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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Client Services Executive - Enfield, North London

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Client Services Executive - Enfield, North London ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn