Martin Nowak

Martin Andreas Nowak (born April 7, 1965) is the Professor of Biology and Mathematics and Director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard University.

Martin Nowak
Nowak at Harvard in 2014
Martin Andreas Nowak

April 7, 1965 (1965-04-07) (age 54)[1]
Vienna, Austria
ResidenceUnited States
Alma materUniversity of Vienna
Known forEvolution of cooperation, Evolutionary dynamics, Language evolution,
AwardsWeldon Memorial Prize
Albert Wander Prize
Scientific career
FieldsMathematical biology
InstitutionsHarvard University
Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry
University of Oxford
Princeton University
Institute for Advanced Study
Doctoral advisorKarl Sigmund
Other academic advisorsRobert May
Doctoral studentsDavid G. Rand
Erez Lieberman Aiden[2]


Nowak studied biochemistry and mathematics at the University of Vienna, and earned his Ph.D. in 1989, working with Peter Schuster on quasi-species theory and with Karl Sigmund on evolution of cooperation.


  • 1975-1983 Albertus Magnus Gymnasium in Vienna
  • 1983-1989 University of Vienna, studying Biochemistry and Mathematics
  • 1985 First Diploma: Biochemistry (with highest honors)
  • 1987 Diploma thesis: Theoretical Chemistry Second Diploma: Biochemistry (with highest honors)
  • 1987-1989 Doctoral thesis: Mathematics
  • 1989 Doctor rerum naturalium (Sub auspiciis Praesidentis)

Career and research

In 1989, he moved to the University of Oxford as an Erwin Schrödinger postdoctoral Scholar to work with Robert May, becoming Head of Mathematical Biology in 1995 and Professor of Mathematical Biology in 1997. In 1998 he moved to the Institute for Advanced Study to establish the first program in Theoretical Biology there. In 2003, Nowak was recruited to Harvard University as Professor of Mathematics and Biology.[3] He is Director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics[4] which was funded with a $30-million pledge by Jeffrey Epstein and his foundation, the Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation,[5] a friend of Nowak who had supported his work in the past.[6]

Nowak works on the dynamics of infectious diseases, cancer genetics, the evolution of cooperation and human language. His first book, Virus Dynamics (written with Robert May) was published by Oxford University Press, 2000. Nowak is a corresponding member of the Austrian academy of sciences. He won the Weldon Memorial Prize, the Albert Wander Prize, the Akira Okubo Prize, the David Starr Jordan Prize[7] and the Henry Dale Prize. His 2006 book Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life[8] was published in 2006 to critical acclaim[9] and won the Association of American Publishers R.R. Hawkins Award for the Outstanding Professional, Reference or Scholarly Work of 2006.[10]

Nowak was co-director with Sarah Coakley of the Evolution and Theology of Cooperation project at Harvard University, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.[11] He is also a member of the Board of Advisers of the Templeton Foundation.[12] In a lecture given at Harvard in March 2007 called "Evolution and Christianity", Nowak, a Roman Catholic,[13] argued that "Science and religion are two essential components in the search for truth. Denying either is a barren approach."[14]

He has over 300 scientific publications, of which 40 are in Nature and 15 in Science.[15]

In 2010 a paper by Nowak, E. O. Wilson, and Corina Tarnita, in Nature, argued that standard natural selection theory represents a simpler and superior approach to kin selection theory in the evolution of eusociality.[16] This work has led to many comments including strong criticism from proponents of inclusive fitness theory.[17][18][19][20] Nowak maintains that the findings of the paper are conclusive and that the field of social evolution should move beyond the limitations imposed by inclusive fitness theory.[21][22]


In 2011 his book Supercooperators: The Mathematics of Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour (Or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed) was published, co-authored with Roger Highfield.

Manfred Milinski in Nature describes the book as "part autobiography, part textbook, and reads like a best-selling novel" and suggests that whereas Nowak is right that the theories of kin selection and punishment need revisiting, it is too soon to tell whether his bold ideas will hold up to empirical testing. On the Nowak/Tarnita/Wilson paper Milinski says: "I anticipate that a better mathematical formulation of social evolution theory will be found that includes relatedness, is compatible with existing evidence and includes Hamilton's rule as a rule of thumb."[23]

David Willetts, in the Financial Times, described the book as an "excellent example" of using the nexus of evolutionary biology, game theory and neuroscience to understand the development of cooperation in society, and suggests that "all politicians can draw inspiration and ideas from the intellectual resources of this exciting approach"[24]

Nowak's research interests include:

In 1990 Nowak and Robert May proposed a mathematical model which explained the puzzling delay between HIV infection and AIDS in terms of the evolution of different strains of the virus during individual infections, to the point where the genetic diversity of the virus reaches a threshold whereby the immune system can no longer control it.[25] This detailed quantitative approach depended on assumptions about the biology of HIV which were subsequently confirmed by experiment.[26]

In a paper in Science in 2006 Nowak enunciated and unified the mathematical rules for the five understood bases of the evolution of cooperation (kin selection, direct reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, network reciprocity, and group selection). Nowak suggests that evolution is constructive because of cooperation, and that we might add “natural cooperation” as a third fundamental principle of evolution beside mutation and natural selection.[27]

In a paper featured on the front cover of Nature Nowak and colleagues demonstrated that the transition of irregular verbs to regular verbs in English over time obeys a simple inverse-square law, thus providing one of the first quantitative laws in the evolution of language.[28]




  • 1998-2003 Head, Program in Theoretical Biology Institute for Advanced Study. From 1999-2003 he was Associated Faculty, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and from 2000-2003 also Associated Faculty, Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics


Prizes, named lectures and memberships

  • 1990 Prize from the Austrian Science Minister
  • 1990 Promotion sub auspiciis praesidentis rei publicae
  • 1995 Richardson Lecture, Keble College, Oxford
  • 1996 Weldon Memorial Prize
  • 1997 Shanks Lecture, Vanderbilt University
  • 1998 Albert Wander Prize and Memorial Lecture, University of Bern
  • 1999 Roger F. Murray Prize, Institute for Quantitative Research in Finance
  • 1999 Akira Okubo Prize, International and Japanese Society for Mathematical Biology
  • 1999 Erwin Schrödinger Lecture, University of Vienna
  • 1999 Porter Lecture, Rice University
  • 2000 Gergen Lecture, Duke University
  • 2001 David Starr Jordan Prize, Stanford University, Cornell University, Indiana University
  • 2001 Rainich Lectures, University of Michigan
  • 2001 Corresponding Member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences
  • 2001 Benjamin Pinkel Lecture, University of Pennsylvania
  • 2003 Henry Dale Prize, The Royal Institution, London
  • 2007 Association of American Publishers R.R. Hawkins Award for the Outstanding Professional, Reference or Scholarly Work of 2006
  • 2008 Coxeter Lectures, Fields Institute, Toronto
  • 2017 Lower Austrians Abroad Life ́s Work Award, Lower Austria

Editorial work


  1. The Boston Globe October 15, 2007
  2. Martin Nowak at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  3. Bio-details used with thanks from the PED website Archived 2006-12-11 at the Wayback Machine
  5. Financier pledges $30 million to support Harvard researcher, The Associated Press, 7 February 2003
  6. Landon Thomas Jr. (2002-10-28). "Jeffrey Epstein: International Money Man of Mystery". New York Magazine.
  7. David Starr Jordan Prize recipients
  8. Nowak, Martin (October 2006). Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life. Belknap Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02338-3.
  9. e.g. in Nature "It should be on the shelf of anyone who has, or thinks they might have, an interest in theoretical biology" " wonderfully well-presented, and offers a new range of insights into interesting and important and emerging topics in mathematical biology." Robert May. ""rigor and new ideas into the study of the evolution of language and cooperation...brimming with insights and surprising findings and should be of interest to anyone who is curious about these topics" Steven Pinker "A brilliant book by a master of his field" Robert Trivers "a remarkable book, absolutely original, containing a lot of material which has never before appeared in book form. It is written in a very accessible style, and leads almost effortlessly from first principles to state-of-the-art research. The book takes an eagle's view on evolution, covering a vast range of topics from molecules to man. It emphasises analytical methods and presents a large canvas of superbly elegant mathematical models." Karl Sigmund
  10. Harvard release on RR Hawkins Award Archived 2008-05-16 at the Wayback Machine
  11. Evolution and Theology of Cooperation
  12. About Us : Who We Are : Board of Advisors Archived 2007-01-23 at the Wayback Machine
  16. Nowak, M. A.; Tarnita, C. E.; Wilson, E. O. (2010). "The evolution of eusociality". Nature. 466 (7310): 1057–1062. Bibcode:2010Natur.466.1057N. doi:10.1038/nature09205. PMC 3279739. PMID 20740005.
  17. Krakauer, D. C.; Flack, J. C. (2010). "Better living through physics". Nature. 467 (7316): 661. Bibcode:2010Natur.467..661K. doi:10.1038/467661a. PMID 20930827.
  18. Gadagkar, R (2010). "Sociobiology in turmoil again". Current Science. 99: 1036–1041.
  19. Rousset, F.; Lion, S. (2011). "Much ado about nothing: Nowak et al.'s charge against inclusive fitness theory". Journal of Evolutionary Biology. 24 (6): 1386–1392. doi:10.1111/j.1420-9101.2011.02251.x. PMID 21457170. Despite their claims of novelty and the media frenzy, [Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson]'s article is actually a collection of worn-out arguments and thus represents a conceptual and technical step backward.
  20. Abbot, P.; Abe, J.; Alcock, J.; et al. (2011). "Inclusive fitness theory and eusociality". Nature. 471 (7339): E1–E4. Bibcode:2011Natur.471E...1A. doi:10.1038/nature09831. PMC 3836173. PMID 21430721. [We] believe that [Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson's] arguments are based upon a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory and a misrepresentation of the empirical literature.
  21. Nowak, M. A.; Tarnita, C. E.; Wilson, E. O. (2011). "Nowak et al. Reply" (PDF). Nature. 471 (7339): E9. Bibcode:2011Natur.471E...9N. doi:10.1038/nature09836.
  23. Milinski, M. (2011). "Biology: A revolution in evolution". Nature. 471 (7338): 294–295. Bibcode:2011Natur.471..294M. doi:10.1038/471294b.
  24. The invisible hand that binds us all by David Willetts FT 24-Apr-2011
  25. Eigen, M.; Nieselt-Struwe, K. (1990). "How old is the immunodeficiency virus?". AIDS. 4: S95–7. doi:10.1097/00002030-199001001-00014. PMID 2152591.
  26. See Evolutionary Dynamics p171, etc.
  27. Nowak, M. A. (2006). "Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation". Science. 314 (5805): 1560–1563. Bibcode:2006Sci...314.1560N. doi:10.1126/science.1133755. PMC 3279745. PMID 17158317.
  28. Lieberman, E.; Michel, J. B.; Jackson, J.; Tang, T.; Nowak, M. A. (2007). "Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language". Nature. 449 (7163): 713–716. Bibcode:2007Natur.449..713L. doi:10.1038/nature06137. PMC 2460562. PMID 17928859.
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