Simulation Models of the Evolution of Cooperation as Proofs of Logical Possibilities. How Useful Are They?

Ethics and Politics 2 (XV):101-138 (2013)
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Abstract

This paper discusses critically what simulation models of the evolution of cooperation can possibly prove by examining Axelrod’s “Evolution of Cooperation” (1984) and the modeling tradition it has inspired. Hardly any of the many simulation models in this tradition have been applicable empirically. Axelrod’s role model suggested a research design that seemingly allowed to draw general conclusions from simulation models even if the mechanisms that drive the simulation could not be identified empirically. But this research design was fundamentally flawed. At best such simulations can claim to prove logical possibilities, i.e. they prove that certain phenomena are possible as the consequence of the modeling assumptions built into the simulation, but not that they are possible or can be expected to occur in reality. I suggest several requirements under which proofs of logical possibilities can nevertheless be considered useful. Sadly, most Axelrod-style simulations do not meet these requirements. It would be better not to use this kind of simulations at all.

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Eckhart Arnold
Bavarian Academy of Sciences And Humanities

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