That it is helping the flower spread it’s pollen is of no consequence. From the flowers point of view, it couldn’t care less how successful the bees are at building a colony and feeding its queen. It only cares that it pays some nectar to get its pollen spread. It only appears to be altruistic because there is an overlap in each species selfishness. The same goes for animals within it’s own species. When chimps groom each other, it looks to us humans like they are simply being nice. But primatologists know they are really planting the seeds of reciprocity, no different from when Don Corleone did all those favors when he was young. He knew he could demand pay later on, like the funeral director.

To extend Dawkin’s selfish gene theory, one may conclude all the kindness, altruism, giving to the homeless, feeding the hungry, is based on pure selfishness, and desire for personal gain. That our selfish behaviors overlap into so called win/win scenarios only gives it the illusion of selfless altruism.

Even when Jesus told the parable of the sheep and the goats, the intention of the story was to explain what was needed in order to get into heaven. Those that fed the hungry, clothes and naked the sheltered the homeless were allowed into everlasting life. Those that didn’t were sent to hell. Literally. Jesus never said to give to the hungry just for the sake of giving to the hungry. Give to the hungry so you can get into heaven. That the hungry get some food out of the deal is as secondary.

Many people mistakenly think of selfishness as only one-way selfishness, or worse, getting something for yourself at the expense of somebody else. That, of course, doesn’t do anybody any good. It doesn’t take much to imagine that only looking out for number one regardless of the consequences to others will leave you hated, or in jail, or worse. It’s okay to make sure you’re always getting something out of the deal, so long as the other guy is as well.

Here’s another story of heaven and hell. In heaven, as well as hell, everybody has an endless supply of soup, but a really really long spoon. People in hell sit around and jealously guard their soup. Their spoon is so long that they can’t possible feed themselves, so they are always hungry, and worried that somebody is going to steal their stuff.

In heaven, on the other hand, people use their long spoons to feed each other, knowing full well that if they help out somebody else, they will get helped in return.

The law of reciprocity applies both in heaven, and in hell. If you feed people, you get fed. If you don’t, you starve.

Up to you.