Prof. dr. Matjaž Perc
Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, University of Maribor
Title: Transitions towards Cooperation in Human Societies
Abstract: Cooperation in nature is a challenge to Darwin’s theory of evolution, and it is fundamental for the understanding of the main evolutionary transitions that led from single-cell organisms to complex animal and human societies. If only the fittest survive, why should one perform an altruistic act that is costly to perform but benefits somebody else? Why should we care for and contribute to the public good if freeriders can enjoy the same benefits for free? Recent research indicates that a comprehensive answer to these questions requires that we look beyond the individual and focus on the collective behavior that emerges as a result of the interactions among individuals, groups, and societies. Although undoubtedly driven also by culture and cognition, cooperation in human societies is just as well an emergent, collective phenomenon in a complex system.
Nonequilibrium statistical physics, in particular the collective behavior of interacting particles near phase transitions, has been recognized as valuable for understanding counterintuitive evolutionary outcomes in structured populations. However, unlike pairwise interactions among particles that typically govern solid-state physics systems, interactions among humans often involve group interactions, and they also involve a larger number of possible states even for the most simplified description of reality. The complexity of the problem is further amplified by the inevitable interactions among groups and societies, which can give rise to interdependencies that often induce cascading failures and accelerate transitions towards defection. When studying cooperation in human societies, it is therefore important to consider not only the fact that the range of interactions among people is limited and thus best described by networks, but also that these networks change over time and are often interdependent.
Ultimately, the goal is to develop a predictive, computational theory that will allow us to better understand the rich variety of phenomena that rely on large-scale cooperative efforts. From the mitigation of social crisis and inequality to the preservation of natural resources for next generations, by having a firm theoretical grip on human cooperation we can hope to engineer better social systems and develop more efficient policies for a sustainable and better future.