ANATOL RAPOPORT, ACADEMIC: 1911-2007

Tit-For-Tat…the program opened by co-operating with its opponent. Thereafter, it played exactly as the other side had played in the preceding game. If the other side had defected, Tit-For-Tat also defected for that one game. If the other side had co-operated, it co-operated on the next round.

The Globe and Mail
January 31, 2007

ANATOL RAPOPORT, ACADEMIC: 1911-2007
University of Toronto professor straddled the division between mathematics, biology and social sciences. As a peace activist, he organized the first 'teach-in' and explored game theory as a civilized way of confronting a rival without a fight
Ron Csillag

Anatol Rapoport was the first professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto.
20070131 Anatol Rapoport

TORONTO — For Anatol Rapoport, rationality wasn't all that rational. It was slippery and deceptive and tended to default to the selfish interests of the individual, only to hurt collective interests. Examples abounded: If every farmer kept as many cows as possible, soon there would be no grass to graze on, and all cows would die. If everyone ran for the exit of a burning building at once, no one would get out. If every fisherman took the maximum catch, the fishery would soon be depleted.

He believed war was no different: Belligerent factions actually work toward the same goal — to kill — in what appears (to them) as rational behaviour. The result is that all humanity is needlessly threatened by war and conflict.

Among the most versatile minds of the 20th century, Dr. Rapoport applied his protean talents in mathematics, psychology and game theory to peace and conflict resolution. The first professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto, he is known as one of the world's leading lights in the application of mathematical models to the social sciences.

"This is a great loss for the program, the centre, Canada, and, indeed, all of humanity," said Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the program's successor, the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at U of T. "He was a man of staggering intellectual scope."

The mathematical study of human decisions led Dr. Rapoport to the most famous game of strategy in the social sciences, the Prisoners' Dilemma, in which the natural inclination of a prisoner is to defect, or betray, his partner in crime in the hope of lighter punishment, though doing so yields a worse result than mutual co-operation.

Dr. Rapoport would go on to show that co-operation, when meted out correctly, whether to individuals, companies or superpowers, can triumph over "rational" behaviour that favours the self, and that it needs no contrivances to create or sustain it.

He authored more than 300 papers and about two dozen books on decision theory, psychological conflict, semantics and human behaviour. His better-known volumes included Two-Person Game Theory, about zero-sum games, and its sequel, N-Person Game Theory, which analyzed contests in which there are more than two sets of conflicting interests, such as in wide-scale warfare, or poker. His work also led him, most prominently, to peace research (The Origins of Violence, 1989; and Peace, An Idea Whose Time Has Come, 1993).

In the mid-1980s, along with George Ignatieff and members of Science for Peace, Dr. Rapoport founded U of T's Peace and Conflict Studies Program. He was its sole instructor for many years, establishing an interdisciplinary approach to the study of peace by integrating politics, psychology, philosophy and scientific rigour.

He was also a gifted concert pianist and hands-on peace activist, having come to Canada from the United States at the height of the Vietnam War he so strongly opposed. "By 1970, it really didn't look like the war would end," recalled his son, Anthony. "He was discouraged with the U.S. as a place to raise a family."

As a child in Russia he had witnessed the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. He and his parents, both tutors, lived in Crimea, a region that was punished as a "White" stronghold.

At 11, as he related in a memoir, Skating on Thin Ice, he attempted to ice skate to freedom from Russia to Poland, but was turned back. His mother later managed to cross into Poland, contacted an agency that assisted Jewish refugees, and a few weeks later, her husband and son followed. The clan joined relatives in Chicago in 1922.

He began formal piano studies, showing such talent that he was sent to Vienna at 18 to study under Moriz Rosenthal, a student of Franz Liszt, at the State Academy of Music and Performing Arts. He earned degrees in composition, piano and conducting, and performed in Europe, the United States and Mexico from 1933 to 1937. His career in Europe was cut short by the rise of nazism.

Back in Chicago, he received bachelors and masters degrees in math, and, in 1941, a doctorate — all from the University of Chicago. For about three years, he had been a member of the American Communist Party but quit before enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941.

He taught math to air cadets, then served as a supply officer in Alaska and India. There was nothing specific about his service that turned him off war, his son related; in fact, Dr. Rapoport came to embrace strict discipline as essential, for example, in fighting fires and other activities that benefit the public. "He became anti-militarist quite soon after the war. The idea of military values became anathema." (Years later, he said he would not join the service if asked to do so again.)

He served as an assistant professor of math at the University of Chicago from 1947 to 1954, a period that saw the publication of his first book, Science and the Goals of Man, then spent a year at Stanford University, where he studied parasitism and symbiosis, and where he and other scholars created the International Society for General Systems Research in 1954.

He then headed to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he received his first cross-appointment: From 1955 to 1970, he was professor of mathematical biology at the medical school's Mental Health Research Institute. It was a heady time of rising anti-war sentiment, and in 1965, Dr. Rapoport was among the faculty members who organized and participated in the first campus "teach-in."

Rather than attend regular classes, students participated in anti-war seminars and rallies. The idea resonated on other campuses and teach-ins were spawned across the United States.

He was a frequent speaker at anti-war rallies. "By undertaking the war against Vietnam, the United States has undertaken a war against humanity," he told a crowd of about 300 in April of 1967, as quoted in the Ann Arbor News. "This war we shall not win."

In the meantime, "our house was a centre of activity," Anthony Rapoport said. The family hosted Vietnam Summer, a protest group, and supported the "Peacemobile," which travelled the Ann Arbor area distributing pamphlets. But Dr. Rapoport grew weary of fighting against the war and made plans to move to Canada.

"He was a serious loss because we needed him at Michigan," his former colleague, J. David Singer, a professor emeritus of political science, told the Michigan Daily. "And in a sense, we drove him out."

Dr. Rapoport was among a group of scholars to raise funds for the treatment and care of mathematician John Nash, the Nobel laureate and schizophrenia sufferer who was the subject of the 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind.

Once at the University of Toronto, Dr. Rapoport received another cross-appointment to the math and psychology departments. In 1984, he was named professor of peace studies, even as he was "often discouraged by the direction of the world," said the Trudeau Centre's Prof. Homer-Dixon.

That year also saw publication of political scientist Robert Axelrod's seminal book, The Evolution of Co-operation, which asked a simple, yet age-old, question: If living things evolve through competition, how can co-operation ever emerge? A computer tournament was organized to study the relationship of game theory to evolution — a variation on the Prisoner's Dilemma. Entries came from the world's top theorists.

Dr. Rapoport entered a program he wrote called Tit-For-Tat, consisting of four lines of code. It was by far the simplest entry, and it won. Betraying the retributive implications of its name, the program opened by co-operating with its opponent. Thereafter, it played exactly as the other side had played in the preceding game. If the other side had defected, Tit-For-Tat also defected for that one game. If the other side had co-operated, it co-operated on the next round.

"In effect, Tit-For-Tat punished the other player for selfish behaviour and rewarded her for co-operative behaviour — but the punishment lasted only as long as the selfish behaviour lasted," observed Metta Spencer, editor of Peace Magazine, on the occasion of Dr. Rapoport's 90th birthday. "This proved to be an exceptionally effective sanction, quickly showing the other side the advantages of co-operating… . It also set moral philosophers to proposing this as a workable principle to use in real life interactions."

A lifelong leftist, Russophile and atheist, Dr. Rapoport stressed that he was an abolitionist, not a pacifist. "I'm for killing the institution of war," he once said.

He resigned from teaching, officially, in 1976, the year he won the Lenz International Peace Research Prize, but he taught a psychology course at the University of Toronto at 90 and gave piano recitals well into his 80s. His last book, published in 2003, was Conversations with Three Russians, an imagined chat among writers Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin.

His children say he was a strong chess player but was lousy at poker because of an obvious tell. In Toronto, he did not own a car or a TV.

Dr. Rapoport seemed to veer from the view that snap judgments are often correct. "One doesn't make decisions," he counselled. "One discovers them."

Anatol Rapoport was born in Lozovaya, Russia, on May 22, 1911. He died of pneumonia in Toronto on Jan. 20, 2007. He was 95. He leaves his wife, Gwen, daughter Anya, and sons Alexander and Anthony.


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