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.

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete tomorrow
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
News
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
News
peopleSwimmer also charged with crossing double land lines and excessive speeding
Arts and Entertainment
A new Banksy entitled 'Art Buff' has appeared in Folkestone, Kent
art
News
i100
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

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

1st Line Service Desk Analyst

£27000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client who are...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style