Robert Axelrod, the Walgreen Professor for the Human Understanding in the Department of Political Science and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan won the 2011 Charles E. Merriam Award for his outstanding career achievements.
Prof. Axelrod is best known for his 1984 book, The Evolution of Cooperation, which explores how cooperation can emerge in a world of self-seeking egoists when there is no central authority to police their actions. The book itself has been cited more than 5000 times with additional 2000 citations for his co-authored Science article of the same title (1981) with William D. Hamilton, the greatest evolutionary biologists of the 20th century.
Through a series of computer tournaments for the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD), the book argues that the simple tit-for-tat strategy is the best strategy for playing the PD. The tit-for-tat strategy simply repeats what the other player has done on the previous move by starting the game with cooperation. This shows how cooperation can emerge among egoists through iterated interactions.
His other work, The Complexity of Cooperation (1997) incorporates complexity theory into the Prisoner’s Dilemma framework. Through agent-based modeling, the book offers an alternative approach to the rational-choice paradigm such as game theory. The notion of adaptive behavior replaces the assumption of rational choice to assess the effects of simultaneous actions and interactions of autonomous agents on the system as a whole. A key implication of adaptive behavior is that simple behavioral rules generate complex behavior. Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel laureate in Economics highly appraised Prof. Axelrod’s work.
“In general, as political scientists, we need to learn from Axelrod’s work that political systems—whether we focus at an international, national, regional or local scale—are complex adaptive systems. Key aspects of the structure of these systems are created by humans as they develop rules, norms, and strategies in trying to do as well as they can over time.”
Prof. Axelrod has received numerous honors and awards including membership in the National Academy of Sciences, a five year MacArthur Prize Fellowship, the Newcomb Cleveland Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences for an outstanding contribution to science, and the National Academy of Sciences Award for Behavioral Research Relevant to the Prevention of Nuclear War. He also served as President of the American Political Science Association from 2006 to 2007.
The Charles E. Merriam prize is awarded biennially by the American Political Science Association to recognize a person whose published work and career represent a significant contribution to the art of the government through the application of social science research. Past recipients of the Award are some of the most esteemed political scientists including Michael Doyle, Robert Putnam and Joseph S. Nye, Jr. The comprehensive list is available at the Association’s Website.
An example of the PD can be represented with two suspects (A and B) arrested by the police for their collaborative criminal activity. With insufficient evidence for a conviction, the police separate the two suspects and make the following offer to A. If A testifies against B (defection) and B remains silent (cooperation), A goes free and B serves a twenty-year sentence. The police make the same offer for B so that if B testifies against A and A remains silent, then B goes free and A serves a twenty-year sentence. If A and B testify against each other, they both serve a five-year sentence. The best possible outcome for both A and B can be achieved if they remain silent; they only serve a year in jail. If the PD is played once, A and B testify against each other simply because defection strictly dominates cooperation. In other words, regardless of the other player’s action, one is better off by defecting all the time. If they both cooperate, they need to serve only one year in jail. But, each player is tempted to defect while the other player cooperates, in order to go free. Knowing this, each player finds herself testifying against the other all the time.
 Ostrom, Elinor. 2007. “Biography of Robert Axelrod.” PSOnline. Article available at http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/PSJan07AxelrodBio.pdf.