In Chapter Three of his exquisite book The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation Matt Ridley recounts the tale of Tosca, the heroine of Puccini’s opera of the same name. Faced with the terrible dilemma of her lover Cavaradossi condemned to death by Scarpia, the police chief, she is offered a deal: if Tosca will sleep with Scarpia, he will save her lover’s life by telling the firing squad to use blanks. Tosca decides to deceive Scarpia by agreeing to his request, but then stabbing him dead after he has given the order to use blanks. She does so, but Scarpia chose to deceive her too: the firing squad does not use blanks and Cavaradossi dies. Tosca commits suicide and they all end up dead.
Tosca and Scarpia were playing the most famous game in all of game theory: the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which applies to any conflict between self-interest and the common good. Both would have benefited if they’d stuck to their bargain: Tosca would have saved her lover’s life and Scarpia would have slept with her. But as individuals, each would have benefited even more if he or she deceived the other into keeping his/her side of the bargain but did not keep his/her own: Tosca would have saved her lover and kept her virtue; Scarpia would have gotten lucky and ridden himself of his enemy.
In the motion picture Casino Royale (off stage, during Jame’s torture scene), Vesper pretty much faced the same “Prisoner’s Dilemma” as Tosca did: to save James Bond’s life (and possibly hers, at least for the moment), she made a deal with SPECTRE. She, too, attempted deception against SPECTRE (though it was a feckless attempt) and dared hope for happiness (if brief) with James. But all too soon, SPECTRE caught up with her and she knew she had to go through with her bargain, hoping they would spare her but knowing in her heart that she was heading to her death. What of that torture scene in which LeChifre offered Bond a deal to save Vesper (actually to kill her quickly and spare her the agony of torture) if Bond gave him the information he needed?…The concept of a “Prisoner’s Dilemma” applies wherever there’s a conflict between self-interest and the common good…where collective and individual interests are in conflict. Which way did James Bond go? How did he decide?
What’s interesting is that in single encounters of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”, the outcome is usually driven by selfishness and distrust. Players are usually encouraged to defect and deceive out of self-interest; just like Tosca and Vesper tried and failed to do. The outcome is entirely different when the game is played more than once. Game theorists found that frequent repetition of the encounter encouraged cooperation. With “the shadow of the future” held over each player, a new game emerged, “Tit-for-Tat”, which relied on the consequence of reciprocity. In the system described by “Tit-for-Tat” the long-term reward of cooperation outweighs the short-term reward of defection. This is what Matt Ridley calls reciprocal altruism and apparently humans are particularly well suited to it, being gregarious and choosing to live in a society where repeated encounters among ourselves promotes cooperation. Reciprocity permeates our language and our lives: “dept, obligation, favor, bargain, contract, exchange, deal…” Simpler life forms also engage in reciprocal altruism, as Lynn Margulis pointed out in her discussions of endosymbiosis and evolution through cooperation. Margulis suggested that cellular evolution was based on ‘cooperation’ rather than simple ‘competition’ between viral or bacterial infection and host cell. This co-evolutionary behavior runs counter to the traditional route of natural selection and contradicts the ruthless selfishness of Darwinian thinking. Such an evolving relationship between two different species of life, living together in a very close affinity of mutual benefit is actually common in nature. Let’s take a look at the simple virus: the ecological “home” of the virus is the genome of any potential host and scientists have remained baffled by the overwhelming evidence for ‘accommodation’; a virus initially very aggressive, may exhibit less aggression toward an evolution of partnership.
Co-evolution was first proposed by Ehrlich and Raven in 1964 to explain the parallel evolution of butterflies and their host plants. Virologist, Frank Ryan calls it “a wonderful marriage in nature—a partnership in which the definition of predator and prey blurs, until it seems to metamorphose to something altogether different.” Co-evolution is now an established theme in the biology of virus-host relationships. Relationships span from the complex interaction between arboviruses and their vector mosquitoes to the one between the malaria-causing plasmodium and humans or the hantavirus and the deer mouse. Ryan states that “today…every monkey, baboon, chimpanzee and gorilla is carrying at least ten different species of symbiotic viruses.”
“Why,” asks Dr. Frank Ryan, “is co-evolution [and its partner, symbiosis] such a common pattern in nature?” Ryan coined the term “genomic intelligence” to explain the form of intelligence exerted by viruses and the capacity of the genome to be both receptive and responsive to nature. It involves an incredible interaction between the genetic template and nature that governs even viruses. Symbiosis and natural selection need not be viewed as mutually contradictory. Russian biologists, Andrei Famintsyn and Konstantine Merezhkovskii invented the term “symbiogenesis” to explain the fantastic synthesis of new living organisms from symbiotic unions. Citing the evolution of mitochondria and the chloroplast within a primitive host cell to form the more complex eukaryotic cell (as originally theorized by Lynn Margulis), Ryan noted that “it would be hard to imagine how the step by step gradualism of natural selection could have resulted in this brazenly passionate intercourse of life!”
In my book, “Darwin’s Paradox”, one of the characters, Gaia, brings up a grizzly example of reciprocal altruism to demonstrate a point to Julie Crane, the main character. Gaia’s story centers on vampire bats. These delightful creatures spend the day in hollow trees and at night in search of large animals whose blood they quietly sip from small cuts they’ve surreptitiously made. Bats don’t usually return sated, many times failing to get their fill or in finding prey at all. However, when a bat does get a meal, it usually drinks more than it needs and the surplus is typically donated to another bat by generously regurgitating some blood. Why donate at all? Bats live for a long time and roost together; they also typically groom each other and can tell if someone has a distended belly of unshared blood. A bat that has donated blood in the past will receive blood from the previous donee; a bat that has refused blood will be refused, in turn. Tit-for-Tat. A bat that cheats is soon detected and ostracized and will likely starve to death. Reciprocity rules the roost.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines Altruism as: “regard for others as a principal of action; unselfishness”.
So, is James Bond an altruist? You decide. I’ve made up my mind…