Martin Nowak

Martin Andreas Nowak (born April 7, 1965) is an Austrian-born professor of mathematical biology, at Harvard University since 2003. He is one of the leading researchers in the field that studies the role of cooperation in evolution. Nowak has held professorships in Oxford and Princeton before being recruited to Harvard in 2003 when Jeffrey Epstein donated a large sum of money to set up a center for studying cooperation in evolution.

Martin Nowak
Nowak at Harvard in 2014
Martin Andreas Nowak

April 7, 1965 (1965-04-07) (age 57)[1]
Vienna, Austria
Alma materUniversity of Vienna
Known forEvolution of cooperation, Evolutionary dynamics, Somatic evolution in cancer, Viral dynamics, Language evolution
AwardsWeldon Memorial Prize
Albert Wander Prize
Akira Okubo Prize
Scientific career
FieldsMathematical biology
InstitutionsHarvard University
Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry
University of Oxford
Princeton University
Institute for Advanced Study
ThesisStochastic strategies in the prisoner's dilemma (1989)
Doctoral advisorKarl Sigmund
Doctoral studentsDavid G. Rand
Erez Lieberman Aiden[2]
Marc Lipsitch

Nowak's best known work outside of academia is his 2011 book SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. This book is partly an autobiography and partly a popular presentation of his work in mathematical biology on the evolution of cooperation. In the book Nowak also wrote favorably about his interactions with Jeffrey Epstein, who had donated to Harvard to enable the creation of an institute headed by Nowak. In 2020 Nowak was disciplined by being suspended from teaching for two years and having his institute permanently closed down as a punishment for having continued to let Epstein access the university's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences ten years after his conviction for sex crimes.[3]

Early life and education

Nowak was born April 7, 1965[4] in Vienna, Austria.[5] He studied at Albertus Magnus Gymnasium and the University of Vienna, earning a doctorate in biochemistry and mathematics in 1989. He worked with Peter Schuster on quasi-species theory and with Karl Sigmund on evolution of cooperation. Nowak received the highest Austrian honors (Sub auspiciis Praesidentis) when awarded his degree.[6][5]


From 1989 to 1998, Nowak worked at the University of Oxford[5] with Robert May as an Erwin Schrödinger postdoctoral Scholar and Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow. From 1997 to 1998, Nowak was a professor of mathematical biology.[5] After 1998, he conducted research at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and established a program in theoretical biology.[5]

In 2003, Nowak was recruited to Harvard University as Professor of Mathematics and Biology.[5] He was appointed Director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics (PED).[7] The PED was funded with a total nine million dollars from the Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation,[8] In 2003, Epstein had introduced himself as a science philanthropist supporter of Nowak's work, cementing the initial interaction with a large donation to Harvard.[9] Scientific American reported that Nowak's team received US$6.5 million initially, with nothing released to him after 2007, a couple of hundred thousand dollars remained unspent.[10][11][12]

Nowak has authored books and scientific papers on topics in evolutionary game theory, cancer, viruses, infectious disease, the evolution of language, and the evolution of cooperation.[13][14][15][16][17][18] His first book, Virus Dynamics (written with Robert May) was published by Oxford University Press in 2001.[19] 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[20] and the Henry Dale Prize. Nowak's 2006 book Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life[21] earned him praise from other scientists[22] along with the R.R. Hawkins Award for the Outstanding Professional, Reference or Scholarly Work of 2006 from the Association of American Publishers.[23]

Nowak was co-director with Sarah Coakley of the Evolution and Theology of Cooperation project at Harvard University, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.[24] where he was also a member of their Board of Advisers.[25] In a lecture given at Harvard in March 2007 called "Evolution and Christianity", Nowak, a Roman Catholic,[26] argued that "Science and religion are two essential components in the search for truth. Denying either is a barren approach."[27]

Harvard University placed Nowak on paid academic leave on May 1, 2020 because of his failure to disaffiliate with Jeffrey Epstein after his conviction.[11] Nevertheless Harvard had declined a donation from Epstein in 2013. A report commissioned by the university found that Nowak allowed Epstein to visit the PED offices more than 40 times after his conviction,[28][29] to maintain an office with a phone line and webpage, and to interact with students at PED. In 2021, Harvard decided a proportionate response to the severity of Nowak's ethical errors was the closing of the institute founded with Epstein's money, the donation of the balance of the money remaining to a foundation helping victims of sexual assaults, and a two year ban on Nowak lecturing and doing research. He will also have his interaction with students limited. Nowak said he would "take the lessons from this time with me as I move forward".[30][12]

Academic research

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.[31] This detailed quantitative approach depended on assumptions about the biology of HIV which were subsequently confirmed by experiment.[32]

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.[33]

In a paper featured on the front cover of Nature in 2007, 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.[34]

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.[35] This work has led to many comments including strong criticism from proponents of inclusive fitness theory.[36][37][38][39] Nowak maintains that the findings of the paper are conclusive and that the field of social evolution should move beyond inclusive fitness theory.[40]

He has over 300 scientific publications, of which 40 are in Nature and 15 in Science.[41]

Nowak's research interests include:


In 2011, Nowak’s 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.[42]

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."[43]

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"[44]


  1. Wax, Heather (October 15, 2007). "Cooperation counts for math professor". Retrieved 16 September 2021.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  2. Martin Nowak at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  3. Levine, Jon (March 27, 2021). "Harvard punishes professor Martin Nowak over Jeffrey Epstein ties". nypost. Retrieved September 22, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  4. Wax, Heather (2007-10-15). "Cooperation counts for math professor". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2020-10-10.
  5. Anderson, Christina M. (2002-10-01). "University Lures Specialist In Interdisciplinary Science". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 2020-10-10.
  6. Witzmann, Erich (2011-04-03). "Martin Nowak: "Junge sollen unabhängig forschen"". Die Presse (in German). Retrieved 2020-06-08.
  7. "Program for Evolutionary Dynamics".
  8. Financier pledges $30 million to support Harvard researcher, The Associated Press, 7 February 2003
  9. Landon Thomas Jr. (2002-10-28). "Jeffrey Epstein: International Money Man of Mystery". New York.
  10. Oreskes, Naomi (September 1, 2020). "Jeffrey Epstein's Harvard Connections Show How Money Can Distort Research". Scientific American.
  11. Levenson, Michael (2020-05-01). "Harvard Kept Ties With Jeffrey Epstein After '08 Conviction, Report Shows". The New York Times. Retrieved 2020-05-02. Harvard said it had placed one professor, Martin A. Nowak, on paid administrative leave . . .
  12. Svrluga, Susan (May 1, 2020). "Jeffrey Epstein had his own office at Harvard University — after he was convicted as a sex offender". Washington Post. Retrieved 2020-06-08. Nowak was placed on paid administrative leave . . .
  13. Nowak, M.A. (2006). "Five rules for the evolution of cooperation". Science. 314 (5805): 1560–1563. doi:10.1126/science.1133755. PMC 3279745. PMID 17158317.
  14. Wei, X.; Ghosh, S.K.; Taylor, M.E.; Nowak, M.A.; Hahn, B.H.; Saag, M.S.; Shaw, G.M. (1995). "Viral dynamics in human immunodeficiency virus type 1 infection". Nature. 373 (6510): 117–122. doi:10.1038/373117a0. PMID 7529365. S2CID 4343212.
  15. Reiter, J.G.; Makohon-Moore, A.P.; Gerold, J.M.; Heyde, A.; Iacobuzio-Donahue, C.A.; Vogelstein, B.; Nowak, M.A. (1995). "Viral dynamics in human immunodeficiency virus type 1 infection". Nature. 373 (6406): 117–122. doi:10.1126/science.aat7171. PMC 6329287. PMID 30190408.
  16. Nowak, M.A.; May, R.M. (2018). "Minimal functional driver gene heterogeneity among untreated metastases". Science. 361 (6406): 1033–1037. doi:10.1038/359826a0. PMC 6329287. PMID 30190408.
  17. Nowak, Martin (October 2006). Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life. Belknap Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02338-3.
  18. Michel, J.B.; Shen, Y.K.; Aiden, A.P.; Nowak, M.A.; Aiden, E.L. (2011). "Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books". Science. 331 (6014): 176–182. doi:10.1038/359826a0. PMC 3279742. PMID 21163965.
  19. Nowak, Martin (January 2001). Virus dynamics: Mathematical principles of immunology and virology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198504179.
  20. "David Starr Jordan Prize recipients". Archived from the original on 2014-08-25. Retrieved 2007-02-15.
  21. Nowak, Martin (October 2006). Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life. Belknap Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02338-3.
  22. 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
  23. Harvard release on RR Hawkins Award Archived 2008-05-16 at the Wayback Machine
  24. Evolution and Theology of Cooperation
  25. About Us : Who We Are : Board of Advisors Archived 2007-01-23 at the Wayback Machine
  26. "Super Cooperators". 23 May 2011.
  27. "Can science, religion coexist in peace?". 15 March 2007.
  28. Rosenberg, John S. (2020-06-08). "Jeffrey Epstein's Extensive Harvard Reach". Harvard Magazine. Retrieved 2020-10-10.
  29. Stieb, Matt (2020-05-29). "What We've Learned From Recent Jeffrey Epstein Allegations". Intelligencer. Retrieved 2020-10-10.
  30. Bikales, James S. (2020-05-01). "FAS Places Prof. Nowak On Leave After Report Finds Epstein Used His Program to Rehabilitate Image". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 2020-05-02.
  31. Eigen, M.; Nieselt-Struwe, K. (1990). "How old is the immunodeficiency virus?". AIDS. 4: S95–7. doi:10.1097/00002030-199001001-00014. PMID 2152591.
  32. See Evolutionary Dynamics p171, etc.
  33. 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.
  34. 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.
  35. 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.
  36. 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.
  37. Gadagkar, R (2010). "Sociobiology in turmoil again". Current Science. 99: 1036–1041.
  38. 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. S2CID 10363508. 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.
  39. 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.
  40. 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. S2CID 52856286.
  41. "Martin A. Nowak Publications". Archived from the original on 2006-08-27.
  42. Harman, Oren (April 8, 2011). "How Evolution Explains Altruism". New York Times. Retrieved 2020-10-10.
  43. Milinski, M. (2011). "Biology: A revolution in evolution". Nature. 471 (7338): 294–295. Bibcode:2011Natur.471..294M. doi:10.1038/471294b.
  44. The invisible hand that binds us all by David Willetts FT 24 April 2011
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