Thursday, December 28, 2006

A simple hard problem

Lord May of Oxford
The Royal Society recently podcast the 2005 President's Address by Lord May of Oxford (PDF). He argues that the key obstacle to solving vital problems facing the planet like global warming and the loss of biodiversity is the collective action dilemma: when everybody has to contribute a little to obtain a large collective benefit, it's in each individual's immediate best interest to cheat.

According to May, the reason why cooperative behavior evovled and is maintained is the most important unanswered question in evolutionary biology. We can see why in many countries' approach to climate change: they are not willing to incur the penalty of lost growth unless there is a guarantee that everyone will act in concert.

The politics of climate change or biodiversity is fiendishly complicated, and may merit the "wicked problem" label. However, the underlying issue is very simple: altruism is not in anyone's immediate self-interest.

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