Field of Science

The Evolution of Cooperation

First of all, a personal triumph: I've had my first academic paper accepted! "A New Phylogenetic Diversity Measure Generalizing the Shannon Index with Application to Phyllostomid Bats" is tentatively accepted for publication at the American Naturalist, a venerable biology journal. Whooo!

But on to our main topic: It's one of evolution's oldest riddles. If evolution is a brutal battle for survival, in which only the fittest survive, why do we see so much cooperation in nature? Why, in extreme cases, do some animals sacrifice themselves to help others of their species? In the competition between individuals, genes, and species, what kind of advantage does this altruistic behavior confer?

This question is quite deep and has generated an array of possible answers, whose implications go beyond evolutionary biology. I'll outline the history of how this question has been explored, and offer something of a synthesis to conclude.

  • Reciprocation-It pays to help someone else if that person will help you in return. This fact is incontrovertible, and helps explain many of the interactions we see in nature, like monkeys grooming each other. However, reciprocation does not explain the acts of extreme altruism sometimes seen in nature, such as cellular slime moulds that sacrifice themselves to help others find food. So it can’t be the whole story—some actions really are selfless.

  • Group selection-This is the idea that Darwinian evolution acts on groups of organisms as well as on individuals. If the members of a group cooperate well together, then the group as a whole may survive, while other less cooperative groups die off. This idea fell out of favor in the 60's as mathematical analysis showed group selection is generally a much weaker evolutionary force than individual selection. New models, however, show that group selection can be important in some circumstances.

  • Kin discrimination-This view holds that the real unit of Darwinian selection is not organisms or groups but genes. Since genes are the material that is passed on through generations, the genes that help themselves out will survive the best. So if your gene “sees” that another individual has the same gene, your gene will “want” to help that person out in order to further its own interests. Of course, genes can’t really see each other. But your genes can tell you to help out your relatives, who are likely to have the same genes as you. This is the kin discrimination theory: our genes tell us to help our immediate family members, and thereby further their own gene-centric interests. Preferential behavior toward relatives is commonly observed in animals, and one study even found closely-related plants helping each other out.

  • Repeated interactions-Axelrod’s tournaments of Prisoner’s Dilemma games show that, while it may be beneficial to act selfishly in the short run, more cooperative strategies are better if you know you’ll be interacting with someone repeatedly. The best strategies for repeated interactions are those which reward others who cooperate with you and punish those who don’t.

  • Spatial structure-Cooperators do best if they’re surrounded by other cooperators. One way this can happen is in ecosystems where offspring are born close to their parents and don’t move much. In this case, the children of cooperators stay and cooperate with their relatives, while the children of selfish bastards hang out with their selfish bastard relatives and be miserable. Thus, systems with a strong spatial structure and little movement tend to favor cooperators. The system breaks down if the selfish bastards can move fast enough to find the cooperators and exploit them. Robert Austin found that spatial separation could help "altruistic" bacteria survive coexist with their "selfish" bretheren.

  • Punishment-Evolutionary biologists have also explored the idea that punishment can help enforce cooperative behavior. Punishment can be “vigilante-style”, where any individual who sees someone else acting unethically can hurt them, or there can be some kind of agreed-upon authority whose job it is to punish misbehavers. The question of if and how punishment works in nature seems still up for debate.

Bottom line is, it doesn’t pay to be a nice guy in a world of assholes. But if you can find other nice people to interact with, and some mechanism for keeping the assholes out of your little nice-people club, then you’re on to something.

Each of the proposed mechanisms for cooperation has interesting implications for human society. I’ll highlight just one of them for now: spatial structure. When humans first evolved, long-distance travel was difficult, and so different societies could develop independently with their own norms of cooperation or selfishness. But now we can travel across the world in a day, so the spatial separation is gone. Any thoughts on the implications of this change for the stability of human cooperation?

Further reading