Evolutionary Psychology posits that many human behaviors are evolved adaptations. In his excellent books The Red Queen, and The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley explains the evolutionary origins of human sexuality, reciprocity, and collaboration. It is an easy mistake to assume that all common behaviors are adaptations of some kind, when in fact many are often merely side effects and confer no direct advantage. Despite this problem, the evidence that many behaviors are advantageous is compelling. With this in mind I am always on the look-out for evolutionary explanations of other behaviors, but remain wary that these may not imply adaptation.
The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod is an outstanding book. First published in 1984 it has increased in significance with the evolution of the Internet. In the book Axelrod examines how cooperation can emerge and stabilize in multi-participant environments. The book is fascinating as an analysis of the evolution of cooperation, but is of particular interest to anyone seeking to establish effective; social software systems, peer-to-peer networks, or multi-player gaming environments. Axelrod builds his thesis on the analysis of a gaming tournament he organized. He invited multiple people from many different fields; economics, computer science, evolutionary biology, etc, to submit computer programs employing well defined strategies to play a series of games of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Each program played several hundred games against every other program. The results were surprising and enlightening.
Cooperation in Balinese Rice Farming by J. Stephen Lansing and John H. Miller
This great article explains in clear terms how Balinese rice farmers acting in self interest and following a few simple rules have caused the emergency of a large scale system that tends to maximize rice yields given the prevailing constraints.
For centuries Balinese rice farmers have engaged in cooperative agricultural practices. Without centralized control, farmers have created a carefully coordinated system that allows productive farming in an ecosystem that is rife with water scarcity and the threat of disease and pests.
It seems to me that P2P computing networks are in some ways analogus to the rice famers networks of fields and irrigation channels. Yet they have so far failed to produce any large scale emergent features, unless you count the destruction of the music industry as an emergent feature! The current crop of P2P systems seem to lack the simple rules that lead to emergent properties. I suspect it will not be too long before we see P2P systems that feature these simple rules and produce large scale emergent features.