Invasion of the Cooperation Snatchers

If you can tolerate a moment’s grandiosity, there’s no more important application of game theory than the evolutionary transition from prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic cells. All due deference to every game theorist ever, but the solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma is literally in our DNA. One day cells were swimming around the primordial soup competing with each other in a zero-sum fight to the death for resources, the next they’re bonding together to form tissues to jointly acquire them. A couple billion years later and you’ve got hyper-specialization to the point of which cellular differentiation remains a bleeding-edge subject of biological research.

But this isn’t a post about the miracle of a body when it’s functioning perfectly. It’s about what happens when a cell goes rogue. When it defects on its neighbors and a cooperative strategy literal eons in the making. It starts gobbling up resources and reproduces at rates that threaten the whole enterprise, growing into a terrible little tumor of defection. The cooperative strategy in question moved passed simplicity countless generations ago: tissues employing Tit-for-Tat disaggregated back into the soup the first evolutionary round through. No, the strategy now is so fine-tuned it hasn’t had to deal with a major defector in eons of its collective evolutionary memory. If it is to succeed, it will have to selectively cut out those defecting cells without abandoning its core strategy, and do it fast, before it’s too late.

Which naturally brings me to the Republican party.

Political parties succeed based on two achievements. 1) They solve the collective action problem and, in doing so, achieve a scale of cooperation and exceed some critical mass threshold sufficient to self-perpetuate through the electoral process. The number of parties that can succeed at once, and the critical mass necessary to get to that point, are determined by the governing political institutions. 2) They maintain their cooperation at a scale sufficient to thwart the emergence of an alternative rival party.

Staying a dominant party is much easier than becoming one, but that doesn’t mean continued success is guaranteed. The weakness(es) of a party will depend on how it got there in the first place. The strategies for solving the collective action problem of this scale will be far more complicated than Tit-for-Tat or “Walk Away” and similar solutions distilled to the point of abstraction. They will involve all the solutions employed by cartels, religious groups, military forces, and every other collective dependent on high-levels of persistent cooperation. With that complexity comes weaknesses. Fault lines and backdoors that are typically guarded through a variety of social and legal barriers.

And they must be guarded, because the combination of scale and success will never cease to attract defectors. Those roaming cells, ostracized and cast out, always met with a wary eye, looking for a way in. Just imagine you are that rogue cell and you come across a population trained to always cooperate no matter what so long as it is deemed a member of the group. They seems so naïve! So vulnerable. But that’s how we succeeded! Always cooperate within the group. How big might your greed grow knowing you could defect and defect for all eternity, growing fatter and fatter off this suddenly maladapted globule of political ambition that can’t help but tear itself to shreds while giving you everything you ever wanted? It’s not just about the weakness of the party, but the kinds of agents these prospects are likely to attract.

In the coming weeks I’ll revisit this and ramble more about discuss some of the specific strategies employed by political parties, and the kinds of invasive agents and strategies they should expect. I’ll also speculate on how groups might institutionally respond and better protect themselves from both invading sociopaths, as well as their own hubris.

Inspiring articles:

Aimone, Jason A., et al. “Endogenous group formation via unproductive costs.” Review of Economic Studies 80.4 (2013): 1215-1236.

Aktipis, C. Athena, et al. “Cancer across the tree of life: cooperation and cheating in multicellularity.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 370.1673 (2015): 20140219.