man whose math captured rationality’s essence. But before his prolonged departure, Nash successfully steered game theory toward the mathematical equivalent of manifest destiny. Though not warmly welcomed at first, Nash’s approach to game theory eventually captured a major share of the economic-theory market, leading to his Nobel Prize for economics in 1994. By then game theory had also conquered evolutionary biology and invaded political science, psychology, and sociology. Since Nash’s Nobel, game theory has infiltrated anthropology and neuroscience, and even physics. There is no doubt that game theory’s wide application throughout the intellectual world was made possible by Nash’s math.

“Nash carried social science into a new world where a unified analytical structure can be found for studying all situations of conflict and cooperation,” writes University of Chicago economist Roger Myerson. “The theory of noncooperative games that Nash founded has developed into a practical calculus of incentives that can help us to better understand the problems of conflict and cooperation in virtually any social, political, or economic institution.”1

So it’s not too outrageous to suggest that in a very real way, Nash’s math provides the foundation for a modern-day Code of Nature. But of course it’s not as simple as that. Since its inception, game theory has had a complicated and controversial history. Today it is worshiped by some but still ridiculed by others. Some experimenters claim that their results refute game theory; others say the experiments expand game theory and refine it. In any event, game theory has assumed such a prominent role in so many realms of science that it can no longer intelligently be ignored, as it often was in its early days.


When von Neumann and Morgenstern introduced game theory as the math for economics, it made quite a splash. But most economists remained dry. In the mid-1960s, the economics guru Paul Samuelson praised the von Neumann–Morgenstern book’s insight

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