The Survival Game How Game Theory Explains the Biology of Cooperation and Competition

David P. Barash

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

320 Pages


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Humans, like bacteria, woodchucks, chimpanzees, and other animals, compete or cooperate to get food, shelter, territory, and other resources. But how do we decide whether to muscle out or team up with the competition?

In The Survival Game, David P. Barash synthesizes the newest ideas from the exciting world of game theory—an amalgam of logic, psychology, economics, and biology—to explore and explain why people make the decisions they do: the give-and-take of spouses in determining an evening's plans, the behavior of investors in a market bubble, the maneuvers of generals on a battlefield, all of which are remarkably similar to the mating and fighting strategies of "less rational" animals. Barash describes the classic Prisoner's Dilemma of game theory, in which a decision can carry a heavy price when there's no way to know if your partner will stick with you or look out for his own interests, and finds that an RNA virus behaves by the same rules. In the Hawk-Dove Game, he looks at how players change their strategies—to be either aggressive or yielding—when a third person enters the picture, and draws analogies to the territorial battles among speckled wood butterflies. And notorious strategies arising from the Game of Chicken, tit-for-tat, and follow the leader turn up in examples as disparate as World War II's submarine war and the mating antics of the yellow dung fly.

In this lively and engrossing study, Barash ultimately sheds light on what makes our decisions human, and what we can glean from game theory and the natural world as we negotiate and compete with others in our daily lives.


Praise for The Survival Game

"Accessible and intriguing . . . [This book] can help explain much behavior."—Seattle Post-Intelligencer

"Barash combines game theory with evolutionary biology, arguing that the strategic choices people make as they go through life [are] encoded in their brains by millions of years of evolution . . . His examples—including farm economics, jungle mating strategies, and World War II battlefields—are convincing."—The Washington Post

"A comprehensive and lucid account of the way we all play games without even knowing it, and of how the theory of games has revolutionized evolutionary biology."—Matt Ridley, author of Genome and Nature via Nurture

"We are all accustomed to the idea that our bodies have evolved logically. In The Survival Game David Barash, a superb writer and scientist in this field, gives an overview of game theory as it applies to the evolution of our behavior. The book is fascinating, witty, highly accessible, and pertinent to making sense of the dilemmas of human cooperation and competition."—Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers

"A fascinating book. Barash shows how the mathematical theory of games can shed light on why we (and some of our fellow creatures) often act the way we do, why seemingly illogical acts may in fact be perfectly rational when viewed in the appropriate way, and why even the least competitive among us is at heart driven by being a winner."—Keith Devlin, director of the Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University, and author of The Math Gene and The Millennium Problems
"A superb introduction to game theory, which should be part of the mental tool kit of every educated person. Barash draws out the implications of these profound ideas for matters great and small, and does so in a thoroughly accessible and inviting way."—Steven Pinker, professor of psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate

"Game theory attempts to explain the dynamics of life as a series of individual games, each involving specific moves that take place within a strictly delineated set of rules. Depending on whom you ask, it's either a brilliant tool for analyzing the complexities of social life or hopelessly reductionist. Zoologist and professor of psychology Barash (coauthor of The Myth of Monogamy), who emphatically falls into the former camp, proves an apt popularizer of the basics of the field, and his book reads like an introductory seminar led by a friendly professor with a slightly corny sense of humor. Readers who have never heard of the Prisoner's Dilemma or the Game of Chicken will find Barash's explanations accessible, while those who are already familiar with the basics of game theory can appreciate the wealth of historical, biological, and hypothetical cases to which he applies its methods, ranging from the Bush administration's foreign policy in the spring of 2003 to the behavior of sponge-dwelling isopods in the Gulf of California. Though persuasive, game theory as laid out here and in other works (the best known being Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene) can often seem harshly rational in its cold calculations of life and death, and Barash himself writes in his conclusion, '[For] a long time I have really loved game theory, and, for about as long, I've hated it.' By the end of this highly readable introduction, readers will understand quite well what he means."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt

The Survival Game
1The Games We All Play: What They Are, Why They MatterIn Molière's play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Monsieur Jourdain is astonished to learn that all of his life, without knowing it, he has been speaking prose. We are a bit like M. Jourdain: without knowing it, we all play games. It is not necessary to be athletic, or competitive, or especially frolicsome. Game playing is a big part of life. And since we are full-time players, it behooves us to understand what's going on.Here goes.What's the Big Idea?Most of us assume that life is straightforward, essentially under our own
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  • David P. Barash

  • A professor of psychology at the University of Washington, zoologist David P. Barash is the author of nearly two dozen books, including Revolutionary Biology, The Mammal in the Mirror, Beloved Enemies, and, with Judith Eve Lipton, The Myth of Monogamy. He lives in Redmond, Washington.