Be nice. Evolution will punish you if you’re mean and selfish, says study
Selfish people have short-term advantage, but co-operation and communication win out in the long term
New research has challenged the notion that evolution favours self-interest above co-operation, suggesting instead that selfish individuals eventually ‘compete each other out of existence’.
The study, published in the journal Nature, used models of evolutionary game theory (EGT) to show how co-operative populations are more successful than selfish ones in the long run.
Researchers used computers to play through vast numbers of “games” simulating scenarios of co-operation and betrayal. By tweaking the strategies of the virtual players they were then able to compare which behaviours resulted in survival.
The study pitched players following so-called “zero determinant” strategies (those who acted selfishly) against others taking more benevolent approaches. While the selfish strategists enjoyed a brief advantage, opponents eventually came to recognise and overcome selfish individuals.
“Communication is critical for cooperation – we think communication is the reason co-operation occurs,” said Christoph Adami, a professor at Michigan State University and the lead author of the paper. “In an evolutionary setting, with populations of strategies, you need extra information to distinguish each other.
“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean. For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”
Much of what we understand about the working of selfish and selfless behaviour in society comes from game theory, a branch of mathematics concerned with decision making. It was developed throughout the middle of the 20th century but came to prominence first through the works of John Nash and then as a guiding political ideology during the cold war.
One of game theory’s most infamous studies is the “prisoner’s dilemma”, a hypothetical scenario where two prisoners are offered their freedom if they inform on the other. Under Nash’s explanation it seemed to show that individuals should pursue their own interests because they cannot predict how others will act.
The problem with such examples is that they are abstract and theoretical – they don’t take into account the many nuances of real-world scenarios where individuals have the opportunity to gauge how trustworthy others are, discuss their options, and also evaluate other people’s past behaviour.
Despite the apparent humane message of the findings of the new research, they do not contradict the concept of the “selfish gene” – the theory that living organisms exist only to propagate their genetic material.
Instead, the findings may complement it, as co-operative behaviour benefits whole species and thus the existence of a wider gene pool. Co-operation within a group does not preclude selfishness outside of it.
- 1 Cecil the lion: Dentist Walter Palmer blames local guides in Zimbabwe for the scandal
- 2 Kate Winslet thanked 'particularly horrible' girl who bullied her at school after Titanic success
- 3 Norwich paedophile ring: Woman at centre of gang who made children 'sexual play things' guilty of 23 offences
- 4 Black and ethnic minority people twice as likely to be hit by Tory cuts than white people, report finds
- 5 Walter Palmer: Cecil the lion killer revealed to be American dentist
Kate Winslet thanked 'particularly horrible' girl who bullied her at school after Titanic success
Norwich paedophile ring: Woman at centre of gang who made children 'sexual play things' guilty of 23 offences
Model's video shoot on the beach interrupted by sudden landing of a group of illegal migrants
Black and ethnic minority people twice as likely to be hit by Tory cuts than white people, report finds
Walter Palmer: Cecil the lion killer revealed to be American dentist
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
The last thing Labour needs is a leader like Jeremy Corbyn who people want to vote for
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn – or a return to a Labour government
I am the Jeremy Corbyn supporter that many will tell you doesn't exist
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park
Labour leadership: New poll shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband
£14500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a Sales Ca...
£33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This local charity has an oppor...
COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Product Manager / Product Owner is required to jo...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a mobile television network wi...