Skip to comments.How Cooperation Can Evolve in a Cheaterís World
Posted on 06/29/2006 4:40:30 PM PDT by PatrickHenry
Whether youre a free-loading virus or a meat-stealing monkey, selfishness pays. So how could cooperators survive in a cheaters world? Thomas Flatt, a postdoctoral research associate at Brown, was part of a group that created a theoretical model that neatly solves this dilemma, which has stumped evolutionary biologists and social scientists for decades. The trick: Keep the altruists in small groups, away from the swindling horde, where they multiply and migrate.
It’s a truth borne out in biology and economics: Selfishness pays. Viruses can steal enzymes to reproduce. Tax evaders can take advantage of public services to survive and thrive. And, according to game theory, the cheats win out over the altruists every time.
Yet cooperation is a hallmark of human society, allowing for the creation of everything from the local grange to the United Nations. Cooperation can also be found in the animal world. Lions hunt in packs. Ants and bees create colonies. So how could cooperation evolve in a cheater’s world?
It’s a paradox called the “tragedy of the commons,” a conflict between individual interests and the common good that has stumped scientists for generations. Now a trio of researchers, including a Brown University biologist, has created a unique theoretical model that can explain the rise of cooperation. Under their model, altruists not only survive, they thrive and maintain their numbers over time. The work appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
“What’s exciting about our approach is that is so simple and so general – in principle it can be applied to explain cooperation at all levels of biological complexity, from bugs to humans,” said Thomas Flatt, a postdoctoral research associate in Brown’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “It’s also exciting because cooperation is a critical notion in so many disciplines, from biology to sociology. Yet its existence and persistence doesn’t always make sense. Now we have a new mechanism that explains when cooperation can work.”
Timothy Killingback, a mathematician at the College of William & Mary, led work on the model. It’s based on public goods games, a staple of game theory and a simple model of social dilemmas.
Under the typical public goods game, an experimenter gives four players a pot of money. Each player can invest all or some of the money into a common pool. The experimenter then collects money thrown into the pool, doubles it and divides it amongst the players. The outcome: If every player invests all the money, every player wins big. If every player cheats by investing a just few dollars, every player reaps a small dividend. But if a cooperator squares off against a cheater – with the altruist investing more than the swindler – the swindler always gets the bigger payoff. Cheating, in short, is a winning survival strategy.
Under the new model, the team introduced population dynamics into the public goods game.
Players were broken into groups and played with other members of their group. Each player then reproduced in proportion to the payoff they received from playing the game, passing their cooperator or cheater strategy on to their offspring. After reproduction, random mutations occurred, changing how much an individual invests. Finally, players randomly dispersed to other groups, bringing their investment strategies with them. The result was an ever-changing cast of characters creating groups of various sizes.
After running the model through 100,000 generations, the results were striking. Cooperators not only survived, they thrived and maintained their numbers over time. The key is group size.
“In our model, you can get groups of different sizes – and cooperators seem to flourish in smaller groups,” Flatt said.
“In these smaller groups, the high investments of cooperators begin to pay off. Cooperators have a higher level of fitness, so they reproduce at higher rates. This allows them to get a toehold within a group, then dominate it, then send their offspring to spread their altruism elsewhere.”
The model created by Killingback, Flatt, and Jonas Bieri, a Swiss population biologist and computer programmer, is unlike any other. It relies solely on population dynamics to explain the evolution of cooperation. Most other models assume more complicated mechanisms such as kin selection, punishment and reciprocity. Some of those mechanisms require cognition, so those models can only be applied to humans and higher-order animals.
The paper is available online or may be downloaded in pdf from the June 22, 2006, issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B: BiologicalSciences.
The Swiss National Science Foundation and the Roche Research Foundation funded the work.
Good post! Thanks.
Rats! Missed beating the ping by less than a minute.
What is this? Now we're going to try to be IB4TP?
The key to optimum survival seems to be a method to detect cheaters and avoid interacting with them. Cooperators interacting with cooperators will prosper. Cheaters cheating other cheaters will die off
I am confused. Is the United Nations an example of people working cooperatively together for the common good or of a bunch of a parasites whose sole goal in life (other than picking up a taxpayer funded paycheck) is to prevent the fruits of liberty and capitalism from being spread throughout the world.
You must realize that the cooperators are also cheaters they have just figured out that cheating is more efficient when alot of people act together to cheat. Thus the UN is born
It's a press release from a Yankee university. I doubt that the UN is mentioned in the actual paper.
I'm reminded of New Orleans. Its citizens did not function as a cooperating small group, but looked to the State and Federal Governments. As a result, the cheaters bilked the intimidated FEMA Handout Brigade of billions and the city is still largely just undertaking the most rudimentary forms of rebuilding. Ditto with the UN. Power to the People - on the local level.
Sounds like a load to me! Cooperation thrives so long as the group is kept small and cognition is not factored in? So communism and socialism won't work because it's too big or because it's incognitive?
Ayn Rand was right, self interest works and it isn't cheating!
The most cooperative species ever seen on earth are insects colony's...
They have no intellect.
Female mates once. All in the colony are females, are all sisters and no males are produced until the colony needs to split up...
Thanks for this article...I am especially grateful for this article, because in the third paragraph, the 'grange' is mentioned....in my area, the Pacific Northwest, there are two grange halls which are in terrible disrepair...probably because they are no longer being used...however, the one in a small town near here, is going to be restored, or repaired, because there is a new housing development going up just near the old grange, and the old grange looks so tacky...rather than tearing it down, the town has raised the funds to repair and fix up the old grange...which I think is a fine thing...granges may not be used much anymore, depending on where they are built, but they were an important part of the past, and as such, I am glad to see a town recognize its historic past, and willing to raise the money to restore the building...
There is another grange hall closer to me, which is currently in absolute disrepair...and I am hoping to find out via snail mail and emailings, if anything can be done to save this building...
In any case, my ramblings here, probably have nothing to do with the general subject matter of the thread, except that grange halls, did exist for many years, as a help to the farmers...farmers cooperating with one another for promoting common interests...
Anyway, thanks...its not too often that I see granges mentioned anywhere...
I vaguely recall a mention of that movement in some long ago American history course, but I guess it's not much of an issue now.
Is collaboration the same as cooperation? Why is self interest defined as cheating? This is nonsense.
I think with the loss of the small family farms, and other factors, granges no longer hold the importance that they once did....most of grange bldgs are no longer used, they just sit and decompose...
Tho I do recall a grange hall about halfway between where I live in Olympia, and on the way to Mt. Rainier, that seems to in fine shape, and actually does seem to be functioning in the small community where it is...tho I think it may be used kind of like a lodge hall, or wedding reception hall...
Still, I am glad to see the old bldg., getting some use...
Isn't there a game theory example that is basically a variation of the game these guys used to demonstrate their theory. I'm thinking of the game where you have 2 players who can do 1 of 3 things when it is their turn. They can either hurt the other guy, or do nothing to the other guy, or help the other guy. Game theory says that to get the other guy to help you, you should mimic what he does. So if he hurts you, during your next turn you hurt him. Then if he does nothing, you do nothing. Eventually, if the other guy is rational, he will figure out that if he helps you everytime, you will help him everytime in return.