Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Selfish Gene: Evolution, Game Theory and Survivor


   I've just finished reading Richard Dawkins' classic The Selfish Gene. I greatly enjoyed it and here is why.

   First of all, evolution and the origin of life on Earth is a fascinating subject in and of itself. Dawkins takes the time to explain the theories of natural selection and survival of the stable (very relevant to my daily job in software and systems engineering), simultaneously highlighting common misconceptions. With that out of the way, it is much easier to carry out uncluttered reasoning about the subject. Subsequent chapters get the reader to imagine our probable origins, starting as early as the primordial soup.

   Secondly, as an early computer enthusiast, Dawkins brings up many aspects of computer science. While they reflect the status quo of the 70's when the book was authored the concepts are timeless and still very relevant today. Without going into details, Dawkins discusses the value of automation and relevance of UI design.

   Lastly, the book is a great introduction to game theory. In addition to selected formal aspects of game theory, the focus is on natural selection. There indeed exists a prominent game based on the idea of survival of the stable - the Survivor. Note, it's not necessarily about the survival of the fittest. The book helped me understand what it is about the show that I  like so much.
   For those who haven't watched Survivor, the rules of the game are these: the contestants are placed in a closed habitat, typically a beautiful tropical island,  with a limited supply of food and are subjected to a democratic process of elimination. Every three days one contestant gets eliminated by the vote of fellow tribesmen. Those voted off form a jury, which decides - again, in a democratic process - who among the final three contestants is elected the ultimate survivor and wins the $1 000 000.
    In the book Dawkins presents evidence for stable (surviving) behavior patterns which form based on the underlying conditions. You can definitely see that in Survivor. The conditions in the game are artificially created scarcity and competitiveness driven way beyond norms in preset day USA. Having watched a few seasons, I have a two of noteworthy observations:
  1. Every season you'll get someone who acts "out of character" to the point that they don't recognize their own behavior, become most-hated people of the month back in real life or their family comes to apologize to everyone at the reunion.
  2. Nice guys finish last, and so do nice guys. Contestants who demonstrate unstable behavior will either not make it to the top, or fail to get elected by the jury in the end. Villains often get to the top but never get enough votes. Passive individuals never make it to the final three.
    The apparent randomness created by tribe shuffling and advantage created by wins in bonus challenges does not seem to influence the game's outcome quite to an extent to which a consistently stable strategy does - by strategy here I don't necessarily mean a conscious plan, but a stable behavior pattern. Therefore, if you're a hardcore Survivor fan, I do recommend reading the Selfish Gene which provides some strong rationale for a Survivor's winning strategy.

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