The Congregation at Duke University Chapel

The Evolution of Cooperation: How Natural Selection Favors Hope, Forgiveness & Generosity


The Evolution of Cooperation: How Natural Selection Favors Hope, Forgiveness & Generosity

presentation at Adult Forum by
Melissa J. Mills
Congregation member
April 29, 2012

Martin Nowak

Harvard Prof of Math & Biology Super Cooperators
Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed

Subjects to Consider


Science & Religion

Faith & Reason

The Righteousness of God

What We’re Covering

  • The Righteousness of God
  • Creation and Evolution
  • Hope, Forgiveness and Generosity
    • in Science
    • in Society
    • in ourselves

1 Peter 3:15

Make holy the Lord Christ in your hearts; being ready always to answer all who ask the reason for the hope within you.

What’s the Problem?

  • Science versus Religion
  • Faith versus Reason
  • “It’s the economy, stupid!”
  • Global Climate Change
  • Public Education or lack thereof
  • Water shortages, public corruption
  • Gangs, drugs, violence, “family values”

What’s the Solution?

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; only one thing is necessary .... (Luke 10:40-41)

The Righteousness of God

image of galaxies
image of nebula
image of nebula

Psalm 19:1-4

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech,

and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;

their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth,

and their words to the end of the world.

Faith & Reason


Faith seeking understanding

Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109)

Faith is a kind of knowledge

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)

Imagination is more important than knowledge

Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

Where We Stand


Then Job answered the LORD


“I know that you can do all things,

and that no purpose of your can be thwarted.

‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

but now my eye sees you.

therefore I despise myself

and repent in dust and ashes.”

(Job 42:1-6)


Evolution & Creation


Abraham, the father of all who trust ....

... in the presence of the God in whom he trusted...

who brings life to the dead,

and calls into existence

the things that do not exist...

--- Romans 4:16-17



  • Survival of the Fittest
  • Natural Selection
  • Altruism – very specifically defined

It’s important to distinguish between the idea that the theory is true and the idea that the theory is complete.

-- Elliott Sober, Philosopher of Biology




image of airplane
image of communicating by satellite
image of Centers for Disease Control web page


image of two tribesmen in native dress using mobile telephones


Faith & Reason


The most incomprehensible thing

about the universe is

that it is comprehensible.

---- Albert Einstein

I have told the glad news

of God’s righteousness

in the great congregation

---- Psalm 40:9

A Case Study in Faith


  • Mathematical biologist looks at the world
  • Questions the conclusion that evolution favors individual struggle for survival
  • Strives to use mathematics and computers to model evolution and find how cooperation thrives.
  • Works for decades with teams across Europe, Asia & Americas
  • Finds formulas that describe the conditions under which natural selection favors cooperation.

Conditions for Cooperation to Thrive


  • Repetition (direct reciprocity; community)
  • Reputation (indirect reciprocity; transparency & information)
  • Spatial selection (number of neighbors)
  • Multilevel selection (group cooperation)
  • Kin selection

Nowak’s Characteristics of Cooperation


  • Hope
  • Forgiveness
  • Generosity

Rewards: Science and the Gift Economy

Visualizing Mortality History

Renewable Resource Projections


graph of declining availability of non-renewable resources, population, etc. over time


MIT Team’s 1972 Projection of the Limits of Growth with 40 years of actual data overlaid.

explore the message of Limits to Growth, its accuracy, reactions ....

Smithsonian Magazine's 40 year retrospective on the Limits of Growth

Frank Sinatra’s Song


  • Do-be-do-be-do.....
  • To do good, you must be good.
  • Just do good!
  • Let it be

Faithful Righteousness


  • GE advertisement
    We make the power that makes the beer.
  • A line from “The Triple Cross”
    You didn’t need to do that.
    Someone else would have.

The Kindness of Strangers


“A Street Car Named Desire”

Phil 4:8


Finally, beloved,

whatever is true, whatever is honorable,

whatever is just, whatever is pure,

whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable,

if there is any excellence

and if there is anything worthy of praise,

think about these things.


Micah 6:4


He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the LORD require of you

but to do justice,

and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?


References & Sources