Evolution will punish selfish meanies

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Biologists say they have new evidence that evolution tends to favor cooperation, not selfishness.

The findings refute a theory popularized in 2012 that suggests meanies have the evolutionary upper hand.

“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean,” says lead author Christoph Adami, Michigan State University professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. “For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”

The paper appears in the current issue of Nature Communications and focuses on game theory, which is used in biology, economics, political science, and other disciplines. Much of the last 30 years of research has focused on how cooperation came to be, since it’s found in many forms of life, from single-cell organisms to people.

In 2012, a scientific paper unveiled a newly discovered strategy—called zero-determinant—that gave selfish players a guaranteed way to beat cooperative players.

“The paper caused quite a stir,” says Adami, who co-authored the paper with Arend Hintze, molecular and microbiology research associate. “The main result appeared to be completely new, despite 30 years of intense research in this area.”

Adami and Hintze had their doubts about whether following a zero determinant strategy (ZD) would essentially eliminate cooperation and create a world full of selfish beings.

They used high-powered computing to run hundreds of thousands of games and found ZD strategies can never be the product of evolution. While ZD strategies offer advantages when they’re used against non-ZD opponents, they don’t work well against other ZD opponents.

“In an evolutionary setting, with populations of strategies, you need extra information to distinguish each other,” Adami says.

So ZD strategies only worked if players knew their opponents and adapted their strategies accordingly. A ZD player would play one way against another ZD player and a different way against a cooperative player.

“The only way ZD strategists could survive would be if they could recognize their opponents,” Hintze says. “And even if ZD strategists kept winning so that only ZD strategists were left, in the long run they would have to evolve away from being ZD and become more cooperative. So they wouldn’t be ZD strategists anymore.”

The National Science Foundation and Michigan State University supported the study.

Source: Michigan State University

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  1. Rob

    Hm, history will be the judge, but my feeling is that there can be a rogue player in every mix that succeeds by competition, especially when resources become scarce. Did any of the studies address this? Do they address the externalities of environmental contamination?

  2. Luiz Roberto Meier

    What about the classic book : The Selfish Gene?

  3. Burak

    Evolution doesn’t care who is selfish and who is cooperative. Evolution cares about what works. In certain populations, under certain environmental conditions, and within a certain time frame behavior that we classify as selfish appears to benefit an individual. Other times behavior that we classify as cooperative benefits the individual more. Indefinitely limiting ones behavior to a set of actions that only fit either a cooperative or a selfish classification is the only sure way to extinction.

  4. Westridge

    Perhaps potential mates would shy away from selfish candidates, or else why would this be? Or selfish meanies would die sooner in conflict?

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