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Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www. We're back and we're playing a piece that we called at the time Tit For Tat. We just heard about the computer program of that name and how it fared in Robert Axelrod's Thunderdome-style competition between computer programs.

But we're gonna shift the playing field now. So he's not just playing math games. He -- he tries to tie this to history and politics as seen. One of my kids would say it's a pastime because it's part of my profession. JAD: So here's where we jump away from the math and the computer tournaments and into something very real. JAD: And the story that Stan's gonna help us tell takes place on what was called the Western Front, which was basically these two lines of trenches A few hundred yards apart.

Heavy rains, then it became icy, and then slush and then snow. It became disgusting, because the trenches also were filled with rats. The rats went after not only the food but after corpses. JAD: And it was oddly in this miserable, disgusting hellhole that something quite amazing happened.

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No one quite knows how it started but one day, maybe around daybreak let's say, while the two sides were fighting some of the British soldiers JAD: And as they were eating they noticed -- hmm -- the Germans stopped too, to have their breakfast. And when they were both done JAD: Next morning, same thing. British take their breakfast break at about the same time. The Germans do the same thing. The morning after that the same thing, and then the next. And after a while JAD: This is from a letter a British soldier sent home to his wife at the time.

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LETTER: After all, if you prevent your enemy from drawing his rations, his remedy is simple: he will prevent you from drawing yours. Be nice first. Now the Brits probably didn't mean to be nice first when they started the breakfast truce, but it happened. And then the Germans reciprocated, which is line two. Now keep in mind these two sides are at war, and implicit in line two is a threat: if you mess with me, I'm gonna mess with you. See, there's letters where they explain where the snipers would shoot at a tree over and over and over again showing that in fact they were really accurate.

Meaning that if they wanted to kill you, they'd get you. JAD: And this was going on during the breakfast truce. And these little agreements, you know like, "I'm gonna be nice to you, but I could kick your ass. Don't forget. Fast forward to December. Christmas Eve. And the Germans had a tradition of tabletop Christmas trees, small trees.

Hundreds and hundreds of trees. The British, who might have been no more than 50 or 70 yards away crawled forward into no-man's land to see better. JAD: And then they were spotted.

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Here's a letter from a German soldier sent home to his family which describes what happened next. I said we could speak to each other. At first there was silence. JAD: And then very slowly out of the darkness the British guys approached. It couldn't possibly have happened.

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But we know it happened because we have the letters that the British and the Germans sent back home. We know that they met in darkness and decided, "Why don't we have a truce in the morning? JAD: Next morning, thousands of soldiers put down their rifles, climbed out of their trenches into no-man's land and started hanging out with each other. I talked to several of them, and I must say they seemed extraordinarily fine men. JAD: Soldiers got together, started fires.

Cooked Christmas dinners.

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But then the generals found out. That's an order. Sorry, General. I missed. But I'll try again better next time. JAD: Here's a letter from a British soldier whose unit contained a band, which was apparently pretty common. He writes this letter about one of the moments when the truce vanished. JAD: Which is a German patriotic anthem. So some of the Germans, according to this letter, climbed up onto the rim of their trench to listen to this English band playing their song.

JAD: So you can imagine the Germans that weren't killed would have felt betrayed. They had just been hanging out with these guys. And the next night they would have attacked back, and the British would have attacked them back. And then the Germans would have retaliated against them. And on and on and on. As many as 50, casualties in a day.

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JAD: And this, says Axelrod, is where you see sort of the dark side of tit-for-tat. So what I found though was that instead of playing pure tit-for-tat, where you always defect if the other guy defects JAD: There are certain circumstances, he says -- and this I find completely fascinating -- where you want to modify that second line of code so that you're not always retaliating, you're nearly always retaliating. If you were a little bit generous, which -- by which I mean, say 10 percent of the time you don't defect, then what happens is that these echoes will stop.

And I would call that generous tit-for-tat. JAD: You know, an eye for an eye.

But here it's saying maybe for every nine parts Moses, you need one part Jesus, you know? JAD: Yeah. Well, I mean if you abstract it it's kind of a recipe. It's a recipe for life. That ignores the deep fact of it. Look, if I were punching you in the face right now And I'm going to punch you back.

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You punch me back and I punch you back. And we're in pain. ROBERT: And somehow, in the middle of being blasted by my powerful fist, you have to come up with the moral courage to say, "I think I'm gonna kiss this guy now. JAD: All right, but you're making it all personal. My point is if you zoom out, this is a strategy that just seems to be woven into the fabric of the cosmos.

It works for computers, it works for people, it probably works for amoeba, okay? It just works. I think this is still, as you just called it very personal. I think a person has to choose to be kind.